By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Now that the fireworks have subsided and we’ve apparently survived (hopefully) the sanctioned mayhem that marks Independence Day around these parts, it’s time to get back to it. This is a hard-ass business that never lets up even for a minute. Oh sure, you can take a deep breath here and there but ask any of the top executives if that really works, and they’ll either not bother answering or just say “no” with a resigned shrug. It’s a relentless slog and there's no two ways about it. That’s just the way it is.
The State of the Auto Business right now is a kaleidoscope of craziness, a swirling maelstrom of chaos that runs the gamut from realistic assessments to wild-eyed pronouncements. On one side of the spectrum you have The Realists: Seasoned veterans with meaningful experience who have been there and back. On the other you have the “What, Us Worry?” hordes who display a shocking level of hubris while projecting an air of invincibility that is a sight to behold.
The latter group is easy to pick out because they stick out like a row of colorful clowns at a funeral. Masters of their Imaginary Universe, they specialize in a virulent shortsightedness and a pungent brand of arrogance that is truly sickening. And their equals in the “new” media blindly buy what they’re selling and gleefully project their viewpoints as gospel.
You only have to look as far as the canonization of Elon Musk to get a clear picture of what has been going on. On the one hand, Musk’s acolytes in the “new” media have painted a portrait of a brilliant visionary tragically hamstrung by the narrow-mindedness of those trudging along in woefully obsolete industries that out of the sheer kindness of his heart Musk is willing to lay his hands on and rescue for the greater good of all mankind.
The other point of view suggests that the ugly realities of Musk’s “vision” have resulted in zero profitability and grossly overvalued stock, which has led to a remarkably arrogant proposal to blend together a separate company that he already heavily influences – SolarCity – with Tesla, for his personal benefit, ultimately. That shareholders and financial analysts both smell a rat in this high-level financial flimflam is a clear indication that the wheels are finally starting to come off for Musk.
And it’s really no great surprise. The personal arrogance of Musk permeates everything he touches. When it was revealed that a Tesla Model S owner crashed and died while his car was in autopilot mode, the hue and cry was sharp and unrelenting, even though the company’s second-rate PR minions did their best to stumble through a weak-kneed explanation followed by wildly inept backtracking. The bottom line of this debacle was that the personal arrogance of Musk allowed for beta testing of a sophisticated semi-autonomous technology by the company’s own customers in the real world, an unconscionable lapse of judgment that is simply unbelievable and unforgivable.
Don’t agree? Let me put it this way, if it came to light that Ford, GM, Toyota or any of the established automobile manufacturers had deigned to do such a thing I guarantee you that there would be Congressional hearings being conducted on this matter right now, with executives being vilified and serious consequences being levied.
The “new” media – including the social media apologists - and Musk’s PR stumblebums have done their level best to shrug off “the unfortunate incident” but make no mistake, the Titanium veneer surrounding the Musk aura has finally been breached and this, combined with the SolarCity scam, has irrevocably changed the dynamic. The infallible conceit of the Muskian Era is finally drawing to a close, and it was frankly long overdue.
But then again Musk is only one of the acknowledged Patron Saints of the “What, Us Worry?” hordes, because there is another chief protagonist willing to carry the mail should Elon have to lay low in his bunker for a while, and that’s none other than Sergio Marchionne, of course.
We haven’t heard much from the “G.O.A.T.” as of late, because he’s feverishly working behind the scenes trying to make something – anything – happen for FCA. That the clock is ticking on the whole convoluted enterprise is now freely acknowledged by all media, from the ridiculous to the sublime, so here is Sergio flying around on the Linguini Express, touching down for talks with the Silicon Valley hucksters, or anyone else offering money for that matter.
The self-proclaimed “brilliant” deal maker will need to summon all of his smoke-and-mirror skills to convince those skeptical sharpies that FCA offers even a modicum of desirability in an automotive environment that has clearly passed the company by. Gaudy sales numbers aside – remember those numbers are propped up with more cash on the hood and subprime lending than heretofore was thought even possible – Marchionne is trying to project the company’s manufacturing ability as a meaningful reason for engagement, which is a tall order considering the company’s quality numbers continue to be shockingly piss-poor.
But that has never stopped the peripatetic Sergio. He will cajole, pound the table and flat-out lie if he has to in order to save his and his Fiat overlord-heirs’ prosciutto. He wants a big deal – a check for the whole damn thing would be just fine – but he’ll take a series of scattershot deals if he has to, as long as they have the letter “y” attached to them, so that he can then boast to the world that FCA is now a technology company, or wait a minute, a mobility company, oh what the hell, Marchionne couldn’t care less what it's called as long as he and his minions get paid.
And finally, the bit players in the “What, Us Worry?” sweepstakes aren’t Masters of their Imaginary Universe, they’re just too excruciatingly unrealistic and naïve to know better. These are the card-carrying members of the Uninformed and Unenlightened Brigade, who, even while every sign there is to see is suggesting the opposite, are convinced that the auto industry’s current sales run is simply unimpeachable, and that it is simply incomprehensible that it won’t go on for the foreseeable future unfettered and unbowed.
Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news – although I’m certainly not the only one by any stretch – but the Uninformed and Unenlightened are going to soon have to live with crushing disappointment.
Those poor souls are about to get hit in the forehead with a giant 2 x 4, while The Realists batten down the hatches and prepare for a slowdown that could be anywhere from an annoying minor blip to a lingering sluggishness that lasts more than a couple of quarters. It could all come down to a Series of Unfortunate – and Unforeseen - Events lying just beyond the horizon.
A giant “we’ll see” as we like to say around here.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.