Toyota finally takes “World’s Largest Automaker” crown

April 24, 2007

It’s a sad day in Michigan. GM has officially lost the title of “World’s Largest Automaker” to Toyota.

This is by no means unexpected. If anything, it took Toyota a little longer than many had predicted — thanks gas prices pulling back last year, causing hybrids to lag and SUV/truck sales to gain. But three-dollar fuel prices are now a reality again, meaning Toyota’s fuel sipping lineup is selling better than the gas-challenged lineup over at the General.

Toyota’s three month sales were 2.348 million units. GM’s were 2.26 million. Furthermore, since these numbers only represent sales to dealers, one must also consider dealer inventory and factory rebates, which are used to help dealers sell these vehicles. While the inventory number is not available for the period, one only had to watch television advertisements to see that GM’s rebates were much deeper that Toyota’s. Heck, even the North America Car of the Year recipient, Saturn Aura, was offered near interest-free for a period of many weeks.

The longer fuel prices stay high, the less likely it is for GM to ever see the title again.

It will be interesting to see how important the World’s Largest Automaker title is to GM. They could make another serious play for Chrysler and regain the title. This would prove as a pure ego play, since no analyst has found a good business case for a GM/Chrysler merger.

Sadly, the easiest way for GM to regain the title is to continue making bad business and product decisions. Eventually, the company’s value will be so low, Toyota will absorb them.

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Gov. Corzine ponders the value of seat belts — from the hospital!

April 15, 2007

Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike are all sick of politicians exhibiting “do what I say, not what I do” behavior.  It’s often hard to catch them in the act, but there’s no hiding the situation New Jersey Governor John Corzine put himself into.

 With all the protections offered to high-profile politicians, it’s unusual that one can so instantly punish himself for a stupid action…but good old Corzine found one of the few ways.

You see, Corzine was in the passenger seat of an SUV driving down the highway to meet Don Imus and the Rutgers women’s hoops team when a vehicle cut directly in the way from the shoulder.  Corzine’s driver swerved, which caused the SUV to spin (hey, didn’t we just discuss the merits of making stability control standard?)  The Governor’s car smashed the barrier.

And despite laws requiring the use of seat belts, Corzine was not using his.  He was rushed to the hospital with broken bones.  The reports I heard said the driver, a state patrolman, was not injured.  We can only assume he was wearing a seat belt.

In this day and age, I am absolutely baffled why anyone would get into a modern vehicle and not automatically put on a seat belt.  Unless you’re driving a vintage F1 racer sitting in between fuel tanks (and you like to perform Maston Gregory-like jumps prior to crashing) the statistics so overwhelming show that wearing a seat belt is one of the single most important things you can do in your life to prevent injury and death.

So Gov. Corzine, I hope while you’re sitting in bed recovering, you give great thought to your bad decision.  Then you might want to schedule a tour of high schools to show your casts as reminders to new drivers about the importance of wearing seat belts while driving or riding in any vehicle…especially in New Jersey, where drivers are scarier than a Friday the 13th/Nightmare on Elm Street marathon.


Stability Control to Come Standard

April 6, 2007

This week it was announced that automakers will be required to make stability control standard in all cars by 2012. Our US government cited statistics that indicate the technology could save thousands of lives if equipped in all vehicles.

Stability control (a.k.a stability management, Active Handling, and Stabilitrak) essentially uses computers to detect the amount of yaw and compare it to the intended direction via steering wheel input. In other words, the computer looks at where you’re steering, and if there’s understeer or oversteer, the computer automatically applies a single brake to bring the car back under control.

Interestingly, most of the news coverage has referred to this as new technology. In actuality, this technology has been available to the market since the 1998 Corvette Pace Car package. In the world of technology, nine years ain’t new.

As a former owner of a 1999 Corvette with Active Handling, I was one of the first to own a car with stability management. If memory serves, it was about $500 as an option, and worth its weight in gold. I autocrossed that car extensively, and found the Active Handling system (with its competition mode, which retained yaw control, but disabled traction control,) important to learning the dynamics of the car. In my first full season with that Corvette, I won the class trophy.

Due to my personal experiences, I have long been a proponent of making the technology standard, along with side airbags. When people contact me for opinions on buying new cars, I always strongly suggest buying cars with stability control. All the new cars I’ve purchased since 1999 have come equipped with the technology as an option.

Sadly, stability control isn’t a magic pill. It can’t overcome the laws of physics, which means a reckless driver will still be able to spin or roll a SUV. Additionally, the equipment can’t save someone from an accident if they simply aren’t paying attention, as is the case for red light runners.

But every little safety measure with a proven record helps. Considering the cost to add the technology to cars with ABS is only about $150, this is money well spent. Of course, not all cars have ABS, but this ensures that ABS becomes standard, as well.

The automakers aren’t happy. They’re citing the same thing they said about airbags, seat belts, catalytic converters, 5mph bumpers, and every other thing: it will drive the cost of cars up to the point people won’t be able to afford them. Since people need cars, and all manufacturers are affected equally, this is always a stupid argument.

While I would prefer that Congress require better driver education, so people understand the physics of car control, I know this will never happen. In the absence of good drivers, making stability control required is definitely a good step in protecting the public.