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30th April 2010

News & Rants: Oprah Continues Campaign to End Texting While Driving

There’s no doubt that Oprah Winfrey has considerable influence over her millions of viewers. She has declared today National No Phone Zone Day and will continue her drive to get people to put down their cell phones when driving.

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30th April 2010

Chrysler Dealers, Workers And Analysts Agree: It’s Time To Start Showing Off The New Chrysler

Back in February, we took note of Chrysler’s “principled” stand on new-product secrecy, concluding:

Let’s face it: Chrysler needs buzz, hype, awareness, some kind of excitement surrounding its future generally and its forthcoming products in specific (if only in the irritating “teaser” format) almost as much as it needs anything else. Because as things stand right now,the baseline perception of Chrysler is of a dying company with nothing to offer. In this light, Chrysler’s principled rejection of hype is far more likely to be interpreted as keeping rushed semi-refreshes under wraps so they won’t be mocked to death by the time they go on sale. If that’s not the case, Chrysler has nothing to lose and everything to gain by building consumer awareness of new products. If it is, well, the truth will out sooner or later.

And apparently we’re not the only ones who think so. In fact, if the Detroit News is to be believed, literally everyone seems to think that Chrysler needs to start being more open, not only about its forthcoming products, but at every level of its business.

The Chrysler consensus is summed up by analyst Joe Phillippi of Autotrends Consulting, who tells the DetN:

Chrysler is much better off because the cost structure is dramatically improved. But without a portfolio of new products to trumpet, it’s tough to get consumers excited. They have to be much more visible. There are not even spy shots out there creating a buzz

This desire to create the impression that Chrysler has a viable new product strategy is echoed by the Canadian Auto Workers’ boss Ken Lewenza. The DetN sums up Lewenza’s critique, which centers on Chrysler’s next product launch, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, thusly:

The first significant new product on the way is the remade Jeep Grand Cherokee. Production begins next month in Detroit, and the SUV hits showrooms in June. A concept version was shown at the 2009 New York auto show, but the vehicle has been under wraps since then.

I don’t know why (Chrysler) is being so secretive,” said Ken Lewenza, president of the Canadian Auto Workers union.

He respects Marchionne’s decision not to show vehicles too far in advance, but said the argument breaks down when a model launch is imminent. Lewenza sees Grand Cherokees on the road for testing, but nothing at auto shows or in the media. He contrasts that with General Motors Co.’s strategy: “They dominate the ads. They are the leader in bragging about their products right now.”

And the Grand Cherokee is by far Chrysler’s most visible future product. In contrast, the next-gen Chrysler 300 and Sebring, Dodge Charger and Avenger, and the rest of Chrysler Group’s 14 product re-launches that are scheduled to take place by the end of 2011, are nearly invisible to the buying public. This radio silence gives consumers no reason to think of Chrysler as anything but the moribund, bankrupt, second-tier automaker it is supposed to no longer be.

And unfortunately, the problems don’t end with consumers. Even inside Auburn Hills, there are concerns that Chrysler isn’t changing fast or completely enough.

Outside of Chrysler’s executive ranks, workers complain that middle management remains wed to practices in place when the automaker filed for bankruptcy on April 30, 2009.

Marchionne’s vision is inspiring, but it hasn’t reached the middle and lower ranks of the company, said one veteran product development employee who asked not to be named because workers are discouraged from speaking publicly without Chrysler approval.

Purchasing boss Dan Knott confirms this lack of leadership trickle-down, explaining:
I drink the Kool-Aid. In many cases, I’m making it. Senior management is getting it. At lower levels some get it, some don’t.
And according to the DetN, Knott’s suppliers aren’t getting it either.
some see opportunities to win bigger global contracts, given the $68 billion in combined purchasing spending by Chrysler and Fiat. Others are afraid to quote jobs and invest hard-won capital only to get caught if Chrysler doesn’t survive…. “Suppliers are starting to see transparency,” [Knott] said. “It has not driven all the way down yet but we are working on it.
Which might explain why we aren’t seeing new products. In any case, all of this is making Chrysler’s remaining dealers extremely nervous. So nervous, in fact, that they’re downright nostalgic about the bad-old-days under Cerberus. One dealer claims:
A year ago, even though it was horrific times, there was more trust and pulling together
Another adds:
Chrysler “will never be the transparent company it was in the past.”
Of course, few complain about secrecy at companies like Apple, which consistently produce new products that resonate with consumers. The problem at Chrysler is that nobody knows what to expect, and that secrecy tends to lead observers to conclude the worst. And now, nearly all of Chrysler’s stakeholders seem to agree. Chrysler Group is spending plenty of money on new advertisements for old products, but now the company needs to show that it’s not just in survival mode. Chrysler needs to show dealers, suppliers, consumers and yes, even its own employees, that the company actually has a future. Otherwise, everyone will assume it doesn’t… and if that happens, they’ll be right.

