Saturday, October 01, 2005

Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear

I am stealing this subject from Auto Prophet but since I now live in Britain I thought that an entry about the show Top Gear and how Brits view cars in general might be interesting.

Top Gear is probably one of the most popular, if not the most popular show in the UK. Pretty amazing right? A show about cars is the highest rated show. It comes on at the coveted 8pm Sunday night timeslot on BBC One.

Jeremy Clarkson started out as a writer and he has graduated to being a TV host. He still writes for Top Gear magazine which is owned by BBC, and for the Times. He speaks almost exactly as he writes.

The Top Gear show isn't really just about cars it's also about how normal everyday guys would interact with the cars. They love to take American cars, and rip on them. I saw an episode where Clarkson showed of a Ford F-150 Lightning and proceeded to describe it in vicious degrading terms. He was actually lying on the show about the truck as the model he was showing off was not the current F-150 which I think is a huge improvement over the last generation, especially in interior quality. But it was a chance for the Brits to rib us for being American, and Clarkson took it.

Top Gear is also a talk show of sorts where a guest is invited on, usually a male, and usually some British character actor that most Americans would only be vaguely familiar with. They then have that guest race a car of their choosing (usually a 4-banger) around a track, and then they see how fast that actor's race times were in comparison with other previous guests. It's all in good fun.

There's also the rapport Clarkson has with his two other hosts, whose names I forget. They rib each other mercilessly, which is a British cultural habit.

Clarkson represents an aspect of the British press that occurs no matter what the medium is or what the subject is. Newspapers traditionally are highly critical in their reporting, no matter what the industry is. I work in the IT PR biz, and we deal with the media. Even the IT media over here is critical of product releases. In America the media is hardly ever critical and frequently apologetic if not utterly complacent. Industry specific guides in America are basically PR re-releases as they never utter a word of criticism. Look at how the LA Times dealt with Dan Neil's correctly critical comments of GM. He almost lost his job. In Britain for GM to do such a thing would have been PR suicide. Companies who do business in the UK for the first time are often shocked at how mean the press can be. But it is part of the culture and the result is often a more clear critical look at a subject. Clarkson's criticisms are frequently correct. American interiors generally are crap. I've heard that Top Gear is now being shown on cable in the states. I recommend to all my American readers to watch it for good criticism and an insight into the British character.

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Busy Week

It's been a busy week for me, starting a new job (finally) and getting acclimated to the British working environment. It's quite interesting and a contrast to the American work experience of endless hours of labor while looking over your shoulder for the possible pink slip followed by loss of health insurance and life as a beggar. Or at least I've made it that way in my mind.

A brief note about GM which I think shows that Bob Lutz still has some tricks up his sleeve. This comes from the Car Connection:

Lutz also told reporters that in the future GM would emphasize strong design as it developed new vehicles. Vehicle engineering would no longer be allowed to dictate a vehicle's proportions if it stood in the way of a great design, said Lutz, who added that GM also is developing a genuine global product plan.

"In the past, (GM) produced a lot of very excellent vehicles but somehow they didn't excite anybody," said Lutz. "I think our approach was much too rational and too analytically driven," said Lutz.

Lutz noted every manufacturer in the car business today sells technically excellent automobiles. "You cannot buy a bad automobile any more from any producer. We have to do more products not because we're looking at a particular segment, but because it's a great vehicle," he said.

The only way carmakers can gain an edge with consumers now is with a strong design and strong interiors, he added.

Absolutely correct and brilliant. I'd tweak what he was saying to the extent that American cars are not as technically proficient as Japanese cars, but it is close. GM has, in my opinion as an owner of an older GM car, made reliable vehicles. They are certainly more reliable than anything coming from Europe. Lutz I think realizes that even if GM were to invest so much time and money in producing a car that is more reliable than a Japanese car, it would be a waste of time as the PR campaign waged by Japanese manufacturers for decades has been one of reliability, and the public has bought it. All that is left is design, and in this area Lutz has shown talent. The HHR and the Solstice are good looking cars. The upcoming Saturns look great as well. Even though they are wrongheaded, the new fullsize SUVs from GM have very nice interiors.

The way this plan can go awry is for GM to invest in making the WRONG type of cars. Even if a car is good looking, if it gets bad mileage, it just won't sell. If Lutz and Wagoner had had more foresight and kept abreast of what the oil market was going through, they would have ceased new investment in any large SUVs and basically given up on the market. That money could have been invested in cars, and reduced production times and made for better design.

