Several years ago when I was an auto writer for The Detroit News and attending a media ride and drive program in Arizona, I was joined for 60-70 miles by a high ranking executive. I would drive, so I could learn about, and evaluate the new vehicle, while running a voice recorder so I could capture my interview with the executive. First thing, the executive says, “Ed, please turn off your recorder for a moment. I have something to say, that, if you associate it with my name, we’re through..forever.” Sure. I stop the recording and the guy asks me for a favor. “Could you please write a story with a simple angle but leave me out of it? That angle would be, ‘IQS is pure bullshit!” He then went on to elaborate complaining about the criteria for a “problem” and how automakers are screwed when operator error or failure to properly research a vehicle before purchasing may really be the culprits. Seeing I had only limited time with the guy I made no promises and quickly moved on to areas where he would go on the record so I could come away from my time with him with a story we could publish.
If you’re not familiar with it, IQS is the annual J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. Each year the J.D. Power sends surveys out to several thousand folks who are asked to cite what they would consider problems with their new vehicles after 90 days of ownership.
Based on the responses, the analytics company publishes a study ranking each brand by how many problems are reported per 100 vehicles as well as enumerating specific problems reported by consumers.The most recent study results were released a few weeks ago.
Sounds good, right?
Over the years, IQS has been criticized and questioned to the point where J.D. Power actually made wholesale changes to the survey some years ago.
Arguably, one of the breaking points was when owners of gas hog Hummers complained they weren’t getting very good fuel economy from the beasts. Ya think? Was that a problem with the vehicle or a problem with customers not doing some basic research before buying?
Oh, over the years respondents would whine that the ride in a Jeep Wrangler was rough. Yes. That’s correct. The Jeep Wrangler is not a family land yacht, minivan or cushy crossover. It’s a vehicle designed to go off-road, climb rocks, take you places that have no roads. All one has to do is take a few minutes to research the Wrangler AND….take a sufficient test drive over less than perfect pavement. It’s not the Wrangler’s fault! A lot of people buy Wranglers just because they look cool and find out what they’re really all about later…then complain about the vehicle doing what it was designed to do. I owned one for 6 years and loved it because I kayak and the Wrangler had no problem navigating some of the iffy dirt and rocky two-tracks that led to the water. I only got rid of it when the transmission smoked up and died. It had a lot of miles on it and I figured I’d take advantage of its high trade-in value.
It all further hit home when I covered this year’s IQS and we were told many people complained about several automakers’ infotainment systems. Oh..they cried about them being too complicated or whatever. So during the question and answer period I asked whether there’s really a problem with these systems or are owners just being too freakin’ lazy to read the manual to learn how to use the systems.
Here’s the answer I got: “People won’t read the manual. They just won’t. The true solution is to fix it upstream and get it right the first time.”
But what’s actually wrong? OK..yes..some systems are unduly complicated, but generally modern infotainment and connectivity systems are not necessarily so intuitive you can just sit down and operate them as you could in the old days when the most complicated electronics was an AM/FM radio with an 8-track, cassette or CD player. There is a learning curve. But you have to take the time to learn. Personally, I spent a couple of hours with the owner’s manual of my Subaru Ascent learning how its electronics work and what all the buttons and lights mean. Now I’m happy. It was easy. No complaints.
Some dealerships, like my Subaru store, offer what’s known as “second deliveries” where, after owning the vehicle for a week or so, you come back and there’s someone to answer any question you have and demonstrate how things work. If the instructions in the manual weren’t clear enough, the person conducting the second delivery is likely to help you figure it out. I know, I know…who wants to schlep back to the dealership? Well..my dealer dangled a 25 buck gas card as an added incentive, on top of, you know, learning how to use the cool stuff I paid for.
To be fair, IQS offers some valuable insight, especially when it comes to fit, finish and ergonomic issues a customer might not detect during a quick test drive, or do not become apparent until you’ve lived with the vehicle for a bit. If it’s really a quality issue, then the automaker deserves to take the heat. But if the issue is a failure by the customer to adequately research the vehicle and simply buys it because of appearance or brand cache’ or is simply too lazy to breeze through the owner’s manual..then it’s too damned bad. You don’t have to read the manual cover to cover…target the sections that pertain to items you’re not familiar with and return to it as needed. There are also plenty of instructional videos and customer support sites on the web. Jeez…make the effort!
