Toyoda Talks to Congress

February 24, 2010

Mr. Toyoda of Toyota is speaking in a Congressional hearing right now. He did what seemingly no other company head testifying in front of Congress has ever done: accept responsibility and apologize. The Members of the Congressional Committee almost don’t know what to do with themselves, since they’re used to typical corporate legal talk and skirting admissions of guilt.

Most importantly, Toyota committed on record to start sharing problem reporting data collected via dealer networks and consumer telephone lines with the NHTSA, which would make it the first auto company to do so.

  • Mr. Toyoda read his opening remarks in English, but has used a translator for questions and answers.
  • Mr. Yoshimi Inaba, COO and head of Toyota NA has been responding to questions in English. He bears a striking physical and vocal similarity to George “Lt. Sulu” Takei.
  • Both Republicans and Democrats have asked some interesting questions of Toyota representatives, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Dems and GOP can’t agree on much, but they seem to be in agreement that having no real standards for how a car gets recalled isn’t great and gives credence to conspiracy theorists who actually do believe that GM and Ford get off easier than Toyota.
  • The huge exception is Eleanor Holmes Norton, Representative from D.C., who continues to a) show a complete lack of understanding of cars and the industry, b) keeps hinting that the best course of action is more laws, regluations and requirements (for black boxes, etc…) and c) even demanded to know if her own personal Toyota Camry Hybrid “would EVER be recalled” after complaining that she bought the car reluctantly, because the Americans didn’t produce hybrids. When Mr. Inaba responded that her car is American, being built in America with largely American-sourced parts, EHN responded with “so you’re saying it’s the American’s fault?” She couldn’t understand that Mr. Inaba was simply saying that she bought an American car — more American than many so-called American cars, but EHN couldn’t grasp the concept, instead believing that Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Inaba were skirting blame. Thank god she has no vote!!!
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  • Barack Obama: The Lewis Hamilton Of Politics

    November 6, 2008

    While all the talk around the world has been about Tuesday’s election of America’s first black President, Barack Obama, mainstream media outlets have failed to tie in that, just days before, Formula One crowned its first black Champion. On Sunday, Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes squeaked back into fifth place just seconds before crossing the finish line at the Brazilian Grand Prix to win the Formula One Season Driver’s Championship.

    To add icing to the cake, Lewis Hamliton was also the youngest to ever win it, as well.

    Obviously, there is little comparison in terms of relevance on the world stage between Obama being voted President and Hamilton winning in F1, but Hamilton’s accomplishments should not be dismissed. We’re not talking history back to 1776 here, but 107 years ain’t too shabby, either.

    Okay, in actuality the modern era of Formula One started in 1950. The first “Grand Prix” race, however, was in 1901 at Le Mans. During this time not a single man (or woman) of color has captured a season championship. With European, Australian, New Zealander, South American, and North American (including one American and a lone Canadian) Champions, the faces aren’t quite as homogeneous as those of the US Presidents, but every Formula One champions’ has still been some shade of white.

    The United States’ reputation for racism is legendary, but thousands of Formula One fans would fit in well in the deepest, darkest parts of the ugliest parts of America. During the last two years, fans have openly taunted Lewis Hamilton. Ugly racist comments from the stands…and even fans painted in mocking black face paint showed that there are plenty of classless David Duke types in Europe.

    Unfortunately, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone still is asleep at the wheel when it comes to denouncing the abhorrent actions of F1 fans. Just this week, Ecclestone commented that he felt some of the worst treatment – fans in blackface wearing “Hamilton’s family” t-shirts in the crowd at the Spanish Grand Prix, was just a “bit of a joke”. If the fans had dressed up in Chasidic diamond merchant outfits with signs saying “Ecclestone Only Cares About the Money”, we’re guessing that the Jewish Ecclestone wouldn’t have seen the humor. (And we wouldn’t have, either!)

