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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Does Car Racing Make Cents?

Here is a post that draws upon questions posed by students that appears on the Economics 244 Auto Industry blog. However, instead of posting it in full here, I encourage you to go to it on The Truth About Cars item Does Racing Make Cents?, in part for the occasionally thoughtful comments that appear on that site.

Mike Smitka

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Interest rates, inflation and growth

I go through US data periodically for a weekly radio show on W3Z - WREL in Lexington, Virginia. Unfortunately they don't stream their locally-produced content, probably because most of what they broadcast is syndicated and they aren't licensed to do so.
I've talked in recent weeks about the low returns available on savings. Let me trace that logic in more detail. In the end, I'll tie this to the discussion going on in economics circles about secular stagnation. (Since this is a blog, here's a link to VoxEU, which has just released a free eBook with essays by 19 economists, arguing the empirical strengths, weaknesses and implications of "staganation.")
Long-term rates are generally down since December: 30-year bonds fell from 4.0% to 3.2% and 20-year bonds from 3.0% to 2.4%. Those are drops of 0.8 percentage points and 0.6 percentage points, respectively. (Meanwhile-year rates are flat at 1.6%.) That is not necessarily good news, as it means that the serious money crowd think that growth will be weak for years to come.
Let's look at the numbers over time and see what they imply. If you're an investor, you can buy a 1-year bond today and another 1-year bond a year from now. Or you can buy a 2-year-bond today. Since there are lots of players in this market trading minute-by-minute, those two returns ought to be comparable. Here are calculations of future rates consistent with today's bond prices. (There are other corrections, such as for risk, but I don't think that changes my results in a qualitative manner.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Who is Number One?

Auto sales are not the only measure to assess an auto OEM's relative health. This piece from the Detroit Bureau lays it out:

  • GM slid to third when it comes to units sold for the first half of 2014. And focusing on just the most recent quarter, the Detroit maker fell to fourth when it comes to gross revenues.
  • GM reported gross sales of $39 billion for the April to June quarter, noted Autoline: Detroit Editor John McElroy, putting it well behind Germany’s multi-brand Volkswagen AG, at $68 billion. That was well ahead of even the industry’s leader from a unit sales standpoint, Toyota, which managed a still-hefty $62 billion in revenues.
  • The big surprise was Daimler AG, which managed to nudge past GM with $42 billion in second-quarter revenues. GM, in turn, managed to squeak past the Euro-Asian Renault-Nissan Alliance by just $100 million.
  • Ford Motor Co. delivered $37 million in revenue, with fast-growing Korean siblings, Hyundai-Kia reporting $33 billion. The newly merged Fiat Chrysler had combined revenues of $31 billion. Rounding out the list of major global plays, Honda revenues came in at $29 billion, with BMW in the industry’s 10th spot at $26 billion.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Auto Finance Sub Prime Bubble?

I don't think so. For some reason, the New York times jumped on an Equifax report, cherry picked data to suit a sensationalistic agenda, and published the piece on Dealbook (link). Many have weighed in since, including myself – see below! Other examples are Marketwatch and a NYT Op-Ed

Written for Auto Finance News

By David Ruggles

A recent report from Equifax Inc., which noted that originations and total outstanding balances for subprime auto loans have hit recent highs, triggered an alarmist article on subprime lending in The New York Times. In the July 19 piece, authors Jessica Silver-Greenburg and Michael Corkery cited anecdotes that leave the impression that fraudulent practices are widespread. They castigate the “high” interest rates on subprime loans without mentioning the high rate and expense of default and repossession. Repos can reach a third of originations, and collection practices ― which are expensive to begin with ― are a challenge on these loans.

Through April, 2.6 million subprime loans were originated, representing 32% of all auto loan originations, according to Equifax. The outstanding balance of those subprime loans totaled $46.2 billion, an eight-year high. Equifax defines “subprime” as loans to customers with credit scores of 640 or below. As a matter of record, though, in some circles, a loan is deemed subprime when the credit score drops to 580.