But every year when I’m covering IQS I’ll think back to that long ago conversation with the auto executive and his invective aimed at the closely followed study. When I break it down I really have to believe what he really meant was don’t report something as a problem with the vehicle, when often, the real issue is with the person driving it.
This week marked 54 years since the Ford Mustang was introduced to the world, appropriately, at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. I lived about 20 minutes, or two bus rides, from the fair, and went often, whenever I could scrounge up the buck fifty it cost to get in.
One of my favorite attractions was the Ford pavilion which featured a ride in a convertible Galaxie 500 through tubes and tracks that took you through time. You often had to wait a couple of hours to get in, but it was worth it. When you got off the ride, they handed you a green plastic badge embossed with a likeness of the pavilion and a state. You never knew which state you’d get. I got New Jersey. I still have it. If you hold it up to a light for about 30 seconds then go in a dark space, it’ll glow bright green. All these years later mine still glows. What also glowed was the cool new sporty car on a turntable they called the Mustang. The badge on the grille was a horse, but the Mustang name was really derived from the World War II P-51 fighter jet, which Mustang stylist John Najjar admired.
Since I was only 12 at the time, I wasn’t ready to buy a Mustang. Besides, my feet wouldn’t reach the pedals. In fact, I never really thought about owning a Mustang even though I admired it. But things can change quickly in life. After I graduated college in 1973 and got married, I had a very limited budget since the radio station where I worked paid only minimum wage. Except for a used car, the only new ones I could afford were either an AMC Gremlin or Chevy Vega. I went for the Vega..a nice bright red one with sporty fake black leather seats.
Anyone familiar with the ill-fated Vega knows it was a complete failure. I went through 3 transmissions in three years. Many years later as an automotive reporter for The Detroit News, I visited the Lordstown, Ohio Assembly Plant where the Vega was built. One old codger who had worked on the car looked at me sadly and asked, “you owned a Vega? On behalf of the men and women here in Lordstown, I APOLOGIZE!”
Then one day a guy I worked with at radio station WMBO in Auburn, N.Y., outside Syracuse, came up to me and begged me to go down to the parking lot with him, where he showed me a shiny silver new Mustang II. “They’re having a big sale on Mustangs at the Ford dealer in Skaneateles! Dump that Vega!” he said.
It was, indeed a cool car so that night my wife and I drove the five miles east to Skaneateles and instantly fell in love with an emerald green Mustang II with white, fake leather seats. The soft-spoken salesman actually offered us money for our Vega and we picked up the Mustang the next day. It wasn’t a good start. No sooner had we pulled out of the lot it started raining and flipped the switch to turn on the wipers. Nothing happened. Made a quick u-turn back to the dealership where the embarrassed salesman said, “oh, sometimes the wiper arms on the new ones have to be tightened.” Right.
But after that we felt cool as crap riding in the green machine. Took great care of it and it never failed us. We ended up taking it across the country when we moved to Tucson, Arizona and across again when we moved to Atlanta. That’s where it was time to say “goodbye” to it. Oh, I forgot to mention the car had no air conditioning which was a big negative living in the desert in Tucson where we’d often have 10 days or more above 100 degrees. I had to drive to work in shorts and a t-shirt and then change when I arrived. Before figuring this out, I’d drive in my suit then have to ask someone to pry me out of the car because my clothes were stuck to the fake leather seats.
I was working overnights at CNN in 1986 and on my way home on I-85 I felt the car failing. I managed to get it off the freeway, about halfway up the Druid Hills Road exit, where it died. A few minutes later the traffic reporter on WSB warned morning commuters, “a green Mustang is blocking the northbound exit ramp at Druid Hills Road off I-85!” After I had the car towed to a nearby gas station, my wife came and picked me up in our other car….a two-tone blue Chevy Chevette. Yeah..we had strange taste in cars. By the time I got home a guy who worked at the Ford plant in Hapeville, Ga., near the Atlanta airport, called and said he’d give me 150 bucks for the car and pay my towing fee, then fix it up for his 16 year old daughter. Deal!