    But sadly, that’s in fact all Ecclestone cares about – and it has nothing to do with his religion or homeland. He has just proven time and time again to care about nothing other than control and receipts. If he cared about F1’s image, he would have squashed the nasty behavior of the fans and celebrated the groundbreaking achievements of a spectacularly talented driver.

    So from The Four Wheel Drift: Congratulations to both Barack Obama and Lewis Hamilton for showing children with all skin colors that hard work and talent can translate to the highest honors in the toughest competitions.


    Exclusive Updates From La Carrera Panamericana 2008

    October 24, 2008

    The La Carrera Panamericana is one of the world’s great historical rallies. Based on the original Mexican road races of the 1950s, which saw guys like Herschel McGriff and John Fitch fly through Mexican villages in cars ranging from Mercedes SLs and Ferraris to Porsche 550s and Lincoln Capris, the modern event takes a similar flair for the dangerous and crazy.

    The Four Wheel Drift is actually receiving constant updates during the seven day rally from the team of Joel Eisenberg (pilot) and navigator Marcia McCraw. This is the same Marcia McCraw who is the Republican candidate (yet is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-medical pot, and obviously, pro-sports car) for Washington State’s Lt. Governor position in the upcoming election!!! The Eisenberg/McCraw team is running a 1964 Jaguar E-Type coupe. If the normal course through choppy, winding roads isn’t tough enough, Eisenberg is running the entire race with a walking cast on his clutch foot.

    And with all due respect to Mr. Eisenberg…I’ve known him for nearly 38 years, and he’s a scary enough driver with all his hands and feet in perfect working order!

    So how is team Hobble and Lt. Gov doing? You can get real-time GPS information (www.globster.com.mx Panamericana link, and enter car no 349), plus here are exclusive updates from the driver:

    }}}Wednesday 3:20PM: We left this morning for Mexico. We’ll be driving a grueling 7-day race, starting Saturday, going from near Mexico’s southern border to the Texas border. There will be over 100 cars starting at 30 sec intervals. Usually, only about half the cars finish. I’ll be driving with my left foot in a cast and Marcia will be navigating. We’ll be driving the same 1964 E Jaguar that I drove in the Chihuahua Express in March. The rally/race takes place on public highways. There are long sections with unlimited high speeds on which the roads have been closed to all traffic, followed by timed sections as we transit cities and towns where there is other traffic on the roads

    Some friends will probably join us en route to watch, cheer, and participate in the daily after-race fiestas. You can follow the race at this website: http://www.lacarrerapanamericana.com.mx/

    I understand that there will be GPS units attached to each car so that you can see on the Internet where every car is, their speed, etc. We have a video camera installed and will try to send raw footage each evening to Sam Barer who will post our progress on his blog. To follow our progress either go to the above PanAmericana site or to https://fourwheeldrift.wordpress.com

    Hopefully, we will be able to attract some attention to Marcia’s Lt. Gov campaign as she would like to see the state play host to similar road races and Grand Prix races while her opponent is a lobbyist for interests trying to get multimillions of public funds for a NASCAR track that has been voted down twice by the legislature.

    7:25AM Thursday: Carrera is off to a good start. Wednesday Mexicana lost our reservation our bags went to Tuxla we got stuck in Mex city. Stood by 4 6 30 am over booked flight.

    Survived medical with cast. Didn’t have to have it cut off. On the Speed Trial, the Odometer failed, we got lost and missed 6 km speed section. Now in drivers meeting Been up since 4:30 am. We need sleep!!!

    7PM Thursday: 103 cars starting, and typically we lose almost half. Wish us luck
    We. No 349. Historic B class.

    Today there was much construction in transit stages Weather warm car very hot Hopefully cooling suit will work tomorrow.

    5AM Friday: Diagnosis. Coolant overflow tube split still waiting 4 assistance!

    7:30AM Friday: First breakdown enroute to start! We have an oil leak. Smoke all over!!!
    I must learn to disconnect cooling vest before bailing out. Waiting for mechanic.
    Amazing how fast we can bailout even with the cast.