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30th April 2010

Maryland Speed Camera Program Faces New Legal Challenge

Vehicle owners ticketed by Maryland speed cameras may find relief after one motorist earlier this month discovered how to beat the system. Peggy Lucero began her legal battle after Affiliated Computer Services accused her of speeding in Gaithersburg on Saturday, November 21, 2009. She did not believe the citation was accurate.

“I was alleged to have been driving 45 MPH,” Lucero told TheNewspaper. “I have been driving for over four decades and never have received a speeding ticket — by a human or by a camera — on the East or West coasts where I have lived. I called up the city of Gaithersburg police and asked a few questions about the camera. A few days later I had more questions and called and asked further questions. I wasn’t receiving consistent answers, and this began to trouble me.”

Lucero’s questioning uncovered a goldmine of information. She had been flashed on MD 355, a six-lane highway with a posted limit of 30 MPH. Lucero asked the State Highway Administration (SHA) for the engineering justification of the speed limit, and officials realized no speed study had been performed in the past five years — even though federal guidelines recommend engineering studies be performed before the use of photo enforcement. SHA completed a study in January and found that the speed limit should have actually been set at 40 MPH, especially since photo radar was being used.

“Given the data and information below, we do not believe that the existing 30 MPH speed limit is appropriate,” SHA District 3 traffic engineer Andrew Bossi wrote to the city in March. “Observations of the [speed] camera’s impacts to traffic noted that motorists would brake significantly at each camera location, followed by accelerating immediately afterwards. This effect was most pronounced at the southbound camera, where motorists were observed frequently bunching together at the camera position. Given the recent installation of the cameras, quantifiable safety data is not yet available; but the current conditions may pose a more significant risk for rear-end and sideswipe conditions and, with speeds increasing immediately beyond the cameras, may not be achieving the desired safety benefits.”

Gaithersburg officials ignored the safety warning and insisted that the speed limits in the area where cameras can be used be lowered, not raised.

“At the meeting our mayor and city council were unanimous in the desire to not raise the 30 MPH speed limit in this area and, in fact, have requested that the existing 30 MPH speed limit that now begins at Education Boulevard be extended an additional 750 feet to the south, to Central Avenue,” Gaithersburg Public Works Engineering Services Director Ollie K. Mumpower wrote in an April 7 email. “Both Public Works and the police department support the council request.”

Lucero’s next step was to review state law, where she noticed a provision requiring that the “speed monitoring system operator” maintain a “daily log” proving that the system has been properly calibrated. She asked for the November 21 log, but Gaithersburg only supplied the logs for the preceding Friday and following Monday. As she later learned, the individual performing the so-called calibrations did not work weekends. After a number of delays, Lucero took her evidence before District Court Judge J. Michael Conroy on April 12.

“The validity of the ticket depends on a daily calibration testing of the camera unit,” Lucero argued. “I believe the evidence in my case, the citation, was illegally obtained. The camera images were obtained illegally because the camera was not operated in accordance with state law.”

Judge Conroy found her not guilty, placing Lucero in the most rarefied of company. According to Montgomery County documents, 742,470 speed camera tickets were issued between fiscal 2007 and 2009. Of these, only ten were found not guilty. Lucero hopes others will be inspired to challenge tickets issued by the system in violation of state law.

Sample calibration logs are available in a 850k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: Photo Radar Digital Fixed Unit Deployment Log (City of Gaithersburg, Maryland, 4/29/2010)


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30th April 2010

Opel/Vauxhall designs

I passed the latest Vauxhall Astra parked up in a street while out for a stroll the other day (giving the eyes a break from looking at screens). I actually gave it quite a close inspection because I liked the design, the lines and the overall proportions, styling of the car. I haven’t noticed many of them on the road yet, but sometimes it’s when you see the car on the street, rather than say a show stand, that the merits (or de-merits) of a design’s execution really become apparent. It looked good in black.

On a related note, I came across this video from the guy responsible (Vauxhall/Opel’s Vice President of Design, Mark Adams) for the design of the latest Meriva and it’s worth a look. Good explanation on the need for a B-pillar. [if the below doesn't show please try upgrading your Adobe Flash player to the latest verion].


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30th April 2010

Manufacturing Troubles Remain a Drag on Recovery, Trade & Jobs

via The Seattle Times

by Jon Talton

Top of the News: The Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index seems consistent with recovery, coming in at 53.6 for November; any number above 50 signifies expansion in the sector. Unfortunately, the reading sagged from 55.7 the month before, tripping up what economists had hoped would be a steady climb out of recession.

A deeper look shows that the index provides no relief for the biggest immediate problem facing Americans, unemployment. Only six of 18 manufacturing industries reported growth in employment. Only 11.7 million Americans worked manufacturing as of October. That compares with 17.3 million in October 1999.

Not only do manufacturing jobs pay better than their counterparts in service industries, they tend to add real value to economic activity (as opposed to selling mortgage swindles). They are also twined with our trade issues. Even fewer manufacturing jobs are now in industries that export, a key part of our huge manufacturing trade deficit.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon was happening even before the Great Recession. A report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that manufacturing employment between 1965 and 2000 never dipped below 16.5 million. This even as manufacturing shrank as a share of the economy (take out Boeing and it would be much smaller). This changed as imports surged after China joined the WTO and other Asian factory centers upped their game. By 2004, the number was lower than any time since 1950.

