No. 919
October 18, 2017
 

About The Autoextremist

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with Autoextremist.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Tuesday
Aug292017

END OF SUMMER BLUES.

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. As the cadence of the calendar grinds the golden glow of summer to its inevitable close, I thought it might be a good idea to take stock of the automobile industry as it stands today.

Thinking out loud about this industry is what I do, but every time I deign to cling to a sense of optimism about this business as I did last week (see “An Eloquent Rebuttal” –WG), I am reminded, in no uncertain terms, that left to its own devices the powers that be who are charged with steering this industry forward inevitably leave much to be desired, to put it mildly. As in, they screw things up, they make repeated mistakes, and fools are exposed on such a routine basis that you have to wonder how this industry has gotten this far. 

I would love to report that the industry is poised for a breakthrough, and that it will somehow be a shining beacon of hope for industrial progress and societal change, but the hype simply doesn’t justify that thinking. Why? Because the usual three steps forward and five back dance of mediocrity that defines this business is alive and well, and continues on unabated.

Witness this industry’s headlong rush to autonomy. Despite the blue-sky prognostications it is a burgeoning road to nowhere, populated by scam artists, self-serving hacks and so many companies with their hands out looking for their piece of the action that I’m desperately waiting for someone to step forward in a room full of executives, give the “time out” sign and say something like, “Excuse me, but WTF? Where are we going with this autonomous driving thing? Are we doing this so as not be left behind by Silicon Valley, allegedly, or do we actually have a viable business case for spending millions upon millions like drunken sailors? And please don’t talk to me about potential future profit margins, because it’s a pipe dream.”

Believe me that conversation has never taken place, and those words have never been uttered by executives of any consequence in this business; or if they have, they were forgotten long ago and the people who uttered them no longer work for those companies. 

Let’s review, shall we?  Remember, we haven’t even traveled through the electrification phase of this business yet, so I find the degree of overpromising going on about our autonomous future to be suspect, at best. Lest you forget, we’re being promised that it’s all going to be so wonderful from here on out because we’re on the precipice of an autonomous future that will transform everyone’s life for the better, and in such remarkable ways that we’re simply incapable of understanding it right now. (As if.)

Here’s a thought: Wouldn’t we be far better off if the collective billions being blown on the autonomy craze were being spent on fixing this country’s woefully dilapidated infrastructure? I know, I know, fixing our bridges, roads and tunnels isn’t sexy enough for anyone, especially the swells in Silicon Valley. I get the fact that actually rolling this country’s sleeves up and attacking a looming national crisis isn’t glamorous. But the point needs to be made that unless and until our infrastructure issues are addressed, autonomous cars careening around on bad roads will be about as desirable as regular cars doing the same. In other words, it will still be a giant bowl of Not Good.

But that hasn’t deterred the car companies desperate to be part of the Autonomy Show. The latest news out of Ford is that the Dearborn-based automaker is investigating the concept of autonomous pizza delivery with Domino’s. And we have Cadillac chasing the burn with its “Super Cruise” hands-free driving system, which will now be standard on its top-line CT6.

In Ford’s case this comes hard on the heels of an announcement last week that it was investigating new and creative ways of getting people qualified to be financed to buy its vehicles. This has been an unfortunate trend in this business, led by the carpetbagging mercenaries out in Auburn Hills, who have put more people with precarious financial situations in their cars and trucks over the last five years than the rest of the industry combined. FCA has single-handedly put the industry in the throes of a subprime loan meltdown again, something that executives in this business insisted would never happen. And I hate to see Ford contemplating going down this road, too (they can couch it in nicer words, but the reality is the same). So while Ford is investigating autonomous pizza delivery with Domino’s, and signing deals with San Francisco-based Argo AI, at the same time it is contemplating opening up its loan qualifications and restrictions so that more people can get financed to buy its cars.

Cue the music for that “dance of mediocrity,” folks, because the song remains the same.

And what can be said about Cadillac that I haven’t already said? GM’s luxury division, oh excuse me, let me clarify – independent luxury car company that just happens to be under the GM umbrella – will now play the lead role in the company’s suite of electronic driving aids, with Super Cruise qualifying as GM’s early volley in the autonomy game.

