THE WEEK THAT WAS: Louder Leaf Laughs
By Graeme Roberts | 18 June 2010
So what story drew the largest just-auto audience this week, perchance? Opel's financial disappointment? Nope. Big Chinese vote of confidence in the UK's R&D skills? Uh-uh. Maybe the ongoing tiff over where the Panda will be built, covered, after hours on the phone to multiple unions and Fiat by our tenacious reporter Simon Warburton? Nah. You wanted to know instead all about how Nissan plans to make its quiet new EV noisier. Must be summer...
I mentioned this briefly last week but people have still been coming over for a read since. It's the sort of story that might once have been sparked by one of those spoof April Fool's Day press releases BMW's UK unit is so good at (are the blue and white panels on the bonnet badge the right way round?) had the elf 'n' safety zealots not descended so heavily on us here in Europe, and further afield, over the last five years or so. You can't do anything remotely chancy, such as organise a church fair, without a 'risk assessment' so we have stupidity such as kids being forced by schools to wear eye protection for a game of conkers, warning signs everywhere, police refusing to rescue someone drowning in a still, current-free pond because they might get wet and die of a cold and so on. And we get trucks with automated 'caution, this vehicle is reversing' messages blaring out every time the local shop gets a delivery.
Well, duh! When I was a kid, I was taught to keep an eye out, listen for engine noise and grinding gears and stay in the driver's sight and out of the way till the thing stopped moving. I didn't need a synthesised voice shouting through a klaxon horn to learn some common sense.
It's not that long ago Toyota was saying how useful the 'EV' mode in the Prius is. Early start or late sneaky return, you push the button and slither up the street, quiet as a mouse, waking neither neighbours or partner. Yet already then, advocacy groups in the US had been making noises about the risks of quiet hybrids and EVs catching the blind and partially sighted unawares and could the automakers look at adding some row? Fair enough, I suppose, but the UK group I contacted wasn't aware of the issue at all, and my partially sighted wife said she'd just look - and listen - more carefully before stepping off the kerb. And how, pray, did the world cope with quiet trolley (electric) buses introduced in noisy cities years ago?
Presumably, Nissan and other EV/hybrid makers fear today's crop of silly laws, greedy lawyers, soft judges, brainless juries (who pays in the end?) and ludicrous damages settlements and I don't blame 'em. But I can't wait to hear what the first Leafs hacked by clever techie-minded owners with laptops are 'taught' to say instead of the planned whirring noises Nissan will be programming in. I've heard those sounds (one is a bit like a Jubilee Line underground train in London accelerating out of the station) and they're not too bad but I can't help thinking this is kind of negating a key advantage of pure electrics - almost utter 'ush at urban speeds.
Good news from Toyota which is reactivating stalled car plants in Brazil and Mississppi which will now build the Corolla once made in the now-closed California plant Tesla's taking over. Mississippi is constructed and just needs the odd assembly line and paint shop adding - it was intended to make the Highlander (Kruger) SUV, then the Prius, now it gets the staple college-kid's-first-car sedan.
This has got right up the nose of new UAW chief Bob King who, post election this week, has come out all strident Obama v BP style demanding that Toyota owes his members for canning Fremont so let him unionise its southern state plants. Hmmm. With the same inflexible work practices, high wages, 'jobs bank' (95% of pay when on 'temporary' layoff sometimes lasting years) and generous employee and retiree pension and health benefits that ultimately sent GM and Chrysler into Chapter 11 protection and government supervision last year and left still-solvent Ford in deep debt? And left Buick City in Flint (and numerous other former auto manufacturing sites) a multi-block, jobs-free wasteland? Careful, sir. To be fair, the UAW has given more than received in concessions in recent years though there are now signs it'd like some of that back.
While we don't want to see a return to employers calling all the shots, as currently in China, where trouble has now broken out at a Toyota supplier as well, the UAW, whose membership has shrunk from well over a million to about 400,000 in recent years what with all the US plant closures, needs to avoid a return to the dinosaur tactics of old typified by the oil crisis-era ban of imports from its office car park or the for-the-cameras slegehammer destruction of same. If your rivals are building fuel-efficient, well constructed, keenly-priced vehicles your fellow US citizens want to buy, instead of knocking the opposition and growling at reporters, why not work with your own US-owned employer - work flexibly, agree fair but reasonable pay and benefit settlements, strike only when all else has failed - so they can compete? Malibu, the latest Buicks, some very nice crossovers, most recent Fords, all show Detroit can meet the product challenge if the will is there on both sides. More of that and Toyota and other non-'organised' auto employers might welcome the union in, too.
I'm off to analyse a beer. Have a nice weekend.
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