For a year or so after that I would run into the old car. I knew it was mine because I had a Newscenter 9 bumper sticker on it–the TV station I worked at in Tucson. I was glad to see the old green Mustang got a second life. It certainly served us well during its first one.
Fast-forward to last Tuesday and I had the privilege of covering the Mustang’s 54th birthday at Ford World Headquarters for Automotive News. Here’s my story which was the latest edition of my weekly feature, The Closer. Enjoy.
Whether we like it or not, self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles are in the cards. While they may be useful for any number of reasons, I don’t see them sparking any great tunes.
Let’s think about it for a moment. Some of the greatest songs refer directly to someone whose hands are on the wheel or flooring the accelerator or refusing to drive 55 .
A great example is Golden Earrings’s classic “Radar Love” with the awesome opening lines:
“I’ve been drivin’ all night, my hand’s wet on the wheel
There’s a voice in my head that drives my heel
It’s my baby callin’, says I need you here
And it’s a half past four and I’m shiftin’ gear.”
The Doors wouldn’t be caught dead in a self-driving car as they headed for a night of debauchery at the roadhouse:
“Yeah, keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel
Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel
Yeah, we’re goin’ to the Roadhouse
We’re gonna have a real
And before Bruce Springsteen would allow a bucket of semi-conductors to take the wheel, he would rather be hopped up on caffeine and who knows what in order to maintain control of his ride in really crappy weather to see his lady once again in “Drive All Night.” Just another reason he’s “The Boss.”
“Baby I’ll drive all night
I swear I drive all night
Through the wind, through the rain, through the snow”
While I can understand that autonomous vehicles will be extremely useful..especially for those who can’t drive themselves, I intend to hold out just as long as I can before I cede control of my mobility to a machine that’s smarter than I.
And so I offer this ode to autonomy..that you can sing to whatever melody strikes you…as long as you sing it… yourself.
I been riding all night, my butt’s stuck on the seat
Car’s doing all the work, don’t need my feet
I got a place in mind that I wanna go..
Don’t have to steer… this machine just knows
So I sit and watch the world through the windshield
Eyes on everything but what’s in front of me..
No concern about my speed, or any urgency…
No mental traffic when you’re riding in autonomy.
Got a left foot out of work with no clutch to depress
and my right one just stepped in my Taco Bell mess
My idle hands they have no wheel to steer or lever to shift
And I wonder what damn killjoys came up with this
When I’m in real hurry or just wanna go real fast
Don’t wanna watch it happen, I wanna mash the gas
Want my hands real busy, don’t want it done for me
Won’t cede the thrill of driving to a car’s technology
I suppose I could be open to a car that drives itself
operated by a host of smart electronic elves..
I could just sit back, relax and think about my day
Let autonomy just do its stuff
and whisk me in my way
But to whom do I direct my anger and my bile
When a driverless self-driving buggy tailgates us for a mile.
No GPS or LIDAR gives a flying hoot
When you flip them off or swear or give your horn an angry toot.
I’d just as soon stay in control,
On what’s in front of me..
Make all my decisions and mistakes..
Now that’s autonomy!
Never thought you could afford an Aston Martin, Lamborghini or Ferrari. Guess what? You may be able to afford two: one for each foot. Give me a minute of time to explain. Thanks in advance!
Personally, I wasn’t happy when they named it the Dart. We had a history. The good part was I passed my driver’s test in my brother’s ’65 Dart. The bad news is when I inherited that lemon during my senior year in college, first I got into an accident that crushed the trunk, then I decided to make a little $$ by offering a rides home and back for Thanksgiving break. The Dart would have none of it. Somewhere on Route 17 in the middle of the Catskills the Dart decided “no mas!” At least for a few hours while it took a long break on the shoulder and mocked me as I sprayed something into the carburetor that was supposed to cure what ailed it. My passengers were not amused and by the time we limped onto Long Island many hours later, they rather brusquely informed me they would find another ride back to school. The Dart appeared to have felt flush with victory at the news its mopey passengers wouldn’t be making the 300 mile return trip, and performed flawlessly on the way back.
