Auto Manifesto

March 30, 2009

What's Wrong With the Auto Industry?

So the big news of the day is Rick Wagoner was forced out of GM. Of course GM and Chrysler are both in a big pickle and it's a very complicated problem.

But the fundamental issue is that they are not really in business. They are cash-devouring problems that the US government now control and support. I view this move as Washington asserting its grip and making an example of current/past management. But that's not going to solve what's wrong with the industry.

First and foremost the problem with the auto industry is poor management. Management that does not understand automobiles.
Cars are not widgets nor are they commodities. Consequently they cannot be treated as such. If they were there would not be nearly as much variety nor emotional attachment to them. They are not just "needs" but they are to a large extent "wants".

Is it coincidence that the two companies in most trouble now are not run by engineers? Did you know that Honda, Daimler, VW, Nissan/Renault, BMW, and Ford (don't need Uncle Sam's money at the moment) are all headed by engineers? Toyota is one of the major exceptions. But incoming CEO Akio Toyoda is a diehard car enthusiast. The management at these companies have a keen understanding of automobiles and what their customers want.

Secondly, it is again poor management in the larger sense. No long term strategy. How many reorganizations and reshufflings have GM and Chrysler announced over the years? How many times have those companies said the next time they'll get it right? How many times have they exchanged one ill-conceived strategy for another mid-stream? More times than a cat has lives. They have never had any viable long term strategy and then properly executed it. It's always one quarter to the next.

Thirdly, they depended too much on the availability of easy credit (so did the economy as a whole) for people who were not creditworthy. In other words, the market for automobiles was smaller than it appeared, which further exacerbates the problem of overcapacity now that the market has shrunk.

Lastly, it is ineffective and counterproductive government regulations that have contributed to the mess. Healthcare costs are a part of it. Labor unions another (and they are getting more sway with card check). CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) on the surface doesn't seem too bad. But today's 262 page final rule for Model Year 2011 is full of errors and poor assumptions (more on that later).

So the question now is how can these two companies turn out good product when they're worried about going under in a matter of days? The answer is that they can't.

And that's why any pretension that GM and Chrysler are businesses should be put to rest. Business implies profits. And any hope that these organizations will ever turn one again is pretty slim. They should be allowed to go bankrupt and reorganize or dissolved. Throwing good money after bad is not the solution. Nor is a government task force or nationalizing these companies going to solve any more problems in the long run.

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F1 Season Opener

Sunday's F1 season opener in Melbourne, Australia was surprising and exciting. It seems the new regulations are having the intended effect of enabling the cars to run closer together. A narrow rear wing and a wide front wing seem to be a good combination to minimize air flow disruption between cars running one behind the other.

However, as witnessed by numerous on-track incidents it seems that because the drivers cannot see their front wings and as wide as those wings are, there may be a need to reduce the wing width and raise it slightly. Both of those moves would decrease front grip but that may actually enhance car balance as it appears there is a shortage of rear grip now.

On another note, KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) will get better with development. Right now the weight vs. power trade off seems to favor not running KERS, as witnessed by the frontrunners until Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel took each other out. Eventually though the teams that develop KERS faster will have an advantage as it is required for next season.

There was also much talk about the diffuser controversy. Put it this way, there will be design convergence. My guess is the teams will all move toward the new diffuser-style (pending the FIA court of appeals decision) as well as toward KERS.

Other than the cars themselves the pitstops appear to be slower this year for some reason. Finally, due to the dominant performance of the Mercedes-powered Brawn (formerly Honda) cars, I'm wondering if someone in Japan is about to lose his job for giving up and selling the team at the proverbial bottom of the market.

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March 27, 2009

Tesla Model S Unveiled - Fantastic!

It's finally been unveiled.

The claimed numbers are impressive, with a pre-tax credit base price of about $57k and a base range of 160 miles. It also seats 7 (2 kids in the third row), and does 0-60 mph in 5.5 to 6.0 seconds. It features a single speed drivetrain. Guess they gave up on multiple speeds. Total weight is roughly 4,400 lbs including 1,200 lbs or batteries. Plans call for production to commence in late 2011.

The car is beautiful, and has a resemblance to the Fisker Karma as well as certain Aston-Martin designs (some also done by Henrik Fisker). It's not hard to see how the legal dispute arose between Tesla and Fisker. At least it seems they've been able to resolve their differences and get back to focusing on the cars. The Tesla is all electric while the Fisker is a series hybrid.

