An Open Letter to Neal Pollack

Dear Neal,

According to your twitter bio, you describe yourself as an author of eight books, a yoga instructor, a roller-derby announcer, a reluctant car journalist, and three-time Jeopardy! champion. If your opinion piece on Yahoo was a category on the game show, you could take “Things You Shouldn’t Put In Your Mouth” for $500.

You’ve painted quite a picture in Detroit, Neal. One that borders on “When the cats away, the mice will play” and “Let them eat cake”.  I think it’s fair to say, neither of those are accurate in any sense what-so-ever.

Sure, you make a few valid points. Yes the ELR is excessive at a price point we all shook our heads at but you know what? The plebeian alternative Volt is kind of a bad ass car. As is the 100 mpg Fusion Energi and the 30 mpg Grand Cherokee equipped with the EcoDiesel.

Or how about a truck that just shed 700 lbs. and introduced mainstream America to the concept of lightweighting? Or a midsize SUV with a 9 speed transmission that gets over 31 mpg? Or a 460 HP sportscar that still achieves 29 highway?

Nope, apparently those didn’t count. Instead it feels like you’re asking us to bow down to the stoic shrine of Japan. Hey you know what? I like the Accord! I think the Prius was a catalyst that forced us Americans to think about fuel economy differently, but these are the same companies that make 13 city / 17 highway Sequoias and 12 city / 18 highway Nissan Armadas. They aren’t indemnified from criticism.

That must be why I saw their engineers crawling all over the new F-150 with open mouths this afternoon at the NAIAS Industry Preview. Had you stuck around after Kia stopped handing out bacon popcorn and MINI closed down its smoothie bar, you would have seen some eye opening dexterity that would have put VIA Motors special guest and aerial artist Maria Luna to shame.  Furthermore, I don’t think they were using their measuring tape, graphic note pads and cameras for fun. But who knows, I could be wrong. Perhaps it’s in the realm of possibility that the one gent I saw sticking his full arm in the wheel well of a Chrysler 200 misplaced his iPhone and was simply looking everywhere to recover it.

Look, I know I’m a tad over-sensitive on the topic of grinding the Big 3’s noses into the ground. I lived it for a few years on the front lines you know. I guess I’m sorry an out of town journalist used a national platform in a way that shuns the hard work this industry has put forth since its darkest days a mere five years ago. Yes there’s an awful lot to lampoon, but nobody would have imagined the innovations we’ve seen coming out of Detroit like we have today.

I think that’s worth celebrating.

Sincerely,

Craig Daitch

Join the conversation and follow me on twitter @craigdaitch

Chrysler Takes Its Place Amongst Superbowl XLV’s Best Ads With 3 Words

Three words.

Three, and one of them is considered a dirty one if you grew up where I did:

Imported From Detroit

Tonight, Detroit has a new rallying cry. A rallying cry that is as endemic and analogous as “Just Do It” is to Beaverton, Oregon. It’s been a long road for Chrysler over the last decade. From DaimlerChrysler to Cerberus, to Fiat – the DNA of one of America’s most cherished automotive brands was slowly slipping into the archives of U.S. history; a footnote in the ever evolving world of motor vehicles.

It started with the Jeep relaunch of the Grand Cherokee, with its Johnny Cash soundtrack, was an hors d’œuvre of American pride, a reminder that the greatest legacy of one of the most iconic American brands was safe in the hands of people who actually understood how to market a vehicle. Then came the Challenger commercials and I slowly started coming around to believing in the third of the Big 3 again.

I admit though I have had my doubts. Last year’s awkward politically charged Chrysler commercial demanding the release of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi from imprisonment left many scratching their heads wondering if the powers that be from Fiat really understood the psyche of Americans. Ironically enough, the antithesis of this from Groupon could have learned a metric ton from this before approving their own Superbowl catastrophe.

But when I first heard that we were going to be subjected to a 2:00 commercial I cringed. I admit it. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine what I’d see tonight would have such a profound impact on me. I read tweets from proud Chrysler employee’s, to Detroiters admitting their tears. I received 8 phone calls starting a minute after the commercial ended from all area codes surrounding metro Detroit swelling with pride from what went on air, during the biggest stage, the Superbowl no less!

To my industry compatriots at Wieden, I thank you for this. I used to insist that an advertising agency not from Detroit would never get Detroit enough to create an effective brand story. I admit I was wrong because you told it better than any of us could have in a way that made me believe you “got us”. The diaspora of Detroit has left me in a mixture of both guilt and frustration for 5 years, unable to find a path back to my home. You gave me 2 minutes of my life back tonight. Again I thank you.

