Tuesday, April 16, 2019 at 01:16PM

By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. The swirling maelstrom is running flat-out at the moment, as the world’s automakers scramble for their future piece of the pie, whatever form that may take. 

For instance, Ford is counting on a two-front strategy as envisioned by CEO Jim Hackett, with one foot in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, let’s-crank-em-out-and-make-some-dough-re-me mode, and the other in the we’re-going-to-be-a-factor-in-the-future-of-mobility-no-matter-what mode. It should be pointed out that this isn’t exactly original thinking by any stretch, as global manufacturers are hedging their bets and plodding toward the future in some form of pretty much the same strategy (GM embarked on a similar strategy six months ago). 

I have confidence that Ford can deliver on the day-to-day making money part because Joe Hinrichs is in charge of that, but I have very little confidence that the company is going to deliver on the “we’re gonna be a factor in the future of mobility!” part. It didn’t help that Hackett put Jim “I’m a genius just ask me” Farley in charge of the esoteric spit-ballin’ future part. Hackett seems to think that Farley is some sort of visionary who understands all of this future stuff, saying, "Jim combines an innate feel for what customers want and need in vehicles and the ability to translate this into the vehicles and services of the future."

Really? I beg to differ. Farley invests a lot of time and energy in projecting himself as that guy, but in reality, his bona fides when it comes to knowing what consumers want and translating that into some future think is woefully transparent and razor thin. In fact, he is the acknowledged master of making it up as he goes along and changing course with the prevailing winds. To give you an idea of how whack Farley really is, he’s one of the chief devotees of the idea that our cars are going to eclipse our cell phones in terms of negotiating everyday life. Uh, wow, that ship sailed about fifteen years ago, but if you’re obsessed with being able to order a pizza from your car, go right ahead. But alas, he has too many of the top Ford execs – and some people in the media who should know better too – bamboozled into thinking that he’s The Guy, which is unfortunate because Ford is bound to find out the hard way that Farley’s vacuous smoke-and-mirrors act is going to backfire on them, Big Time.

But Ford isn’t the only auto manufacturer dancing too close to the flames of Crazy Town. Right now, there’s a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde dichotomy unfolding in this business that is unsettling, make that almost incomprehensible. On the one hand, we have European governments seriously talking about electronic speed limiters on cars –yes, even in Germany – and manufacturers are lining up to go along to get along with it. These will be mere warnings at first, but it’s a slippery – and short – slope to full-on electronic speed meddling that cannot be overruled by the driver. 

Volvo was first with a self-imposed 115 mph limit on its cars, of course, because, well, what else can they sell besides a creative numbness behind the wheel? But make no mistake, this is a Gathering Darkness for the automobile industry as we know it, and it will have far-reaching ramifications as more and more manufacturers sign up for the program in an attempt at getting in good graces with… I don’t know, exactly, governments with misguided agendas and a frigid fealty to 1984? Sounds fraught with peril and a recipe for disaster to me. Oh well, I remember when U.S. safety bureaucrats mandated 85-mph speedometers in our cars, but this is, as you might expect, much worse. Electrified nannies are already rampant in the machines we buy, but limiting top speed? That’s a New – and Very Dark – Frontier.

Yet, while this is going on, manufacturers are lining up to produce multi-million-dollar “hypercars” that have little rhyme or reason for being, except to be the new, quintessential definition of swingin’ dick-ism in this business. Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Bugatti, McLaren and several niche manufacturers you’ve never heard of are churning out these machines for the one tenth of one percent. These 1200HP+ machines can’t be driven on the road, and most of them will sit rotting in Versailles-like garages never to turn a wheel, but the bragging rights must count for something when you’re shelling out $3 million a pop and up. 

The latest manufacturer to enter the fray? None other than Lotus. Newly flush with serious cash-ola from parent conglomerate Geely, Lotus showed up at the Shanghai Auto Show with an image of an electric hypercar concept that will leap tall buildings in a single bound, or whatever the hype du jour is. This from a tiny sports car manufacturer that has been on the ropes for decades. 

The full-electric Lotus Type 130 hypercar concept.

That these established and assorted fringe manufacturers are lining up to create these cars is ludicrous, but if they can fleece enough customers to make it worth their while, well, I guess you can’t blame them. But the hype surrounding these vehicles has become so tedious that it’s getting painful. They don’t call them hypercars for nothing, apparently.

The aforementioned discussion is just the beginning of the chaos in this business right now, unfortunately. We have the ongoing trucks/SUVs/crossovers vs. “traditional” sedans hand-wringing; then there’s the looming economic slowdown that’s already starting to get its hands around the industry’s collective necks; the price of fuel is going up and no one is really sure what that will do to this nation’s obsession with “big” vehicles (but needless to say it can’t be good); and then there’s the $500-billion question concerning the marketing of Battery Electric Vehicles, as in, can you convince enough consumers to buy in to the all-electric conceit? Let me rephrase that, because the bet better work or there’s going to be a lot of blood on the tracks. 

Seals and Croft once sang, We Will Never Pass This Way Again, and as it applies to the car business at this point in time, truer words were never spoken.

It really is the confluence of everything, all at once.

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

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