Building Cars Is Hard

Illustration for article titled Building Cars Is Hard
The Morning ShiftAll your daily car news in one convenient place. Isn't your time more important?

1st Gear: It’s Hard Out There For A Startup

We’ve seen this time and time again: new startups and tech giants think they can do car manufacturing. How hard can it be, they must wonder, until they discover that everything from overhead to supply chain management to having a viable sales network actually makes everything extremely hard. Yes, there’s Tesla, but even Elon Musk will tell you they are the exception and not the rule.

It could be argued that making electric vehicles should lower the barrier of entry into cars, as you don’t have to deal with the insanely complicated task of designing an internal combustion engine. Then again, not really!

Here’s more from Automotive News about how breaking into this industry may be the most difficult business venture of all:

Even for outfits that have vast piles of cash — and most don’t — the odds of creating a sustainable business selling high-quality vehicles at a profit year after year are somewhere between very slim and none, depending on whom you ask.

“What makes Faraday think they can produce an electric vehicle cheaper than Tesla?” asked Bob Lutz, the longtime industry executive who has been involved with several small automotive ventures since retiring in 2010 as vice chairman of General Motors. “And Tesla is losing their shirts.”

[...] Said Lutz: “It’s gotten easier to do an electric vehicle because you can go to companies who will [sell] you the complete battery pack; you can go to others that will [sell] you the complete power electronics and so forth.

“But still, while a smaller company would never spend what General Motors, Ford or other OEMs would spend, you are still looking at $200 million to $300 million for projects that in my considered opinion are doomed from the outset.”

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I don’t always agree with Bob Lutz but he’s objectively right here about the near impossible cost of entry and success into this field.

2nd Gear: Does Tesla Have A Welding Problem?

Speaking of startup problems, while Tesla has upended the industry so far, the real test is here now with the Model 3 and whether or not they can successfully mass produce a car. So far early production has had its problems; Musk himself called it “production hell.”

So why is it so hard to make the Model 3 when the company is already building the S and X? Automotive News posits it has to do with welding. The other two cars are primarily made of aluminum, but the smaller sedan also has steel, and welding is tough to get right:

The Model 3's aluminum and steel body requires more welding rather than the adhesive and rivets in aluminum bodies, experts say.

Harbour described the difference between the body of the Model 3 and those of the Model S and Model X as “partly cloudy vs. partly sunny.” The change in materials would require processes new to Tesla.

“There’s a big difference there. They haven’t been doing a lot of spot welding on the first two vehicles because they’re all aluminum,” Harbour said. “The learning curve is pretty steep.”

After the Journal report, Musk tweeted a of the Model 3 production line, which was operating at one-tenth of its potential speed. In the video, sparks fly as two robotic arms assemble parts of the vehicle frame. He followed with another on Wednesday, Oct. 11, showing body panel stamping at full speed.

“Resistance welding should make a little smoke, but when you see stuff popping out like that, that’s called expulsion,” automotive manufacturing consultant Michael Tracy of Agile Group in Howell, Mich., said of the first video. “It’s symptomatic of weld spots getting too hot because they’re poorly planned, or in this case, the metal not being pulled all the way together.”

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A company spokesperson told AN that “it will take time to fine-tune the line for higher volumes, but as we have also said, there are no fundamental issues with Model 3 production or its supply chain.”

3rd Gear: Our National Equinox Nightmare May Soon End

Meanwhile in Canada, General Motors and that country’s auto workers union may today sign a deal to end a strike that threatened the supply of Equinox crossover vehicles, a truly devastating blow to all of us. One more from Automotive News:

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne issued a statement expressing hope that the tentative deal will end the strike, which she says has been felt throughout the province’s auto supply chain.

Unifor had demanded the plant be named the lead producer of the Equinox. That meant if GM needed more of the compact crossover, CAMI would be first to get the work but if sales slowed, production would be scaled back first at a pair of plants in Mexico.

The Mexican plants had combined to build 40,017 Equinoxes between April, when overflow Equinox production began there, and Aug. 31. Meanwhile, CAMI had produced 132,288 Equinoxes this year through August, according to the Automotive News Data Center.

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4th Gear: A Daimler Breakup?

Daimler is a huge German conglomerate, but since this summer it’s been looking into spinning off some of its divisions into separate legal entities. This has created speculation about a possible breakup down the line. Via Reuters:

CEO Dieter Zetsche said in July that Daimler was considering putting parts of its business into separate legal entities, spurring talk of a possible break up as the group looks to fund big investments in autonomous and electric cars.

The company said in a separate statement on Monday that it was not pursuing any savings, efficiencies or job cuts related to the reorganisation.

Separating Daimler’s divisions could make it easier to value them and create a higher figure than for the current combined whole, with trucks and buses on their own worth 31 billion euros, analysts at Evercore ISI have said.

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5th Gear: Toyota And Mazda Want That Big Corporate Welfare Check

Toyota and Mazda are planning a big new joint factory in the U.S., and several states including Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina are vying for the chance to give it a home. But these two automakers want a seriously big check first: a reported $1 billion state incentive package, reports Bloomberg:

Toyota and Mazda plan to brief their boards on a short list of states contending for the plant in the coming weeks and announce a final selection by the end of year, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private. Scott Vazin, a Toyota spokesman, and Jeremy Barnes, who represents Mazda, both declined to comment.

The tax breaks and other support Toyota and Mazda are said to be asking for could rival the package Nevada approved for Tesla Inc.’s Reno battery factory in 2014 that was valued at as much as $1.25 billion. The Japanese carmakers have positioned themselves to drive a hard bargain with states by pledging to create as many as 4,000 jobs.