    Dinner With GM’s Bob Lutz Exposes GM’s Bold and Innovative Strategic Shift

    June 23, 2008


    General Motors’ Vice Chairman Bob Lutz might have a reputation for pushing the production of performance cars, but high fuel costs and tough new CAFE regulations have him leading GM towards a leadership position in the hybrid revolution with 100-plus-mpg cars.

    I’m not one to turn down a meal at a fine restaurant, especially when it’s on the dime of a corporation trying to spin its latest message or show new products. When I received an invitation to have dinner with General Motors Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz at Seattle’s famous Edgewater Hotel, I couldn’t confirm my attendance quickly enough.

    If Lutz isn’t the most powerful and important person in the auto industry, then he’s a close second. Even though he is below GM CEO Rick Wagoner on the corporate org chart, Lutz has more influence over product direction. And because of his extensive experience in the automotive industry, journalists often look his way for answers before turning to Ghosn, Mulally or Zetsche.

    And let’s face it – anyone who can take credit for green-lighting cars such as the BMW 2002 Turbo, Dodge Viper and upcoming Corvette ZR1 is someone I need to meet with over dinner.

    Lutz has been in the Northwest selling the media on the future of GM. In a world that has been critical of GM’s financial woes and reliance on sales of trucks and SUVs going into an era of costly fuel, it hasn’t been an easy task. Passage of the 35-mpg CAFE standard in Congress has just made his job even harder.

    Joining me for the dinner discussion are five other selected journalists. Three are from Cardomain.com, while the other two are environmental bloggers from the Northwest. Also in attendance are other GM heavyweights — who even without the presence of Lutz would make for a great evening of car-related banter. On my left is Dee Allen, the good-humored Staff Director Global Product & Brand Communications Integration. Across from me is technical/engineering guru Mark Labaere. Sitting beside me on the right is Dave Barthmuss, GM’s impressive Group Manager for the Western Region, Environment & Energy Communications. Dave is best known for being painted as a villain in his role overseeing the EV1 project in “Who Killed The Electric Car”, a film that I liken to “Tucker: A Man and His Dream” in ratio of facts to creative license for the sake of storyline.

    The tall, commanding Lutz walks into the room. He overhears my comment to Dee Allen about declining the opportunity to drive a 1964 Lotus Elan to the meeting for fear that the few ominous clouds would require me to spend too much time fumbling with the Erector-Set top in the middle of a sudden downpour. He comes back with a story about the miserable tops on the pre-production Viper RT/10, as well as how one blew off at 175 mph during media testing on the Autobahn. You have to love any top executive who is as at home doing car small talk as when standing at a podium.

    As we sit down, Lutz dives right into the major topic of his West Coast swing: GM’s commitment to making its Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid the standard of the world. Unlike Toyota’s Prius, the Volt will have the capacity to run on battery-only mode for around 40 miles. Considering the typical commuting pattern, Lutz believes that this can translate into real-world 100 to 200 mpg fuel consumption.

    Driving the decision are federal regulations. In Lutz’s opinion (as well as mine and any other sane person in the world), combining 35-mpg CAFE standards with the added weight that comes with airbags, electronics and sheet-metal required to meet federal crash and safety requirements translates to a limited future of traditional gas and diesel-powered vehicles.

    Like many journalists, I was outright skeptical when the Volt concept was first unveiled. It required lithium ion battery technology that didn’t exist at the moment. It also sounded more like somewhere between a marketing gimmick and a test of concept play (ala the EV1) rather than a technology on which many GM products would soon be based. The need to hit 35-mpg CAFE standards and fuel hitting near five dollars per gallon have changed opinions.

    On the important topic of battery technology, Lutz immediately exhibits his indispensible value to GM. For those who forgot what he did after leaving Chrysler, Lutz was the CEO of Exide Battery. Yes folks, this is one of the few executives in the auto world who actually understands the production of batteries cradle-to-grave, as well as the business side of storing and delivering power – such as that it takes four minutes of man-hours to make a modern battery unit.