Since long before Ponce de Leon made the boneheaded conclusion he could find youth in Florida, man, and woman, have sought the secret to turning back the biological clock to at least Cellulite Saving Time. While Pitiful Ponce thought the answer spit forth from a fountain and countless others believe all it takes is a surgical nip and tuck, I believe I have found the answer…and it’s been hiding in plain sight since its invention in 1962.
My discovery came as I endured the annual ritual this morning of de-winterizing our cars, which entails vacuuming, scrubbing the salt from the carpets and of course, Armor All-ing almost every interior surface of the vehicles.
It doesn’t take much. Just a little spritz and the colors of the leather and plastic surfaces suddenly become vivid as if viewed through Timothy Leary’s LSD enhanced eyes. The old Jeep Patriot discovered its long-dormant self-esteem and the rough and tumble Wrangler took on an even more brazen than usual smirk, begging to preen in front of a reflective storefront, or someone driving a Chevy.
A turn of the key brought with it the sound the engine made only miles from having left the showroom all those years ago. As I put each in gear to return them to the garage, I swear they actually skipped.
So what is this Armor All I speak of? This all-purpose elixir of inanimate youth? It turns out an unknown polymer chemist named Joe Palcher conjured up the potion that would one day become the pump bottle of youth. He found that whatever he tossed together in a bottle would create what he called a “miracle formula” for protecting rubber, plastic and vinyl from harmful ultraviolet rays. His friends convinced him to market it and named the stuff “Tri-don” which, spelled backwards, with adjusted hyphenation, spells “No-Dirt.”
A decade later a marketing man bought the rights to “Tri-don” and renamed it “Armor All Protectant” and eventually had it patented. I won’t go into the subsequent history of the company’s business developments because all I’m really interested in is wondering what else this stuff does?
Could you wipe your skin with it and make it shine and tighten wrinkles? Or would you end up looking like a Naugahyde bucket seat sat on by a sick child? Could you mix it with Jack Daniels and seal your digestive tract from impurities? Could you apply it your boss’s stale ideas and make them fresh…for the first time?
Such possibilities! All I know is my cars are humming with youthful vigor, spontaneously switching my satellite radio to the “Testosterone Revving” channel and winking their headlights at sexy Italian sports cars during traffic light stops.
I know I’ll have to eventually re-apply the Armor All but then again, Ponce de Leon always figured he’d have to take a second sip at the fountain.
The development of autonomous vehicles…cars and trucks that make a driver a passenger…is all the rage. I’m all for it, especially if it has the effect of moving some horrible drivers from behind the wheel to a warm place in the trunk.
This has me thinking, though, of other things I wish would accomplish everyday tasks without my personal involvement.
The first that comes to mind is the autonomous shirt. I would like nothing better than to walk into my closet, give my shirt of choice a slight nod, then have it jump off the hanger and onto my chest then buttoning itself. If my tie did the same thing, I would be happy forever, except for the fact that I would be wearing a tie.
I never really enjoyed operating a steak knife. Oh, it’s not a difficult task but I’d get a big kick out of watching it cut my sirloin sans my hands. That would leave both hands available to operate the fork, which performs the very important function of placing the meat in my mouth. You may point out there are electric knives which do the hard work of slicing and dicing but you have to hold the thing. My autonomous steak knife would, well, just know to get to work.
Autonomous coins could come in handy especially if you have to flip one. Personally, I’m a flipping failure, so it would be nice to have a coin flip itself and save me the embarrassment.
How about the autonomous politician? Ha. Never gonna happen. I’d really like to see an autonomous horse. You hop in the saddle and instead of pulling the reins in the direction you’d like to ride, the equine just wanders the range until it finds something to graze on, a water source or a mare that wants to make a pony.
I’ll move on to my final autonomous fantasy. That would be a kid. I remember an episode many years ago when one of my friend’s kids was bored and asked him what he should next. Ever the loving dad he replied, “anything that takes you away from me.” Yeah..like that.