The American Financial Services Association and other industry professionals have since weighed in on the NYT article, noting that it enflames already-riled regulators. And Derek Kreindler, managing editor of TheTruthAboutCars.com blog, writes: “Don’t expect that 32% figure to let up anytime soon. The glut of credit available for auto financing ― driven by securitized subprime auto loans being sold as investment-grade instruments ― is going to keep the auto financing business alive and kicking for the foreseeable future.”

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mitsubishi Motors Future: Summer Guest Post #1

This post was written May 12, 2014 by Anton Reed '14 for Economics 244. The Prof edited it and appended comments by others in the class.

I will revise and reblog the best posts of my students over the coming weeks.

2014 Asian OEM Market Relative Share

In April, when they released their FY2013 annual results, MMC (Mitsubishi Motors Corp) reported record profits. Don't get too excited.

Mitsubishi Motors' North American operations are struggling; MMC sells far less than any other Asian car company in North America. The next smallest, Mazda, sold almost three and a half times as many vehicles in April 2014. Only six firms sold fewer cars, and of those only Volvo is not a niche luxury marque. (The other five, in decline order of sales, are Jaguar/Land-Rover, Porsche, Tesla, Maserati and Ferrari.)

There are positive signs, with April sales up 46.6% over 2013 and year to date sales up 29%. Only Maserati had a larger increase, but they sold 753 vehicles last year, so that shift represents only a few additional cars. On the other hand, among manufacturers building cars for mainstream customers, Mitsubishi sells the least, so its percentage increase likewise represents only a modest absolute change. Nevertheless Mitsubishi has been improving its North American operation, with net sales up 53% from 2012 to 2013.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Google's Autonomous Car: Don't Drink the Kool-aid

Google's senior executives are busily touting the wonders of autonomous vehicles. There's the technological marvel, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. There are the economic benefits - no more congestion, no more accidents. Wonder of wonders! – and great for the Google empire, and for its stock price.

The PR machine is a marvel to behold, and the gullibility of the audience – well, it's Google! Is their part in this really that much of a marvel? Will economic benefits be as great as they claim? Will they even be a player in future vehicle technologies? Their PR machine is not paid to probe such issues, much less point out that alternative technologies may bring almost all of these benefits more quickly and at a very modest cost.

First, the core innovations necessary for an autonomous vehicle are already on the road, the result of decades-long engineering efforts alongside which Google's investment and expertise pale in comparison. Blindspot detection, lane departure warnings, backup "assist" (outside the US that is surely called a safety feature) and adaptive cruise control are all necessary for an autonomous car. Now some of these aren't cheap, but they're falling in price. So we don't have to await an entirely new generation of vehicles to begin reaping the benefits. Crucial to Google's vision is that these are all partial solutions. However, I am not at all convinced that what Google offers will be a sufficiently big increment to offset the additional costs of full autonomy. Nor is it at all obvious that Google will have any role short of autonomy – their presence is not needed for these existing tools.

Second, Google's is not the only approach. In particular, connected vehicle technologies promise most of the benefits at a far lower price point and with a faster rollout. Such systems are inexpensive because they can use the copious computing power already in car, while the hardware consists of inexpensive RFID transponders (though not as inexpensive as the tags retailers use to deter shoplifting). The pieces of such systems are now being tested on the road, with a large test facility – the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center – an artificial cityscape – under construction in Ann Arbor, adjacent to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Such systems don't require the panoply of sensorts of an autonomous vehicle. Indeed the core components could be sold as an aftermarket item, albeit with lower functionality. Such connectivity could be rolled out in the course of years.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Autosaurus Rex: Car Death in Japan (revised)

Iwao Corp: After the last auction

Thanks to Prof. Shioji of Kyoto University for arranging this tour in conjunction with the 22nd GERPISA Conference, June 2014

Car's don't last forever. Auctions provide one intermediate step, helping set a market in used car prices and facilitating the reselling from the original owner. But what happens after that? One place is the Mogitori Center of Iwao Corporation [リサイクルセンター有限会社イワオ] in Yawata City, Kyoto.