    While Lutz believes that cellulosic ethanol provides a great potential for being a part of energy independence in the future, there’s no doubt that Chevy – and soon GM as a whole will be relying on the Volt’s next-gen hybrid technology. When I ask if and when the technology might make it into a Cadillac (to fight the Lexus hybrids and BMW 7-Series hydrogen cell vehicle), Lutz is quick not to say “no” or “yes”. Instead, like a good salesman, Lutz questions if I think a hybrid Cadillac should be in the works. I respond that as a former marketing guy, I’d want to see the segment research statistics.

    “If you’re a marketing guy, you should know that you should make decisions with your gut, not statistics.” Lutz replies.

    “With all due respect, even the best guts can lead them towards a bad decision” I say with a smile, eluding to a few of Lutz’s past plays that didn’t work out as planned – such as the recent Holden/Pontiac GTO disappointment.

    Lutz comes back with a zinger — asking me how many baseball Hall of Famers have 1.000 batting averages…and then again asks what my gut tells me.

    Obviously, I think it’s “a no-brainer”. Applying the Volt technology to an upscale, luxurious Cadillac (or Buick, for that matter) would have minimal cost, yet pay huge dividends in expanding into a segment where additional people would be willing to spend money for both the value and image of owning a green car. Being green is fashionable, and those with money are willing to spend more on fashion. From Lutz’s facial expression to my answer, I would guess that GM is already hard at work preparing to produce hybrid front-wheel-drive Caddies.

    Lutz is a realist, though, and knows that the transition to electrical cars will not be without challenges. When I question about the trouble Chevy has traditionally shown servicing Corvettes (especially since the gizmo-laden 1984 model) in relation to the more high-tech Volt, Lutz admits that training and reducing the role of traditional dealer service for the non-standard technology are hurdles.

    There is absolutely no doubt that the whole GM contingent strongly opposes the 35-mpg CAFE standard, which is the driving force to the Volt. (They cite the $6,000 of extra cost it will apply to cars – similar to the figures when the federal government has mandated safety and emissions requirements in the past.) GM and the other auto manufacturers have a history of predicting doom and gloom with each large federal and state regulatory step – and historically these regulations have actually helped, not hurt GM. The list of foreign manufacturers that left the market in 1968, 1975 and other years of tightening emissions and safety standards is long.

    This increased 35-mpg standard has forced their hands to taking what looks like GM’s first leadership position in years. When the Volt comes out in 2010 — Lutz projects cars will start hitting dealerships in November, it will certainly have beaten all of the other next-gen hybrids to market. In other words — what is seen by everyone in the auto industry as a great pain might actually be a true gift to GM.

    Lutz talks about his decades-long support of increasing the federal gas tax as the fairest way of reducing gas consumption. He feels this can funds the renewal of dilapidated interstates and state highways, (as well as possibly helping to cover better national health insurance, another large cost on GM’s shoulders). Yet while a gas tax is better policy, substituting a large tax for the 35-mpg CAFE legislation could have never forced the hands of the major automakers to produce discontinuous innovations.

    The question comes up if the American automotive manufacturers are currently selling gas guzzlers, because that is what makes the most money. Lutz is quick to point out that GM has been selling what customers have wanted.

    “All the marketing and advertising in the world won’t make someone buy something they don’t want. People have wanted big SUVs and trucks.”

    With high gas prices this has all changed. Thanks to Congress, even if people want big rigs in America, no manufacturer will be able to sell them in great numbers without offsetting it with the sale of ultra-efficient cars. The GM crew is obviously not happy about this part!

    Maybe Lutz should see the federal regulations like I do: a vote of confidence that when pushed into a corner, that the brilliant engineering minds working for the automotive manufacturers can create a solution.

    And if what Lutz says is true, the future of GM and auto consumers worldwide is quite sunny. By as early as 2010, cars will be available that will deliver 200-mpg averages, will be serviceable at any local dealership, and carry the quality and style of GM brands. Even better, these front-wheel-drive cars will enable small-volume rear-wheel-drive performance cars like the Corvette and Sky to continue.

