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Whale Watching: Proactive or Reactive

G. R. Whale
Mar 11, 2011
Auto shows give me a headache. They're an endless succession of irritatingly loud assaults that, like a Vivaldi concerto, quickly degrade into the same thing done 100 different ways. The hoopla gets thicker every year and sifting through it takes longer.
Questions arise, but none the manufacturers want to answer: Why do you label your entry model "Premium" and the high-volume version "Limited?" How does your hot-rod model have cheaper tires than the base car? Where did you find the focus group that approved that? If the Range Rover Evoque is 5 inches shorter yet 4 inches wider and with a longer wheelbase than the original Range Rover, how is it the most compact vehicle to wear the badge? Why does an EPA rating of 29/40 translate to a CAFE rating of 44 mpg?
Photo 2/2   |   Whale Watching Autoshow Headache
And in a rare moment of cognitive thought during the maelstrom, I realized it's because automakers have to be proactive and reactive, balancing a four-year product cycle with two-year election cycles. I commend car companies for being able to build anything at all in such a fluid environment.
Imagine the poor souls in advanced vehicle planning attempting to synch-ronize with Washington's who's-in-charge-now cycle. What's the economy target going to be? Is that EPA or CAFE mpg or kW-hrs? Washington is still dickering about standards for the 2017 model year, likely debuting in 2016, leaving minimal wiggle room in that four-year development cycle.
Despite the Volt being developed and talked about for years, the EPA only recently reacted with new mileage stickers. The Volt rates "93 mpg equivalent" with a 35-mile range on electricity and 37 mpg on gasoline for 344 miles. The Leaf scores a 99 mpg with EPA range of 73 miles, with electricity cost listed at $561 per 15,000-mile year (the same gasoline or diesel money might go 6000 miles). However, the Federal Trade Commission that regulates advertising claims puts the Leaf's range at 96-110 miles and the California Air Resources Board estimated 100 miles.
If that confusion isn't bad enough, the EPA is also considering instituting letter-grade window stickers, as restaurants get for cleanliness in some states. Apparently we are so stupid we can't tell 40 mpg is better than 20 mpg, yet are somehow bright enough to know B is better than C. Note that these grades are not within class -- they are overall, so pickups, genuine SUVs, and commercial vans will all see Ds on their windows.
At a recent show, I glanced at a newspaper column claiming CARB was responsible for the catalytic converter and cars like the Leaf, Prius, and Volt, which never would have materialized without it. I don't think so. Government at virtually any level reacts -- to voters, disaster, attack, or money. Notable advances in automobiles and efficiency were being made long before CARB and EPA decided they needed help, and catalytic converter development began before CARB was even formed. As it did later rushing in airbags that weren't safe for smaller individuals, the government reaction of requiring early cats wasn't thought through, and those cats added significantly to fuel consumption.
Washington reacted to people being hit or run over (especially children and the elderly) by mandating backup cameras. I'm all for avoiding running over anyone. But I know folks who bought an SUV to sit up high and see better, then drove into the rear end of someone not six months later because they weren't looking where they were going. I don't trust anyone to look at the camera any more than they (don't) look behind before reversing without one. Stylists can take some of the blame for declining rear visibility, but rollover standards -- responsible for big pillars -- and sloping rooflines for fuel economy also contribute. Washington has yet to learn that better driver instruction would cost a lot less in the long run.
At the state level, California has developed a system for a very mildly discounted insurance premium for those who drive fewer miles in any given year. Seems reasonable, but what about the ones who log 100,000 miles or more a year without any accidents or tickets? Certainly they have shown similar awareness levels for a much longer time period than those driving just 5000 miles a year.
And reaction exists on the local level. A nearby community recently rebuilt a section of road that was old and considered dangerous. The new road is smoother, but now arguably more dangerous: It has double-strength K-rail, so cars get bounced back into oncoming traffic rather than going off the road and damaging only the vehicle itself. Drivers cross the center line more, too, because they want to keep their 6-foot-wide car at least 6 feet away from the rail.
I try to drive proactively by always having a way out. It's proven beneficial at least twice when the person behind me who wasn't paying attention encountered a problem I avoided. And being proactive means you're already primed to react -- others have to make do with obvious reminder statements like "be prepared to stop."
I'm proactive when I buy a vehicle because I have to keep it for a while, and I'll take the smaller engine and shorter gears over a thirsty bigger engine most of the time. Do you buy proactively, or react to the latest and greatest or the best deal?
At the auto show, automakers were reactionary as well. They showed concepts that were obvious answers to what other manufacturers had done, or would flop as soon as they hit the market, all based on reaction by the media and public.
That's my reaction to auto show season. Perhaps I'll be proactive and skip it next year.
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