Now as noted earlier this June in the post on auctions, the average life of cars was at one time extremely short, driven by the escalating costs of vehicle inspections, which included mandates for replacing items that might fail with age, at least when the system was set up in the 1950s. Until 1995 inspections were annual from the 10th year, and since they were costly (US$1,000 at a dealer, including biannual vehicle taxes), the result was that few cars were kept longer than 10 years. Indeed, through 1997 the average life of a passenger car was stable at 9¼ years. Thereafter it rose steadily to hit 10 years in 2000, 11 years in 2005 and 12 years in 2010. (The chart in the post on auctions gives a stable 4.7 year average age through 1995, then rising monotonically to 8.1 years in 2013. I do not know the source of the difference – given the context I think it is age at auction, but the underlying source does not make that clear - literally, in that the relevant footnote is too blurred to read.)

Still, cars don't live forever. Accidents happen; depreciation is inexorable. So while about a third of cars sold at auction are exported, most eventually are scrapped. That's what Iwao does.

Disassembling a car takes less time that putting one together. The key is to extract value – and stay legal. Typically the tires and wheels have been removed before Iwao receives the car; sometimes the engine and other replacement parts have already benn removed. For what they do get, they pay by weight – trucks hauling in cars get weighed before and after unloading. Once that's done, the fluids must be removed. The gas tank gets emptied, and cut open to release residual vapors and prevent an explosion. The freon (or other refrigerant) gets recovered, to prevent the release of greenhouse gases. Then the airbags are set off – once the appropriate wire harness is exposed, all that needs to be done is to run a current through it, from a safe distance. The battery's removed, oil and other fluids drained. That all takes maybe 15 minutes, at least for an older car that only has a basic battery and a driver and a passenger side airbag. (Modern cars must be more challenging, with more airbags, multiple batteries, and plastic gas tanks. But for the time being most predate that era.)

Then the fun begins. A forklift is thrust through the windows, and the car moved to the initial disassembly location. A quick flick and it's on its side, so the axles and gas tank can be cut loose with a torch, any underbody wire harnesses cut, and bolts holding the engine removed. Another couple torch cuts and the engine flops out, and is moved to another station where the various appurtenances attached to the block are pulled off, leaving a large chunk of aluminum. The exhaust system (and particularly the catalytic converters) are then cut off and put in the relevant pile, and if they're still in the vehicle, the radiator and air conditioner condensor are removed. (Of course they'll also salvage parts from recent vintage vehicles, but so few remain on the road after year 10 that Iwao makes no particular effort to resell individual pieces of older vehicles.)

Meanwhile, the body is lifted over to face the jaws of death. This tyrannosaurus rex of the automotive world punches through the roof and rips it away. The monster might shake and throw a recalcitrant car around, playing with it until can rip enough roof off. Then in a couple gulps it dispatches the instrument panel, tossing those bites aside. It then punches through what's left to grab the main wire harness: copper's valuable. Once that's done it tosses it to one side for a quick scan for any other easy-to-remove wiring. Then it's to the crusher, and the cube stacked with others awaiting its turn in the shredder. [In Japanese it's a "nibbler" crane [ニブラ重機], though the bites it takes are pretty big! – here's a YouTube link, though it's not the same facility.]

What goes on in the shredder isn't visible, but the noise and dust make it clear that violence reigns. (I didn't ask whether it is a toothed roller or hard steel balls swinging on chains.) Not everything gets shredded sufficiently; a crane picks up big pieces and stacks them for reshredding. For the remainder, a magnetic separator pulls out the steel; a "cyclone" uses air to separate out lighter components, such as the fabric and foam in the seats, carpets and headliner, that then gets compressed into burnable chunks that can be sold as an alternative to coal. Two workers in full suits and breathing units pick out rubber tubing in an enclosed shed through which what's left. Of course that's a function of the resale price of various types of scrap. At present about 20% remains as "shredder dust" headed for a landfill; potentially that could be reduced, if Iwao can find a market for additional types of material.

Back to cars as durable goods. For a given rate of depreciation, the higher the value of recycled components, the sooner a car will get scrapped, by Iwao Corp or one of 3,000 other small-scale operations. However, the advent of auto auctions facilitated more used cars being exported, driving down the number scrapped domestically. At it's peak Iwao handled 150,000 vehicles a year; it's the largest and most vertically integrated firm in the industry. But now it's down to about 70,000 per year, or 50% of peak, though most it buys already compacted; only about 10 per day start as complete vehicles. Still, the scrapping facility we visited generates about US$5 million a year in revenue, with 10 workers, 2 bookkeepers, 2 truck drivers and Mr. Iwao.