I think there is still evidence in GM of an inability for the company to be dynamic and change course. Once a project has been slowly started, the momentum is impossible to stop. They absolutely missed the boat with a Camaro. That window has closed and by the time one hits the streets in five or so years, the price of oil will not make it a car worth buying.

As for Opel/Vauxhall, I think GM should develop this "aesthetics first" mentality for that company. There has been some improvement, but I look at the Corsa, one of their smaller cars in the lineup, a car that will undoubtedly see increased attention as fuel prices rise, and I know there could be improvements. Vauxhall has a reputation for being bland even though their cars are much better looking than most of GM's American offerings. In a market like Europe where cars are all very similar to each other, you have to make your product stand out. And the only way to do that is by making it look good.

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

It Boggles the Mind

With oil prices rising higher and higher, I can't believe in the vast majority of the mainstream press articles that I've read, and the comments from individuals is the steadfast belief that oil prices will eventually come down. They will not come down over the longterm because there is no more oil left in the world for them to use. I think a lot of people who have superficially read about "Peak Oil" are unable to really understand what it means. It means there is no going back EVER. We are NEVER going to have the enormous SUV usage in the US that we had even a year ago. The only way SUVs will come back is if a replacement fuel source is found that is abundant and as efficient or more efficient than petrol. None exists.

Reading statements from executives in the auto industry, pundits in the same industry, one finds absolutely no mention of the causes behind these prices. The hurricane is not the sole cause of oil prices: oil was going up before they struck. Middle East production is not the source of the problem: the Arabs are pumping more oil than ever. Logic tells us that the only possible explanation for higher oil prices is that there simply is not enough oil for everyone. Yes there are other factors that play into the price, but for all these factors to work in tandem would require the root of the problem to be a simple lack of oil. If refining capability was the SOLE issue, then the Middle East could build more refineries where there is little no pollution control. If hurricanes were the SOLE cause of this price hike, then why were prices skyrocketing before they struck?

I listened to a podcast of Bob Lutz talking about people's need for SUVs. 99.9 percent of people in America have absolutely zero need for SUVs. The very acronym SUV is a lie. Frequently these vehicles have no utility whatsoever. Their trunk space is inadequate and commonly less than a car's. Their handling is atrocious. Their safety is negligible. Their pollution is pallatable. Their need is questionable. I cannot think of one use of SUVs that cannot be adequately performed by some other mode of vehicle. A pickup can perform all the functions of an SUV with more loading capacity, and towing capacity. With pickups now all having extended cabs for additional passengers, the "utility" of an SUV is a joke.

Some might say that the SUV is necessary because it roughly approximates the abilities of a pickup and gives the passenger more comfort than a pickup. The vast majority of people who use pickups for regular towing and carrying are businesses. I have never in my life seen a full size SUV being used by a business where they could purchase a cheaper and better pickup. The only segment of society that requires "comfort" while towing large things, is the suburban male, who will tow his boat twice a year at most and will want the additional comfort of an SUV, probably to compensate for his wide girth.

Americans and even Europeans need to understand a couple things. One, societies in history never consistently get wealthier and wealthier. There is always at some point a fallback. The Great Depression is a distant memory for most but it was a decade long event that was less than 100 years ago. It could very well return in an oil crisis. America was much harder hit by the Depression than Europe. Peak Oil will hit the US much harder than Europe as well. There are many similarities.

The other thing that the West must understand is that for added comfort in their lives, often others must suffer. In order for people to travel quickly to their jobs and live in distant communities away from inner city blight, we have allowed our bodies to inhale millions of tons of pollutants every day around the globe. Thousands and thousands of people die of lung cancer and associated breathing disorders caused by pollution every year. The very weather is changed from the exhaust from tailpipes of cars. Whole forests are levelled to make way for roads. Cars themselves kill millions across the globe every year simply by crashing into each other and running over people. For our endless quest for "comfort" we have taken enormous casualities that aren't always obvious to society. A war can easily be seen as causing problems because the damage is so direct from the impact. But the damage caused vehicles, a damage I think that is unfortunately necessary to some extent, is so indirect that it is often ignored. We ignore it at our own peril.

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