Auto Manifesto

January 29, 2009

Kart Racing Is the Future

The cost of professional racing is out of control. Most teams spend well over $100m per year to operate in Formula 1. It's $10m or more to field one car in Nascar's Sprint Cup series, and it's still millions per season to run in a number of other series such as IRL and American Le Mans. Even kart racing can be crazy expensive at $100k per year at the top level. Who is able and willing to do so? Is it any surprise then that kart racing is not a big time sport?

It's obvious what the problem is. The solution is to lower the barriers to entry. Make it more accessible to more people and there will be more participants.

Money is not the only barrier to racing. It's a big factor, but it's not the only one. The other main issues are location and technical knowledge. Racing requires a place to race and, if you own and maintain your own equipment, the know-how to do so.

Most forms of racing make it painful to participate by being an expensive chore. The tracks tend to be far from population centers, the equipment expensive, and the amount of equipment preparation is both time intensive and wasteful. Does it make any sense to have to throw away a set of tires after an hour of use in order to remain competitive? That's not the way it should be.

Kart racing can be quite costly, but if it were properly organized and promoted could serve as a very cost effective testbed for new technology that could be scaled up for larger vehicles (motorcycles, passenger cars, etc). A lot of data could be gleaned from all the cyclic loading and different drivers that karts would be subjected to in a short amount of time. If karts were powered by electricity, batteries and motors would be prime examples of things that could be tested.

Beyond that it is also also ideal for new media formats and social networking. People are moving from passively watching racing on TV to participating in it themselves, and sharing their experiences with others.
I've done a lot of racing in a variety of vehicles and formats and can tell you hands down some of the most fun is racing with good competition in equal equipment. The machinery might not be the most "pure" or sophisticated but that is a secondary concern. The quality of the racing (and the camaraderie) is incredible, and the price is downright cheap compared with any other form of motor racing. It is the future of racing. Here's are two recent clips:

Indoor Kart Racing MeetUp from Volta Grand Prix on Vimeo.

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Getting Around

On Tuesday I rode my bike to work like usual. It was the first snow of the year. Traction was nearly as good as usual in the densely packed snow.

The next morning, however, things had iced over. I may have been able to ride but didn't want to chance it. So I decided to drive. But when I saw the old pick up I changed my mind. It was under a couple of inches of solid ice, the bed was empty (poor traction), and the ground all around it was an icerink. Didn't want to move 3,000 pounds of metal. It probably would've taken 20 minutes to get it out of the parking lot for a 10 minute drive.

So I considered my other options which were to walk or run, take a cab, car pool, or take the bus. Of all those options I chose to walk which offerred the most predictable travel time. Certainly I was glad I had made the move to be close to work.

As far as I remember, this is the first time in a year and a half (550 days?) that I could not ride to work. In other words, I plan for rain but I don't worry about something of little consequence that rarely happens here such as snow/ice.

Shorter trips mean more options and less variance. It's a 10 minute bike ride or a 40 minute walk to cover the 2 mile distance. I can ride any where within about 10 miles at 5 min/mile pace, and walk anywhere within about 4 miles at 20 min/mile pace.

Can you predict with as high degree of confidence what your travel times would be when driving? In densely populated areas it's doubtful. And that's where it becomes stressful.

So I spent 40 minutes walking to work each way. But you know what? It was totally relaxing. And when you look at it from the perspective of commuting, it wasn't even much time.

My tire tracks from the night before:

My point is you probably don't NEED a car as much as you THINK you need a car. Certainly cars can be useful but too often we think they're the easy way out and depend on them far more than we should.

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January 26, 2009

States Shouldn’t Regulate Vehicle Emissions

The new Obama administration has decided to direct the EPA to review whether states such as California should be permitted to enact tougher fuel economy standards on auto manufacturers to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. While reducing GHG emissions and oil consumption is a great goal, letting states do so is not the way to go about it.

If anything, EPA should handle it. There should be Federal preemption on all emissions regulations for mobile sources. Unless cars never cross state lines, letting states regulate them is a huge potential regulatory burden and an impediment to interstate commerce without any clear benefits.

In the long term increasing the CAFE figure (regulated by NHTSA) is good. Requiring a fleet average of 35 mpg by 2020 is not that high of a hurdle. It’s going to get a lot of needlessly excessive vehicles off the road. But that doesn’t come without a price. The cost of the technology will increase vehicle prices, manufacturers will have to redirect and commit extra R&D funds, and there will be a steep learning curve where new cars may not live up to expectations. Regulation tends to disrupt “business as usual” and leads to (sometimes ungainly) innovation. But it happens over time. Trying to compress it into too short a time is going to result in a lot more unintended outcomes and drive up the cost.