“It is often claimed that declines in manufacturing employment stem entirely from productivity growth,” according to EPI economist L. Josh Bivens. “However, rapid productivity growth is the norm, not the exception, in manufacturing. What is new about the manufacturing job crisis of the last four years is the sharp downturn in the ratio of domestic production to demand.”

Indeed, American steelmakers are shrinking yet again.

The Back Story: The official unemployment rate including discouraged workers and part-timers seeking full-time work is 17.5 percent. But Shadow Government Statistics, a provocative and reliable site, argues even this underestimates the problem. Try…22 percent.

Complete Article

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29th April 2010

Great Commercials–Steve Wozniak’s Datsun 280ZX

Yesterday we deconstructed a disco-era Datsun 280ZX 10th Anniversary Edition commercial. Today I’d like to discuss another commercial that features essentially the same car but a completely different tone. The video follows here, with my comments after the jump.

This commercial does have a completely different feel than yesterday’s–instead of a gold-fog-filled moonscape and an anonymous but amorous disco couple, we have a much more low-key real-world environment and Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak. Rather than the bombast used in yesterday’s commercial, this ad relies on the quasi-humorous, announcer-driven banter so common in mid-to-late 1980s car ads, and as a result it feels much more modern. Let’s get started, shall we?

0:01–We see Steve Wozniak jogging up the stairs, ostensibly on his way home after a busy day making the tough decisions at Apple. Meanwhile, the on-screen text describes who he is and what he’s accomplished. Inventor, yes. Apple Computer creator, yes. “US” Festival? First of all, I’m not really sure what the “US” Festival is; and since there’s no verb attached, we’re left wondering whether he created it, founded it, gave a keynote speech there, or drove through it at high speed in his Datsun 280ZX while cackling maniacally.

0:03–”Steve Wozniak owns two of the world’s most impressive sports cars.” This is the ad’s first real misstep.The mystery presented by this ambiguous statement is incredibly distracting. At this point, I’ve forgotten all about the 280ZX and I’m busy trying to guess the identity of his second sports car. Or, if I’m feeling snarky and unfair, I’m wondering what his two impressive sports cars are, because the 280ZX certainly wasn’t one of them.

That’s less of a slap at the 280ZX, by the way, and more an indictment of the way he question was written. I could very easily imagine Woz responding, “Well, the Ferrari is more fun on the track, but I prefer the Porsche as an all-around sports car … oh, the Datsun? That’s the beater I drive to work.”

0:05–I like Woz’s jaunty wave here–he comes off as very likable throughout the whole commercial, and his mix of everyman casual attitude and corporate cool makes him seem like a pretty decent fellow.

0:07–”I prefer the Z.” Well, that’s great, Steve, but since nobody explained to us what your other sports car is, it’s hard to know exactly how seriously we should take this statement. Do you prefer the Z to a Porsche 928, or a Ford EXP?

0:11–Maybe it’s just me, but Woz looks a little annoyed with the announcer’s line of questioning here.

0:13–Wait, did he park his 280ZX with the T-tops open? Given the fact that almost all T-tops leaked when closed, this doesn’t sound like a good idea.

0:19–At this point, the announcer has been peppering Wozniak with questions about why he prefers the Z. The interesting thing here is that Woz is giving reluctant, non-commital, almost evasive answers. ”It’s more than that … That’s part of it. … Yeah. …” It’s as if he’s treating the announcer like an unwanted guest–he’s being civil and polite, but he’s moving quickly, giving minimal answers, and hoping the interloper gets the hint.

0:21–After spending the first 20 seconds of the commercial avoiding eye contact and giving the kind of monosyllabic answers you’d expect from a reticent teenager, Woz’s entire body language transforms and he provides the funniest moment of the ad. He awkwardly places his right hand on the top of the door, dons a wide, pie-eating grin, and over-enunciates, “It is AWESOME.” I’m not kidding–watch that sequence a few times, and you’ll be amazed by the contortions his face makes as he very earnestly pronounces (or lip-syncs) his lines.

0:23–Steve’s broad but slightly sheepish grin after delivering the final line is very likeable and winning. Go get ‘em, Woz.

0:24–”Hey, Steve, you sell the Apples, I’ll sell the Zs.” I get that this is meant to be just another line of joking banter, but it doesn’t even make sense in the context of the ad. If he’s not supposed to be selling Datsuns, why is Wozniak even in the ad? Why pepper him with questions about the car and then admonish him when he finally explains why he likes it?

I would have loved to have seen Wozniak snap his head back to the camera and growl, “Oh, really? So you have the nerve to waste my time, bring me out here to film your commercial, only to disrespect me like that? Do you know who I am? I’m Steve Flippin’ Wozniak, and I could crush you like an insect. Oh, and for the record, I really prefer my other sports car.”

–Chris H.

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