In Europe environmentalists have seen that OEMs face mandates that cars be made capable of recycling. Despite high prices for steel scrap, copper and aluminum the labor involved means that only some can actually be profitably culled. Of course if the workers know the layout and composition of each and every model they face in their dirty, noisy shops – but these are not the sort of jobs to attract those with analytic skills and an attention to detail. Watching this operation suggests less may become recycled, because the mix of materials – aluminum bodies, magnesium liftgates, and a wide array of plastics – will be harder to sort through.

Mike Smitka

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Janet Yellen's Dashboard

Once a quarter, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and her colleagues on the Federal Open Market Committee take a thorough look at where the U.S. economy has been and then make projections for where they think it’s going. The next batch of those predictions—for unemployment, inflation, growth and interest rates—will be released on June 18. Ms. Yellen will discuss them at her quarterly press conference. (Brookings link)

David Ruggles

Monday, June 9, 2014

Auto Auctions, Japanese Style

Here're just a few notes on a visit to the Kinki branch of Toyota Auto Auction on a day when they were offering 1,700 vehicles (of which 10% or so might not hit the reserve price). This was arranged by Prof. Shioji of Kyoto University who helped host the first meeting in Japan of GERPISA, an international consortium of (mainly social science) researchers on the global auto industry. Now I've yet to see a Manheim or an Adesa auction so I can't compare and contrast. Perhaps later this summer I can rectify that...

At the Kinki site there's a massive multi-floor garage; land's too valuable close to Osaka for a massive open-air parking lot. We watched one of their evaluators go through a vehicle with a long checklist, from spots of corrosion to paint that suggests a repaired ding, including pulling away the fascia in a couple places. Most purchasers don't look at the actual vehicle but rely instead on the (target) 7 minutes that an inspector spends on a car.

Indeed, when we moved inside it was apparent that many purchasers are remote. While there is a large room of people bidding, many others are at computer screens elsewhere, while those at the Kinki site are watching simultaneous auctions held at other TAA sites. For that matter, Kinki TAA itself runs two lanes simultaneously; each computer in their bidding room has a red button on the left, a blue on the right. So first the screen updates as pre-bids are sorted out, and then the live bidding begins as those sitting in the auditorium or elsewhere click the bid ¥1,000 higher. The screen changes color once the reserve is hit – most of the cars are from trade-ins at Toyota dealers – and sellers can negotiate with the highest bidder when the reserve isn't hit. (I will check my notes later, but recall the no-sale rate is about 10% or, to put it the other way, the conversion rate is 90%.)

Now several larger trends in the Japanese market and in used cars showed up in our discussions. One is the role of cars as durable goods. Japan raised its consumption tax from 5% to 8% on April 1st and given that processing paperwork for a new car purchase takes several days (you have to file proof of a parking spot, which must be vetted by the relevant local government), sales plummeted in late March and are only now starting to recover. The result was a short-run dearth of vehicles coming to auction, and a modest bump in prices. Now at one time cars were kept but a few years, typically being scrapped before vehicle inspections became annual in year 10. That in turn meant low prices for used cars in year 8 ... so the prospect of even a minor repair could lead to a vehicle being scrapped. However, in the early 1990s the vehicle inspection system was relaxed, with less frequent inspections, fewer mandatory parts replacements (reflecting the abominable quality of Japanese cars in the 1960s, brake lines were one mandatory item), and allowing non-dealers to do the inspections. As a result the average age of vehicles is higher, and with a more vigorous resale market, well, that's when TAA switched from a way for Toyota to help dealers by buying trade-ins at an artificially high price as a quiet, off-books subsidy to a real entity. Of course the fact that one friend drives a 13-year-old vehicle that he's in no hurry to replace is not necessarily good news for those selling new cars. Even so, the market remains thin at older ages, where roughly one-third of cars are bought by foreign traders (many in evidence at TAA that day) for export to Russia, Pakistan and West Africa.