“There haven’t been any big prizes like this in a while, and there isn’t expected to be any more for some time as overall auto production plateaus,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of industry research at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “The competing states may be willing to put more on the table than they would have previously.”

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It’s insane how that works, but I guess an auto factory is a better use of taxpayer money than a sports stadium.

Reverse: Bring It Back

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Neutral: How Do You Make The Auto Industry More Accessible To New Players?

I don’t think the car game should be closed off to people with new ideas, but the cost of entry is incredibly high and the chance of success remarkably low.

Editor-in-Chief at Jalopnik. 2002 Toyota 4Runner.

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DISCUSSION

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NovemberAjax

#3 The Equinox.
The Chevy Equinox? That whole sorry POS should die in a fire.

It’s amazing to me that Chevy even still exist as a brand if this is what they’re offering. Who, exactly, is buying this crap? I mean - who, apart from rental companies? I’m wondering if Chevy realize it’s 2017 or if they think it’s still the mid 1970's? I had one of these as a rental recently for a drive from SLC to Vegas and back. I wanted to kill myself because of it.

The model I was driving was a 2017 version with 13,000 miles on it - essentially a new car. According to the Chevy website, the slogan for this car is “love the journey” and with the trim level in the vehicle I was in, it starts just shy of $30,000. Let me tell you, that’s $30,000 too much for this pile of shit.

Where to start? The engine maybe? Ok let’s talk about the engine. It was a rental, so it had the 2.4L engine which Chevy claim has 182hp/172lbft of torque with a kerb weight of 3788lbs. My daily driver - a Range Rover Evoque - has 240hp and 250lbft of torque from an engine that is 400cc smaller and even though the Evoque weighs 200lbs more, it drives like an actual car. The Equinox drives like the Queen Mary. The engine is slow to respond and wooden, and it’s connected to the accelerator pedal via twitter. Bolted to the back of the engine is a thoroughly 1970's ‘Murican-built automatic slushbox. Honestly I thought the days of this sort of transmission were long gone. Over the last 16 years, the automatic boxes in my Subarus, Hondas, VWs and Range Rover have all been excellent. The Equinox appears to have a bowl of loose custard for a transmission. With the cruise control set at 80mph, even the slightest hill caused the box to change down. Get on to a steep hill and it kicked down to fourth. Get on to a canyon road and it kicked down to third. So I spent a good portion of the journey to Vegas and back with this fucking thing in third gear, screaming at over 7000rpm and still losing speed going uphill. It’s the only car I’ve driven where a gearbox kickdown results in a lot of noise but no appreciable gain in torque or speed.

It’s actually dangerous. When you pull out to overtake, the engine can’t muster enough power to accelerate so you end up crawling past the vehicle in front. This isn’t too bad on a freeway where everyone is going the same direction but if you were trying to do this on a two-lane road, overtaking a slower vehicle into oncoming traffic, it would be suicidal.

The end result of all this is that this vehicle managed an average of just 19mpg on the freeway. Chevy claim 31mpg on their website, and even accepting that that figure is unachievable, you’d think it might be in the high 20's - something like 25-26mpg. But no - 19mpg. 31mpg is an outright lie and is completely unachievable.

What about the rest of it? The brakes are wooden - and I think that’s being kind. They’re hard and have no feel to them. The brake assist system is vague meaning you need far more pedal pressure than you’d imagine to get the brakes to engage, and once they do, the brake response is woefully underpowered for a car of this weight.

The suspension is boaty and vague, making the ride soft and wallowy, adding to the Queen-Mary-like driving experience. The horrible engine, the heavy car, heavy brakes and heavy steering ultimately mean you should stay away from corners at all costs.

The interior is bland and plastic, and not good plastic, but hard, brittle plastic that squeaks and rattles and is offensive to touch. The steering wheel is too big (and connected to a horrendously overpowered power steering system), the rest of the controls are too small and have the added bonus of all being in the wrong place (indicators are where wipers should be and vice versa). The driver’s left-side elbow rest (on the door) is solid, unpadded plastic, making it uncomfortable to use on long journeys. The right side (center console) rest is too far back so you can’t use it for support at all. The interior is covered in shiny silver plastic and chrome meaning that any amount of sunlight finds something to reflect off. The instrument binnacle is a genius piece of design that does nothing other than reflect the back of the steering wheel if there’s any daylight at all. The picture below shows the best-case scenario of what I could see for 900 miles. When the sun came out strong, the reflections were worse than this and the instruments were completely unreadable.

The multimedia system is user-hostile with an interface designed by a blind person. The Bluetooth connectivity is sketchy and tends to forget what device it’s connected to on a random basis, forcing you to re-pair devices mid-journey. The backup camera looks like a Super NES game.

I’d like to say the redeeming feature is the way it looks, but it looks like the Chevy designers (and I use the word ‘designers’ lightly) just threw a lump of clay on the floor and said “that’s perfect - add some wheels and we’re done”.

Overall this car was obviously designed by people who hate cars, for people who hate driving. I can see how it would be an enticing vehicle for someone who works from home so their commute involves never getting into this spiteful piece of engineering. But for anyone else? There’s no way any sentient human would willingly buy this.

Chevy’s slogan for the Equinox is “Love the journey”. Counterpoint: I fucking hated the journey. The journey was the worst part of the weekend thanks to Chevy. This vehicle needs to die in a fire.