If it gets into production as intended this will be a landmark automobile.

More info here:

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March 24, 2009

Nissan To Introduce EV In 2010?

This would be quite an accomplishment if Nissan can introduce an EV next year that is price competitive with conventional vehicles in that segment. I'm curious what kind of range (supposedly 100+ miles) and functionality it will have, and how widely available it will be; probably Southern California and possibly only for fleets at first.

Click here for AutoblogGreen's article.

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F1 2009 Video - Technical Details

Here's a nice animation video from Red Bull Racing which explains some of the technical changes for the 2009 season, narrated by Sebastian Vettel (future F1 champion and quite possibly will be one of the greats methinks).

Note the part about KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System). If the front brakes do the majority of the work it would at first blush seem that KERS would be more efficient on the front of the car.

On the other hand, with a rearward weight bias and center of (aero) pressure, combined with minimal weight transfer under braking compared with the higher and softer suspensions of other cars, not to mention the fact there's no space up front, and it was inevitable the packaging constraints would require regeneration to take place via the rear wheels.

Anyway, have a look at the video:

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March 23, 2009

Saturn: A Different Kind Of Company?

Automotive News reports that GM has been approached by competitors about selling their cars under the Saturn brand. At this point, Saturn has no products planned for after 2011.

A possible spin-off (as previously mentioned) could also provide the new buyer/partner with assembly capacity in addition to the dealer distribution network, since there is excess capacity available.

AN is also reporting that the new company could use some light design capability to give the vehicles a family resemblance. Last year Saturn produced somewhere around 250 thousand units, which works out to about 625 units per dealer. A new company would need to be able to obtain a significant amount of volume to make the transition work. It's a tall order but by far the best alternative.

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March 18, 2009

F1 Budget Capping

There are going to be some very surprising results on the track if these rules actually come into effect (read more here).

Movable aerodynamic devices, budget capping, forensic accounting (by Deloitte and Touche), two rule paths, and KERS do not lower costs. At first glance it seems more to do with money and power than the racing itself. The FIA wants to increase the pool of possible teams in order to weaken the position of the manufacturers so that it can rule the sport more effectively and minimize the sport's exposure to the whims of those manufacturers who come and go.

This is not a bad thing. The bad part is that what they're proposing to do is not likely to work. Most of the rule changes intended to cut costs in the past few years have resulted in the oppposite. Engines that have to last multiple races, restrictions on wind tunnel and track testing (can you say spending on simulation???), and so on. Don't forget the safety ramifications too.

The most effective cost reduction rule of the past 5 years has been the recession we're in. That's a real budget cap. Next was when Michelin dropped out of the tire war, leaving Bridgestone as the sole supplier.

What the FIA has put forth for 2010 seems likely that it will either not work or descend into more race results being determined in the kangaroo court that is the FIA World Council. That is not Formula 1 and that is not racing.

It may be the best compromise they can come up with at this time. But I assure you there is a far better way to reduce costs and improve the quality of the racing. And it has never been utilized. I might even file a patent on in.

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GPS + Hybrid Vehicle Network = Fuel Savings

Automotive News reports the engineering firm Ricardo is teaming up with several other companies to incorporate GPS and hybrid vehicle technology in vehicles in order to reduce fuel consumption. This would be achieved by anticipating vehicle power needs for upcoming road conditions by taking into account such factors as via speed limits, traffic congestion, and traffic lights along the intended route. Figures of 5% to 24% fuel savings are mentioned. It is hoped that this technology will be tested in fleet vehicles next year in the UK.

I'm convinced this further indicates that the continuing trends of decoupling mechanical systems and overlaying different information and data will ultimately result in driverless cars.

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Lighter Wheels

Alcoa will produce lightweight aluminum wheels for the upcoming Chevy Volt. The company is already doing so for a few vehicle models, some as much as 30% lighter than regular wheels.

Besides any potential aerodynamic improvement, wheels are simple bolt-on components that can provide immediate gain. Not only that but unsprung mass (as well as rotating mass) offers even further benefits than sprung components, as well as have a knock-on effect.

Lighter wheels can mean lighter suspension components, shocks, brakes, and so on. It's a virtuous cycle of lightweighting. Finally, for hybrid and electric cars this means extended battery range as well.