(In case you missed it, Cadillac marketers chose to intro Super Cruise on the mind-numbingly pathetic MTV video awards, which made less than zero sense. The ratings were down – yet again – and advertising Cadillac’s new Super Cruise technology to an audience that didn’t care and wasn’t watching was not just a bad idea, it was simply ludicrous. As in, you're kidding, right? But I digress.)

When I last discussed Cadillac, Johan de Nysschen was busy remaking Cadillac in Audi’s image. This just in: He still is. Except that it just isn’t working. And pointing to increases in China sales is a fool’s errand, because Cadillac doesn’t make much money there, so while the division desperately waits for new product, absolutely nothing has fundamentally changed. The fact remains that allowing Cadillac to actually be Cadillac is anathema to de Nysschen, which means that the genuine historical legacy of one of the most prestigious brands in the world is deemed to be inconsequential and irrelevant, while Cadillac’s stunning concept cars – the Ciel and the Elmiraj (I’m leaving the Escala out because it is only half-good) – languish in the bowels of GM Design collecting dust.

Yet, dreaming about a day when Cadillac will actually be Cadillac again is clearly not a value-added activity, because it’s simply not going to happen while de Nysschen is hell-bent on squandering Cadillac’s legacy and turning the brand into a faux German car company in search of a clue. Think about it – Cadillac has exactly one machine that has the on-the-road presence deserving of a Cadillac, and that is the Escalade. How can that be? How can a company with the historical importance of Cadillac only have one product offering that actually conveys what the brand should be all about? (As I have stated in the past, the “V” machines are truly excellent, but they should be part of a full lineup under the Corvette moniker, because they’re totally irrelevant for the brand.)

And as much as it galls me to my core, I’ll also have to sit back and watch as the riveting legacy of industry legend Bill Mitchell, which was once such an integral part of GM Design, quietly fades away. In its heyday, GM Design played second fiddle to no other company in the business. Now? With machines having the sheer presence of the Mercedes-Maybach 6 usurping GM Design in one fell swoop; I have to wonder where things are headed. On second thought, I don’t have to wonder at all because make no mistake; this is a complete travesty bordering on tragedy. Too bad no one at GM sees it coming, or is even interested enough to care.

And then there’s Audi, which decided to unleash a new naming regimen for the engines in its cars last week that made it the laughingstock of the industry (see this week’s “On The Table” for all the gory details. –WG). That Audi has achieved a new height of stupidity with this move is not totally unexpected. After all, we’re talking about a card-carrying member of the VW Group here, those famed architects of disaster who came up with the devious plan to cheat on Diesel emissions testing, which just so happens to be the most blatant instance of deception ever foisted upon this business.

As I’ve stated, Audi’s action indicates the kind of delusional self-absorption and ridiculous overthink that only a German automaker could muster. The new engine designations are stunningly nonsensical, except to the Audi engineering bureaucrats who came up with them. And in an automotive world already burdened with too much alphanumeric mumbo jumbo, this is unmitigated bullshit in its most egregious form. But Audi’s three steps forward and five back waltz of mediocrity seems perfectly fitting for the brand somehow, and certainly befitting of the swirling maelstrom that defines this business of late. (And de Nysschen wants Cadillac to emulate Audi again because… why?)

This naming fiasco puts an unneeded exclamation point on the sheer lunacy enveloping this business at this moment in time. Anyone hoping for some meaningful progress in this business, or even a wild-eyed breakthrough, is bound to be disappointed. Instead, the auto industry is marked by its rote fits and starts, a few good moves and notable products punctuated by an incessant current of abject mediocrity that courses through this industry’s veins unimpeded.

Yes, I will say that, thanks to the True Believers, when it’s firing on all cylinders the automobile business can be exhilarating and something that, at times, can benefit everyone, but as long as the charlatans and get-rich-quick schemers are present and accounted for, and as long as the misdirected are led by the misguided, the bar continues to be set excruciatingly low for this industry.

And it’s making me kind of blue.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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