And to Chrysler? I offer you this advice: When the 300c rolled off the assembly line, it carried with it the momentum of an entire company and then you let it dissipate for years without updates or supporting non-halo vehicles – the Sebring being the main culprit and in my opinion the downfall of your brand. The 200 was a brilliant rebranding, as Ford’s rebranding of the 500 back to the Taurus equally reestablished them as relevant in the large sedan space. You need a midsize sedan to compete and stay relevant yourself and as far as vehicle refreshes go, you did it with the 200. With that said, the 200 is a good car that needed a hail mary pass in the endzone to be thrust into the consideration set of consumers. You’ve got the mojo from this commercial, now go get it.

Tonight Chrysler did in 2 minutes what 2 previous owners couldn’t do in 13 years. They made Chrysler relevant again. They made Detroit relevant again.

This is the Motor City, this is what we do.

Open Source Cars Are The Next Frontier

When General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy, a series of questions flooded my head. I questioned the concept of mass industrialization, and what drove companies to maximize profit for their shareholders. Were corporations legally bound to maximizing profits (they aren’t). The laws of supply and demand, of mass surplus and car banks seemed to encapsulate an entire generation of flawed business direction.

In fact, in my mind, the bureaucracy of the automotive industry was a metaphor for the seismic meltdown we’ve felt throughout the global recession. Opinions appropriately associated with the process:

  • Slow and lumbering decision making
  • “Analysis paralysis” of innovative new products
  • Fear of risk taking

All of this resulted in a homogeneous product that couldn’t distinguish itself outside of the ever growing competitive set that now included vehicles from Japan, Germany, and Korea.

So when bankruptcy occurred, there was a real opportunity to rethink the way these companies manufactured products. Unfortunately, the bail out money allowed the big 2.5 an opportunity to live another day without the ramifications or desire to rethink the process.

While Chrysler is yet to announce its plan to profitability (rumored to be delivered by CEO Sergio Marchionne sometime over the next few weeks), GM has laid its cards on the table. Sure they shed Hummer (allegedly) and will be shutting down Pontiac and Saturn, but while the brands that needed to close did indeed close, the process remains the same.

Enter Local Motors, a new means of sourcing, producing and deciding how a car is manufactured. Local Motors uses an open source model, empowering their community of advocates with the ability to determine what is verses what isn’t a desirable product. As the above video demonstrates, their model is built on agility, innovation, and a commitment to communication. Local Motors utilizes hundreds of designers and engineers from throughout the world to help them build a vehicle with true global appeal.

Whether a process like open source vehicle development is scalable is yet to be proven as a model. But, what we do know, is the concept of mass industrialization needs to change. The long tail may be shorter in the context of automotive manufacturing, but never the less, consumer choice has left the domestic manufacturers with a fight they never saw coming: the fight for the admiration of their customers.

Nissan GT-R Skyline Interior Designed With Playstation Group

There are those that are unaware of the newest supercar to make it to our shores, and for their education, I’ll provide them with the simplest analogy I could think of: The Nissan Skyline GT-R is to the Japanese what the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 is to Americans, what the Ferrari 599 is to the Italians: an icon of automotive ingenuity, innovation and shear raw power.

For years though, our only glimpse of the Skyline came through two methods: either your subscription to Car & Driver or playing Gran Turismo. It’s the latter that proved an interesting and fundamental piece to the development of the 2009 Skyline GT-R.

As the New York Times reports,

Not only did Nissan give GT-R data to the Sony PlayStation designers and the software developers at Xanavi Information to make sure the cars in the Gran Turismo games would be accurate, the game producers returned the favor, helping to create the car’s 11 instrument panel display screens.

To quote Rain Noe of Core77, “Now there’s an interesting input source for auto design.”

And he’s right! It makes perfect sense. Gaming consoles live and die in 2008 by their UI – The Wii, XBOX Live, Home – all are intuitive in their own manner and attract millions of gamers due to their ease of use. Additionally, the Playstation/Nissan partnership shouldn’t be a unique exception, it should be a collaborative rule, for gaming developers have been designing vehicles in video games for decades. Only recently have they had the opportunity to integrate the manufacturer’s vehicles in their games due to the paradigm in licensing completely flipping. It used to be game developers would pay a licensing fee to the auto companies! Now publishers collected the Maya CGI files along with a check for every vehicle integrated.

So what’s next? How about Nintendo taking a crack at the irritable BMW iDrive. Microsoft has already flexed its muscles with Sync and it’s been a hit for all intents and purposes for Ford. Now what would be unique, is an ultimate design competition – give game designers the chance to create the next great concept vehicle to take center stage at the NAIAS. With physics engines and the scrutiny for perfection they take in recreating reality (i.e. GT5), they probably know the limitations of the vehicles they insert in games today better than the companies who manufacture them.

For the first time ever the Skyline, with its Sony Playstation inspired instrument panel, makes its way to the United States for a surprisingly economical $70,000 before dealer markup. I assure you, $70,000 has never seemed like more of a bargain than it does when appended to the price tag of the Skyline GT-R. Even when compared to a PS3 and a copy of Gran Turismo!