Business Stuff Coming Up

by Bob Hagin

January 15, 2001

There's always something going on in the worldwide auto industry and as technology and innovations roar ahead, sales and marketing trends roar along with them. Here is what's going on in that world now:

DIESELS IN YOUR FUTURE - Remember those smelly diesel-powered passengers cars that enjoyed a brief vogue during the gasoline crunches of the '70s? They may be making a comeback in this country on a scale that could match their popularity in Europe where the cost of gasoline is much greater than our own. Besides the improved diesel technology that new Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz vehicles enjoy in American-market versions, our feds have mandated that fuel refiners drop the sulfur content of diesel fuel sold here to 15 parts per million. This reduction will let engine builders design cleaner-running powerplants by allowing them to utilize pollution control systems that would otherwise be "poisoned" by high sulfur levels. The auto makers are anxious to reintroduce diesel-powered light vehicles (passenger cars, SUVs and pickups) because it would allow them to put the vehicles into their corporate average fuel economy numbers. This lets the companies can make more high-end gas-guzzling vehicles without penalty.

HOT SUV MARKET COOLING OFF - Now that the sport/utility vehicle is getting press bad enough to rival that given to Middle Eastern terrorist groups, it's beginning to look like the bloom might be fading from its rosy sales records. Industry analyst pundits foresee a down-turn in vehicle buying and the skyrocketing price of gasoline is beginning to put the kibosh on the big gas-guzzler. Another factor that may cause a slow-down in the purchases of the big, powerful truck-chassis units is the adverse publicity regarding their seeming propensity to roll over either in single-vehicle accidents or those that involve another vehicle. But the industry is still in an SUV mode of thinking and at the latest Detroit Auto Show, the heavy hitters (Ford, General Motors, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler) threw eight new mid-sized SUVs into the mix. But it many soon become gauche to be seen driving a four-wheeler into the country club parking lot, regardless of whose logo is on the hood.

ELECTRONIC STABILITY MAY SAVE SUVs - But there's one bright spot on the horizon for the seemingly accident-prone sport/utility vehicle and it comes in at a very reasonable price. The system is generically labeled "electronic stability control" and it works in conjunction with the vehicle's anti-skid brake and traction control systems. The coordinated programs operate through a dozen or so sensors that are controlled by individual wheel speed, turning angles of the front wheels, the "yaw" angle of the vehicle (this determines if the machine is sliding) and its lateral acceleration, the indicator that signals that it's sliding through a curve. The sensor input sends signals to any combination of the four brakes to alter their speeds to provide maximum traction and to ensure that the front wheels are aimed in the most propitious direction. From the reports I've seen, the prices run around $1500 though engineers say it could be marketed as low as a $500 factory-installed option.

SATELLITE AUTO RADIOS NEXT BIG DEAL - Just when we thought that there couldn't be many more upscale gadgets added to the shopping list of a new car, a new type of radio system is about to take to the airwaves. First came AM radio way back when, then FM became the system of choice in the '50s. Now XM radio is poised to take over that center spot in the dashboard of your next vehicle. Two companies, Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio, have put together systems that will beam more than 100 somewhat non-commercial audio channels that can be picked up by special receivers fitted to new cars and trucks from nearly a dozen manufacturers. The auto makers are so enthusiastic about the project that most of them have invested heavily in both companies. Consumers will be billed about a $10 monthly subscription fees. Stay tuned for the next major moves to make our vehicles more and more complex. This comes just as some of us are finally coming to grips with programing our VCRs.

GLASS CEILING PIONEER RETIRES - Four years we reported that Ford-veteran Bobbie Gaunt had reached a pinnacle in the auto industry that few if any women had achieved: the presidency and CEO of a major auto company. After a couple of decades of service to Ford in various capacities, she was named head person of Ford of Canada, a Ford subsidiary that needed some boost. Under Gaunt's leadership, Ford of Canada boosted its revenues by 14-percent last year and obtained a major investment increase. In '99, she was made a Ford V.P. Now at age 54, she's retiring, but she leaves a fine legacy for future female corporate leadership aspirants. She not only cracked the gender "glass ceiling" at Ford, but she's put a pretty good sized hole in it as well.

Ready for more goings-on in the auto world? Check back with us in a half-dozen weeks and we'll report on more of the same.


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