The group also visited a shredding operation; more on that later. The key link to TAA is that their business is down by about 50% as vehicles are on the road longer and more are exported (including some apparently exported to be scrapped). As noted in earlier posts on this blog (The Decline of the Japanese Auto Industry), it's going to be really interesting to see how all of the loss of a large domestic market interacts with the product mix of Japanese car companies and particularly the survival of Japanese parts makers.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Supplier Auto Parts Fixing Scandal is Just Getting Started

Auto parts price-fixing probe rattles industry Star-Telegram, May 16 By Eric Tucker, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — An investigation into price-fixing and bid-rigging in the auto parts industry has mushroomed into the Justice Department's largest criminal antitrust probe ever, and it's not over yet.

As noted in the article, we're 4 years into the price-fixing investigations, with total fines to date (including ones levied in Japan and Germany, not just the US) of $2.3 billion. On the criminal side it's not clear whether there's much left in the pipeline.

The more interesting part is what whether any private anti-trust suits. In the US antitrust law provides for treble damages to private parties. My strong assumption is that antitrust settlements are set high but well below the maximum to garner guilty pleas and fines paid without chewing up staff time – otherwise the Department of Justice doesn't have enough people to prosecute everyone. If that's the case, then actual losses to consumers are far higher than $2.3 billion ... and the private penalties are thus $10 billion or more. That would be enough to push some suppliers into Chapter 11 (or its Japanese equivalent).

Now ... because all cases have resulted in guilty pleas without trial, no evidence has been made public. That may stymie the ability of lawyers to pull together a plaintiff or two and pursue a case. In any event, if private suits move forward, we're looking at years more. But if they go nowhere, then we may finally be nearing the end.

I know lawyers involved in one or another manner in these cases, and they take confidentiality very seriously. None have been willing to give me "deep background." Knowing how strict the rules are, I now don't ask. the prof

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Summers and Marchionne on 2009 Auto Bailout: No Alternative

http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2014/05/summers-marchionne-2009-auto-bailout Discussion by some of the players in the GM and Chrysler rescues, which also "rescued" North American auto production and military procurement at a time of two wars.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Transparency, and Some Retail Auto Industry History

Ruggles

“Transparency” is one of the new buzz words in the retail auto industry these days. Dealers are urged to be transparent with their consumers because vendors tell us that’s what consumers want. These vendors tell us being “transparent” is the best way to win them over, as if all consumers think the same and all consumers mean what they say. Let’s take a look at transparency in the context of some retail auto business history.

First, there are a variety of definitions of “transparency.” True transparency is when the seller and the consumer have the same information as well as the equal ability to interpret that information.

I broke into the retail auto business in 1970 in a Chrysler dealership in Rock Island Illinois, Learner’s Sales and Service. Chryslers and Imperials had a 22.5% markup with a 2% “holdback.” Furys had an 18.5% markup with the 2% holdback while Valiants and Dusters had 14.5% with 2% HB. There was very little “trunk money” or incentive money paid to the dealer by the OEM back of “hold back.” There might have been some “stair step” programs around “build out” but as a general rule, gross profit was made ABOVE invoice with the “hold back” retained by the dealer. Some dealers took “hold back quarterly, some took it yearly. Our dealership had a $125. “pack” on new vehicles and none on preowned. The dealership used “washout method” accounting, where the new vehicle profit wasn’t shown until all trades on it had been sold. This was considered to be a good method of tax deferment, but was otherwise not such a smart program. All one had to do was lose track of where one was in the trade chain and it was easy to make a mistake if one wasn’t mindful of the true market value of a piece of inventory versus what the dealership actually had in it. But I digress. Everyone doesn’t find these things as interesting as I do.