    So for the first time in a long time – GM seems to be taking the lemons of high gas prices, slumping sales and stringent regulation and using very strong and bold leadership to make some pretty sweet lemonade for auto consumers around the globe.


    Washington State’s vehicle displacement tax bill irks just about everyone

    February 22, 2008

    There has been quite a bit of uproar about Washington State Senate Bill 6900, which intends to create licensing fee increases for vehicles based on engine displacement. The goal, evidently, was to penalize fuel consumption and do more towards energy independence.

    The fearmail going around indicates that SB6900 (courtesy of logic-challenged Rodney Tom, who represents the 48th District, including Medina, Clyde Hill and parts of Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland) would impose fees as such: Up to 1.9 liters $0, 2.0 – 2.9 $70, 3.0 – 3.9 $225, 4.0 – 4.9 $275, 5.0 – 5.9 $325, 6.0 – 7.9 $400, 8.0 or over $600. Natually, all the people with V6 Hondas and Toyotas are seeing that $225 green tax and seeing red.

    Liberal Democrats and hard-line conservative Republicans are both screaming about this bill, which during my time as a Legislative Correspondent in the US House of Representatives I learned is usually a good indication that it has no future. Indeed, when I first heard about this bill many weeks ago, the commentary was already in that this bill was essentially dead on arrival.

    It should come as no surprise to anyone with any slight understanding of automotive technology that fuel economy has very little to do with displacement – or even horsepower, for that matter. Case and point, despite a 348-cubic-inch (5.7-liter) V8 producing 350 horsepower, my 2002 Corvette gets 36 mpg on the freeway, far better than the 1986 2.2-liter Dodge Convertible I also enjoy. Credit goes to the Corvette’s fuel management programming, low weight, tall gearing, and impressive coefficient of drag. Conversely, many low-displacement six-cylinder and four-cylinder cars utilize shorter gearing to overcome much higher weight and nastier aerodynamics.

    Displacement taxes are nothing new. Italy’s monumental displacement taxes prompted Ferrari to produce smaller-engined cars for the home market, since even the uber-rich couldn’t afford cars with more than two liters. So when the rest of the world enjoyed the 308, Italians made due with the anemic 208, which in real-world driving simply wasn’t any more fuel efficient.

    Unfortunately, there’s another bill making its way though the State Legislature that has a much higher likelihood of success. This one imposes licensing fees based on EPA mileage ratings. This is also fairly moronic, since the EPA estimates reflect a single test loop, and as the commercials say “your mileage may vary.” For instance, the same Corvette that delivers 36 mpg (top up, headlights down and in 6th gear) on I5 between Olympia and Seattle (a hilly 60 mph run of 60-some miles) carried an EPA estimate for freeway economy at just 29 mpg when new. The EPA rating also changed a couple years ago, so this car would probably get a 2-4 mpg lower rating under the new methodology.

    The EPA states that the estimates are just that: “estimates”, so why tax someone based on something fictional? Furthermore, a car uses no fuel when parked, so using logic, it would make no sense to tax someone with eight vehicles traveling 15,000 miles total each year more than a single car owner who travels 50,000 miles per year – at least if the goal is to reduce dependence on oil. No matter how many vehicles one person owns, they can only drive one vehicle at a time…unless of course you own two King Midgets, which you can strap to your feet and ride like roller skates.

    The only real solution for penalizing people for driving inefficient vehicles is a gas tax. This ensures only charging for use Taxing a car for a license is fine, but I know people with 30 cars who use less gas in a year than most single vehicle owners. Driving uses fossil fuels, not sitting in a garage.

    People can debate the validity of a fuel tax in making people drive less until they are blue in the face. Whether taxing now to fund mass transit, or waiting until the cost goes up due to higher demand with shrinking supply, either will make people drive less. At least paying for the fuel one uses is a fairer system…you pay for what you use.