Source: Automotive News

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March 16, 2009

Electric Steering

Automotive News reports that Ford is moving 90% of their fleet to electric steering by 2012 in order to improve fuel economy, facilitate "parking assist", and reduce steering effort due to road crowning and imbalances.

It's estimated fuel economy will improve in the range of 0.6 to 1 mpg. Less fuel will be used because electric assist only consumes power when turning, compared with hydraulic power steering in which the engine has to drive the pump all the time.

Parking assist is also an interesting development which will enable cars to parallel themselves (Toyota offers such a system in the Lexus LS460 in North America). These are further steps that are necessary to reach full electrification, when cars will be ultimately powered by electricity.

The last reason seems of dubious value to me as reported. It doesn't seem that road crowning is much of an issue. However, the real benefit of electric steering may be that it can lead to independent steering of left and right side wheels which would allow for self-diagnosis and alignment of the front axle. Manufacturing for left and right-hand drive might be simplified as well.

Further, it is possible that when electronic stability systems kick in during an emergency, the rotation of the steering wheel won't need to be directly proportional to what is actually happening at the tires. This could reduce risk of injury to the driver's hands (especially thumbs) due to steering wheel whip, when he or she loses control of the vehicle.

All in all, it seems a logical direction on the path toward driverless cars.

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Why Brawn GP Is Fast

Looking at the recent off-season F1 test times the order seems more jumbled than usual. The former Honda F1 team is now Brawn Grand Prix, having been taken over by former team principal Ross Brawn.

While certainly a new team would perhaps run low fuel loads and remove ballast to impress potential sponsors, delving deeper into why the Brawn is fast reveals there are a fair amount of legitimate reasons.

First, Ross Brawn is THE MAN in the paddock having partnered Michael Schumacher to all 7 of his World Championship titles at Benetton and Ferrari.

Next, rather than develop the 2008 car which was terrible to begin with, Brawn chose to begin work very early on the current car. So it's had a lot of time on the "drawing board" relative to those from the other teams.

Thirdly, while the Honda F1 car wasn't good, Honda spent more than any other team last year. The facilities the Brawn team now have are right up there with the top teams.

And remember they're now powered by Mercedes who've won about 1/3 of the F1 races this decade. I'd also guess the Brawn workforce are quite motivated not only by all the factors above but very simply by the fact they are employed following months of rumors of layoffs and the former Honda team having to shut down.

Finally, the two drivers are both grand prix winners - known quantities who are fast, reliable, and experienced in set up and development, especially beneficial in a year of even more testing restrictions.

This season is shaping up to be a great competition. Perhaps in the early races one team will dominate but the others will inevitably catch up. It looks like BMW and Ferrari are strongest at this point. A wild card or two could be Brawn and Red Bull. Fernando Alonso may also flatter the Renault on occasion. McLaren are a big question mark at this point.

We'll see in a few weeks what happens at the Melbourne season opener.

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March 1, 2009

Michelin Active Wheel Concept

The latest generation of this electric drive system was shown at the 2008 Paris Motor Show, and could potentially eliminate a host of components in automobiles such as transmissions, driveshafts, and differentials. At the same time it also offers the potential to provide faster dynamic response time for functions related to stability control.

If the unsprung proportion of vehicle mass can be reduced it could offer fantastic handling as well. Presuming the battering pack weighed more than the combined weight of the active wheel systems on the car, and the battery was mounted in-board (sprung) and low, the handling might be fairly good.

Modular, discrete component systems will reduce the complexity of integration, and help enable more extensive collaboration in the industry.

Two concept cars are known to be using system. One is a city car from a joint venture between Orange and Heuliez called the WILL. The other is the Venturi Volage.

The wheel motor is claimed to have 30 kW (40 hp) of continuous output. The entire unit is contained in the wheel (save for the power source) and encompasses propulsion, suspension, and braking. There is a second motor in the housing to control suspension movement. Braking is via a conventional disc brake in addition to the ability to perform regenerative braking.

This is a promising strategic move for the company as it can position itself to supply a greater portion of the manufacturing value that goes into a vehicle, and in a way that seems easily scalable. At the same time this technology is a lot less risky than those that battery and energy storage firms are having to invest in.

Take a look at the Venturi Volage and the Heuliez Will.

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