From this point in in 1970, where gross profit was largely made ABOVE invoice less holdback, lets move forward in history. In 1970, sales were slow. The economy entered recession. The 1971 vehicles were awful. It was the first year for lowered compression ratios and unleaded gasoline. Not only did we lose most of the high compression ratio vehicles in model year 1971, we lost the 5 year 50K Chrysler warranty. Insurance companies had killed the popular performance cars, the Viet Nam war was underway, and the country was in the doldrums. Richard Nixon imposed a wage and price “freeze” which later came back to bite Jimmie Carter and the national economy in the ass. I worked for a salary and a commission of $10. per car sale. The gas for my demo was paid for by the dealership. We referred to ourselves as “Moral Motors” as we thought it was smart to charge everyone the same margin. We lost a lot of gross profit by offering up the standard discount to everyone, and “walked” a lot of deals when we turned down cheaper deals, eagerly gobbled up by our competitors. We thought we made it up in volume. The dealership had been in existence since the 1920s, and had long been paid for. And we had a large repeat clientele due to excellent customer service on the decidedly crappy quality Chrysler product as well as a robust leasing operation. Yes, we leased cars in 1970. In fact, the little Rock Island dealership was the largest Imperial dealership in the Chicago Zone and 5 guys would deliver over 100 vehicles some months. In 1972 Nixon repealed the “Excise Tax” on cars and the retail business exploded until the Oil Crisis of late 1973, when things went back in the tank. But let’s get back to the “transparency” issue.

Over time, the markup shrunk and the “hold back” grew to 3%. The OEMs shrunk the markup to allow them to raise their wholesale price without raising the retail price, figuring to take margin from the dealer and retain it for themselves. They did this under the guise of telling us real retail guys that consumers were suspicious of large markups and over allowances and that if we kept the shown numbers closer to the real numbers, consumers would be happier. Something else happened to transform the retail auto business in 1975. Joe Garagiola and Chrysler invented “Buy a Car, Get a Check.” The cost of the rebates and the eventual interest rate subventions, an eventual consequence of inflation that followed the Nixon Wage and Price Freeze, had to come from somewhere. OEMs included the cost in the dealer wholesale price while continuing to keep the lid on MSRP and the dealer markup to mitigate “sticker shock” to consumers. This was the first time consumers were taking delivery of a new vehicle for a price LESS than the dealer had to pay off at his floor plan bank.

Over the course of time we have seen dealer gross profit move from above invoice to below invoice based on a convoluted combination of “trunk money” that is earned from “stair step” sales incentives to purchase incentives as well as CSI payments and additional vehicle incentives based on OEM image programs. This “trunk money” system is FAR less transparent to consumers than the old system. Don’t get me wrong. I do NOT believe consumers have any right to know our true costs, even though vendors like TrueCar CEO Scott Painter say that hiding that true dealer cost information from consumers is costing the industry 4 million new vehicle sales per year because it creates “friction” in the selling process. Dealers often don’t know their true cost per vehicle until a particular program ends, and that is what grates Painter and others.

The “new” gross profit system is also designed to hide salient cost information from dealership staff who get paid based on a percentage of real gross profit. A cynical person might say that dealers aren’t likely to be “transparent” with consumers until they are first “transparent” with their own employees.

The information provided to auto retail consumers these days is vast. For them it is like drinking from a fire hose. There is so much “cost information” available even dealers and their staff have a difficult time interpreting it. It is anything but “transparent” to consumers. Its none of their business anyway any more than it is our business as consumers to know what our grocer paid for a head of lettuce. The system has evolved to the point it is designed like your cable TV or cell phone bill to be difficult to fathom while pretending to provide ALL the information. This is deceptive. It is FAR from “transparent.” In fact, it was NEVER meant to be “transparent.”

To be sure there has been distinct improvement in certain kinds of “transparency” over the last decades, in particular, in the area of Truth in Lending finance disclosure and with the FTC mandated pre-owned disclosure. Legal transparency should be followed to both the letter and the spirit of the law. No one should have a problem with either of these and other similar requirements.