Also, the unrealistic concept of changing the regulations for 2011 is akin to rulemaking after the fact. The specifications for new models to be launched then are already frozen. Some will be launched in 2010. And that doesn’t include vehicles that are already in production that will still be in production then. It’s less than two years away. No matter what the rules say, it isn’t going to happen. I suspect this part of it is posturing for negotiations about the 2015 time-frame and beyond.

My recommendation would be to only allow the Federal government to regulate mobile emissions and accelerate the CAFE requirements starting around 2015 by etching the requirements in stone for the period of 2015-2025 by the end of 2009 so that manufacturers have the assurance of regulatory stability and can commit to investing toward those goals.

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Penske = Smart

Almost everything Roger Penske touches turns to gold, as reported by Automotive News. As the sole U.S. distributor of Smart cars, his company has far exceeded the target of 15,000 units in 2008 (24,622 actually) in large part due to a unique reservation system and 50 city road show. Buyers put down a refundable $99 deposit to get a place in line.

What Penske has done is turn the traditional “push” retail model into a “pull” model. By having the line form before the cars arrive the company knows what the demand is for each specification. And for those customers who cancel, the cars they ordered can be redirected to other buyers who want the same specs.

Further synergy comes through using his truck leasing firm’s call center to handle service and information calls. By opening repair orders during the call, Penske can schedule and direct customers to dealers faster and anticipate labor and parts needs more accurately.

Finally, by doing the promotional road show without traditional print and media advertising the company saved money while getting the word out. Granted this wouldn’t work with most new car launches, but it would probably work well for many unique cars. It’s more incentive for manufacturers to start building unique products that can generate buzz.

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January 22, 2009

100 Years of Automobile Manufacturing

Below is a neat video (5:16) about production of the Model T Ford. It suggests that the assembly line was one of the biggest breakthroughs to occur, and it was.

However, one facet that is overlooked is the fact that before the assembly line could come into play, all parts of the automobile had to be manufactured to standard tolerances so that all the pieces could fit together with minimal or no 'tweaking'.

Then the labor could be divided into very basic tasks which in turn made workers interchangeable as well. Prior to that craftsmen gathered the parts they needed and fit everything together as needed. Things just didn't bolt together.

At Ford however, someone who didn't speak English or had any formal education could be taught to do most jobs in a very short amount of time.

At the beginnning (circa 1908) of Model T production workers still went from station to station to do their tasks. It was only after a few years that the assembly line was created and the vehicles moved between stations. This reduced assembly time by more than 80%. It was an amazing feat of organization.

This is detailed in the groundbreaking 1990 book entitled "The Machine that Changed the World" which explores how societies make things, and studies the transition of automobile manufacturing from craft-based methods to mass production by Ford to lean production, as pioneered by Toyota.

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January 16, 2009

Tesla Supplying Batteries to Smart Car

Automotive News reports that Tesla has finalized a deal with Daimler to supply lithium battery packs for the forthcoming Smart electric car, due out in approximately one year.

The packs will be assembled at Tesla’s location in California using components from Asian manufacturers. These packs will be the same type as currently used in the Tesla Roadster.

By increasing production volume Tesla will reduce per unit costs, and ultimately lower the costs of their vehicles.

The company also recently received a $250m loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to help it put the Model S sedan into production. Tesla also plans to become a powertrain supplier to other automakers.

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January 7, 2009

2008 Year In Review

It’s unlikely 2008 turned out like anyone expected. We had the skyrocketing fuel prices, followed by a devastating credit crunch and a string of high profile failures and bailouts. Top that off with the Madoff fraud, alleged to be around $50 billion dollars, and it was a year that shook everyone’s confidence from Wall Street to Main Street, and around the world.

The auto industry took a huge hit as people were unable to obtain financing as before, and $4 per gallon fuel curtailed driving and buying (of more than just cars). The auto market plummeted to around 13 million units from over 16 million in 2007. Just about every manufacturers was down, the Detroit 3 hit particularly hard.

GM and Chrysler are only still around because they were able to obtain loans from the Federal government. It was a bad scene all around.

The effects of 2008 will be felt for a long time.

This will likely be a rather large setback for the development and market penetration of hybrid and electric vehicles. It seems the influence behind such efforts will now shift from the market (fuel prices) to government regulation (environmental regulation, though these might also be delayed for economic reasons).

Toyota has put the kibosh on a plan to build the Prius in a U.S. plant. The Chevy Volt is looking less certain in light of GM’s financial problems, and who knows what will happen to all the upstarts such as Fisker.

Then there were more than twice as many dealerships closing in 2008 than the year before (about 900 versus 430), so communities across the nation are feeling the pinch – not just those in Michigan and the regions where assembly plants are located.

Any upside? It was safer to drive. Accident statistics seem to indicate 2008 will go down as one of the safest years on American roads thus far. A large part of this can probably be attributed to people driving fewer miles and, on average, at lower speeds to conserve fuel.

If nothing else we learned how much access to credit can affect the economy. Let’s all hope that 2009 is a bit better.

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