Photo credit: AP

Good morning! Welcome to The Morning Shift, your roundup of the auto news you crave, all in one place every weekday morning. Here are the important stories you need to know.

1st Gear: Legit, The Worst

Unions, by and large, are a wonderful thing. They can help vast numbers of workers achieve the middle class, and through that process are the engine of an American economy that fundamentally requires massive amounts of consumer spending to keep on chugging. Unions are supposed to act on behalf of workers to make sure that they have the best possible wages, benefits, and working conditions. Love unions (especially you, WGAE!).

Except when they go wrong, as they allegedly did at Fiat Chrysler and the United Auto Workers, where a company executive plied union officials with gifts to get them to act not on behalf of the workers, but on behalf of the company. A trove of documents were released thanks to a plea deal between Alphonse Iacobelli, the former labor relations head at FCA, who pled guilty to siphoning off more than $1.5 million in funds to UAW and company officials to pay for things like a mortgage and parties, Automotive News reports:

Iacobelli, according to the plea deal, sent an email to another “FCA executive” confirming then-UAW Vice President General Holiefield, now deceased, had been “scripted” ahead of a meeting with other members of the union’s International Executive Board.

Iacobelli, in the email, said Holiefield would “create a dialogue pursuant to our outline.” At the time, the executive board was considering the terms of a multibillion-dollar offer to purchase equity interest held by the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, or VEBA, in Chrysler Group, now known as FCA US. The transaction was completed a month later.

The second occurrence allegedly occurred in February and March of 2015. FCA, according to the plea, offered to pay confidential “one-time non-precedent setting” retirement offers to “senior UAW officials.”

An unnamed union official allegedly said in an email that his people would “process the transactions to keep them out of the plants.”

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The UAW does have a point, in that workers at large have the final vote on contracts, and despite any alleged corruption that took place, they approved the final deal.

But the heart of the matter is that union negotiations are often conducted behind closed doors, and contracts can be extraordinarily complex. It can be difficult for a rank-and-file union member to know what other concessions they could have received from their employer for the benefit of everybody.

There are charges for more people possibly coming down the pipeline, AN says.

2nd Gear: Why Humans Are Still Better At Building Cars

Speaking of labor issues, while robots have replaced a large number of factory workers over the past few decades, it doesn’t look like they’ll replace them entirely anytime soon. That’s because humans are still vastly better at, well, the human things, Bloomberg reports:

“We can’t find anything to take the place of the human touch and of human senses like sight, hearing and smell,” Tom Shoupe, the chief operating officer of Honda’s Ohio manufacturing unit, said in an interview.

Honda isn’t alone. Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp. uses just a handful of robots on the Camry final assembly line at its plant in Georgetown, Kentucky, and has no plans to add more, according to Mark Boire, chief production engineer. Markus Schaefer, production chief at Mercedes-Benz, in 2016 said the carmaker was de-automating and relying more on humans to install the endless array of options that luxury customers demand.

[...]

The robot isn’t smart or dexterous enough to reach in and around the suspension to place the bolts where they need to go, May said. The workers must use their left hand for some bolts and their right hand for others, since they’re operating in a tight, awkward space, and they have to visually inspect their work — all in the span of about 40 seconds.

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Proud of you, fellow humans.

3rd Gear: Fixing The Plug Problem

One of the few – some say, the only – joys of gasoline-powered cars is not their noise, or their speed, or their range. It’s that you can go to any gas station you want, in any state you want, and say “I’d like some gasoline please.” And then they put the fuel nozzle in your car, and it fits in there just so, and you fill your car up with fuel, and then you head off on your merry way.

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That’s because fuel nozzles are standardized. They’ve all got to be a certain size and whatnot, so that when you want some fuel, you get some fuel.

But that’s definitely not the case with electric cars. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving one and the need to fill it up with electricity, you’ve probably opened up the trunk to find a little bag filled with all sorts of plug adapters. And somehow, you still never have the right one. That needs to change.

To fix that, we now have the Germans (????) and Ford (????), Reuters says:

To try to build critical mass for the Combined Charging System (CCS) favored by Europe, BMW, Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler, Ford and the Volkswagen group, which includes Audi and Porsche, said in November they would develop 400 high-power charging stations on main roads in 18 European countries by 2020.

“In the end, it is about safe-guarding investments for those that are investing in electric mobility,” said Claas Bracklo, head of electromobility at BMW and the chairman of the Charging Interface Initiative (CharIN), which is backing CCS.

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As you may already be aware, the Germans and Ford have a ton of plans for electric cars and whatnot, but very few options on the table at the moment. Not to mention the fact that they don’t sell very many electric cars at all.

It’s a little unclear why they didn’t include Tesla, the largest seller of electric cars, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was spite.

This problem will never be fixed.

4th Gear: Hey That’s My Excuse

When I write a bad blog such as this one, I always tell Patrick, my boss, that it was “the metals” that made it happen. He gives me a blank stare in response, and then backs away slowly. It must be working, and I can only assume that Ford has taken notice, since it’s going with the same strategy, Bloomberg reports:

Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Jim Hackett has already called 2018 a “bad year,” casting some of the blame on costlier raw materials used to build cars.

It’s an excuse that’s both valid and not the whole story for Ford, which reports quarterly earnings after the close Wednesday. Rising prices for steel, aluminum and other metals are exacerbating issues including the automaker’s outsize reliance on its popular F-Series pickup line that’s facing new competitive pressures.

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Jim, buddy, everyone says that 2018 is going to be a bad year. Why not just go with that excuse?

5th Gear: Bring Back The Jeepster

Jeep is planning an even smaller Jeep, Automotive News has the Jeep Man saying about Jeeps:

Jeep is looking “very closely” at a possible vehicle smaller than its Renegade subcompact crossover, the brand’s boss Mike Manley said.

The “baby” Jeep would be targeted at customers in Europe and other global markets where small vehicles sell well but not the U.S., Manley told reporters at the Detroit auto show this month.

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I, for one, would support a decision to just churn out original Willys Jeeps. Or Jeepsters. Love a Jeepster. David Tracy hates Jeepsters.

Reverse: Remember Studebaker?

On this day in 1871, Albert Russell Erskine, who headed up the pioneering American automaker Studebaker before it went bankrupt during the Great Depression, is born in Huntsville, Alabama.

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Neutral: What Is It You Love About Gasoline-Powered Cars?

And why is it the nozzles?