Auto retail is the business of negotiation. For those who don’t have the stomach for it, I suggest they find another career path. There has always been artful negotiation and those who aren’t so artful. This allows those with polish and good technique to excel. It gives consumers the option of buying from the salesperson/dealership that provides them what makes them the most comfortable. To claim “transparency” while at the same time working within a system that is unnecessarily complex and designed to confuse to the advantage of the seller is duplicitous at best. I’d suggest we stop embarrassing ourselves by using the word. Consumers ain’t buying it. We don’t even buy it ourselves. Let’s get back to artful negotiation, sell some cars, and make some gross profit without claiming to provide something we’re not.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Auto Industry: Journals from Detroit

My students have now a cumulative 150+ blog posts on the auto industry, plus 13 separate journals from our visits to firms and other events around Detroit. There are also scattered notes from our readings (Bill Vlasic's Once Upon a Car, Rudi Volti's classic industry intro, Cars and Culture, Tom Wolfe's The kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamline baby and John Heitmann - Rebecca Morales' just-published Stealing Cars. Since I need to read and comment on what my students do, that's taken priority over generating new content here. I will repost roughly one post per student over the course of the summer, but take a look for yourself! You can find our Detroit schedule here and journals and all that as obvious when you visit the site.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Technological Surprises: PACE and PNGV at 20

I've test driven a number of cars the past week, and what I've seen is a cautionary tale on mapping technological trajectories. Two decades ago Automotive News launched the PACE Award to recognize innovation by suppliers. At the same time, the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle (PNGV) set out to develop, well, the next generation of vehicles. What would be needed? Exotic materials, new propulsion systems, on and on. Yes, the steel industry came up with a light steel frame project, but the sense of the time was that aluminum, magnesium and fiber-reinforced materials would be central. On the drivetrain side, the future would lie with all-electric vehicles running on hydrogen fuel cells. Transmissions – well, electric motors wouldn't need one. For legacy combustion engines, however, the direction was CVTs (continuously variable transmissions).

Instead what we have are "standard" gasoline ICEs (internal combustion engines) that deliver 40+ mpg in a mid-sized car, with additional gains come each full model change. Turbos, direct injection, improved valve timing, all drawing upon sensor and computing power, have improved the combustion end. New bearings and friction materials complement that, alongside lots of little energy-saving steps – electric fans and eSteer that lessen parasitic losses are one example – cumulate to real savings. On the transmission side we will soon see 9- and 10-speed transmissions that use tried-and-true architectures and gear systems to deliver gains comparable to CVTs, enhanced by electronically-controlled shifts. Meanwhile metallurgy continues to advance, with hot stamping of "soft" steels into high-strength steel finessing the formability challenges to enable using lighter, stronger but still inexpensive steel. Finally, while not prominent in the US, at least for passenger cars, CNG and diesel (pervasive in Europe) and biofuels (ethanol in Brazil) provide greater flexibility and lower emissions alongside higher efficiency.

[Diesel, as a heavier product that needs less refining, should cost less than gasoline ... and in engines the new low-sulfur product can now run cleaner than gasoline. Sigh...]

Not all of this was wrong. What we see today is a greater palette of techniques and materials. The Ford F-150 will retain a steel frame, but shift to an aluminum body. Electrification of vehicles continues, as with eSteer. Start-stop systems bring much of the gains of hybrids at lower cost and complexity. Some companies have chosen CVTs over dual-clutch multi-gear automatic transmissions; they don't dominate, but haven't vanished. The one piece that seems wide of the mark is the (hydrogen) fuel cell, which with hindsight flies in the face of the economies of scale of electricity generation, while still requiring batteries: better just to use more batteries. At the same time, a totally new angle are connected vehicle and autonomous technologies that (as with adaptive cruise control) can perhaps improve traffic flow and save energy that way. Meanwhile, policies to lessen emissions and improve safety have gone much further than anyone imagined in 1993, when PNGV was launched. Both "cost" fuel efficiency, making the gains achieved to date surprising – in my Cruze I've peaked at 50.9 mpg over 25 miles.

Now in the long run I think battery electric vehicles will dominate. There has however been no breakthrough in battery technologies, only gradual improvements in power-per-weight and gradual reductions in cost. So as fossil fuel prices continue to rise – global growth dynamics are strong over the medium run, so higher demand will dominate improvements in extractive technologies – BEVs will gain traction. It will not however occur quickly. Meanwhile, as a perusal of PACE Award recipients demonstrates, lots of little steps continue that continue improving legacy ICE technologies.