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Black Boxes, Schedule Conflicts and Other Auto Items

by Bob Hagin

October 8, 2001

Non-car car stuff is always interesting and the following tidbits head the list this month:

NADA VS. NFL - No doubt about the fact that rank-and-file members of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) look forward to their annual convention and its plethora of parties. They plan for it months in advance. But these dedicated auto dealers came up against a powerful adversary recently in the form of the National Football League (NFL). For more than a year, the NADA was in the planning stages of its annual convention in New Orleans during the week of February 2 through 5 of next year. Now the convention is past the planning stage. Approximately 18,000 hotel rooms have been booked, more than 30,000 dealers, family members, industry representatives and others involved in the car business are committed to being there and 600 contracts for all kinds of events have been signed. But due to the fact that the NFL had dropped a couple of scheduled games after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the schedule of the next Superbowl been totally disrupted. The Superbowl is also scheduled for New Orleans but to accommodate the disputed playing schedule, the NFL requested that the NADA reschedule its convention to the week before so that the Super Bowl XXXVI could be played on the week of January 27 through February 3. After due consideration, the NADA decided that they didn't want to face an angry mob of football fans and moved their convention to the earlier date. Car dealers are famous for making deals.

FORD HASSLES LAND ROVER - The Ford Motor Company doesn't like red ink and lost sales, especially when it involves its leadership in the sport/utility field. Witness its fanatical defense of its Explorer in the Firestone tire debacle. In its high-rolling days just a few years ago, Ford bought Land Rover, that venerated SUV icon from England. Ford bough Land Rover from BMW, which itself had been losing lots of deutsche-marks on Land Rover. But while the SUV market rose considerably last year, Land Rover lost its already minuscule share during the same period and this year looks to be even worse. Recently Land Rover became part of Ford's Premier Group of carriage-trade vehicles (Lincoln, Jaguar, Aston-Martin) and now the parent company wants to see a return on its investment. It wants better product quality, reliability and durability. One fly in the Land Rover U.S. ointment is the fact that many dealers have invested heavily in upscale stand-alone showroom facilities and Ford's Premier Group plan is to combine much of its operational on-site services with "branching" display areas. Market experts say that Land Rover is at least five years away from meeting Ford's expectations.

GRAYING OF AUTO WORKERS - Last year, the average age of Lincoln buyers was in the low 60s, while Cadillac buyers were several years their seniors. The average age of a qualified auto mechanic in this country is over 50 and getting older meaning that young guys aren't getting in to the trade to replace those old-timers who leave it. The same "graying" scenario is being played out on American assembly lines where the new vehicles are built. The average age of a worker on the General Motors line is 48 and rising. Ford and DaimlerChrysler are both a bit lower at 44, then comes Nissan and Mercedes-Benz (yes, they make their SUVs here), and to Toyota, where the average is 35 years of age. The gradual aging of industrial workers doesn't have much to do with productivity, but it has a lot to do with the bottom line of a corporation as retirement time comes around. Currently, there's almost three retired GM workers for each working hourly employee. "Transplant" companies (import brands that have assembly plants here) generally have younger workers hired when the plants were new and at the time, they were collectively less interested in retirement than in high wages and health benefits. But as it happens to all of us, Father Time is dogging their tracks.

BIG BROTHER AND THE BLACK BOX - We recently came across a story regarding "black box" recording devices that were put into rental cars. After the cars were returned, the renters were charged extra if evidence of speeding and other recordable traffic offenses showed up. One "speeder" sued and won his case citing self-incrimination and invasion of privacy. He won. Now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into the feasibility of installing black box recorders in new vehicles sold here. One of the claims is that when data recorders are installed in fleet vehicles, their drivers drive more cautiously, knowing their infractions are there to be seen. Safety experts state that highway accident patterns can be better studied if events leading up to the collisions can evaluated. A spokesman for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers said that greater use of black boxes in cars and trucks is all but inevitable. Prior to the attacks on the U.S. on September 11, such intrusions into our private lives would have raised a great outcry, but now it doesn't seem so remote a possibility.

The auto industry never sleeps and as long as this is true, there will always be interesting happenings on which to ruminate.