Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gazing Into Ford's Crystal Ball

As I peer into the crystal ball it appears that there’s a possibility Ford Australia may be able to throw a lifeline to the parent company in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s a prospect that could more than make up for the death of indigenous manufacturing at Broadmeadows.
Crown Victoria Cab
First, however we have to take a trip to the USA. Any regular visitors to America will be aware of the huge business Ford Motor Company enjoyed with its sales of Ford Crown Victorias to taxi fleets and police departments, and also the great sales generated by the ubiquitous Lincoln Town Car as ‘livery’ cars (aka Limos).
Lincoln Town Car

All that business dried up overnight when Ford decided it would no longer make the clunky old Crown Victoria/Town Car, because the design was dated (body on frame) and needed too much investment to reinvent.

Lincoln MkT 'limo'
Also, Ford was confident it could convince the markets that it could effectively replace these cars with a reworked Lincoln MkT SUV. Trouble is the buyers didn’t want to know. The taxi/police/livery markets simply said: “No way.”
Taurus Police Interceptor
The Taurus-based FWD Police Patrol Vehicle (PPV) received a similarly lukewarm reception.

Let’s now hop on a jet to Europe, where Ford has never had a ‘big’ car in its lineup since the death of the unloved Scorpio. There are quite a few opportunities for ‘big’ cars in Europe, and the UK, but they are so limited that Ford of Europe could never justify the investment.
Now, back to Australia, and we arrive to find that Ford Australia’s designers and engineers have done an outstanding job designing and engineering the Figo small car, the Ranger ute and the Territory SUV. That’s not to forget the exceptional job it did on the current Falcon, operating on the tiniest of budgets. Make no mistake, in engineering terms these products are world class. And, all done by the talented team Down Under.
Okay, you couldn’t really sell Falcon in global markets, because despite the fact it looks and drives so well, it really is clunky by contemporary global standards, and should have been wholly replaced years ago. However, a new Rear Wheel Drive platform designed and engineered by the same people who brought you Figo, Ranger, Territory and Falcon could just be the product Ford needs in a number of markets.
2012 Taurus - what next year's Falcon could look like
As one of my wise friends points out, the current Taurus can’t be sold as a Falcon right now, because there’s no RHD version.

But, what if the current car could be eventually replaced by a new platform engineered for RHD, LHD, FWD, RWD, AWD, SWB and LWB and developed by the Ford Australia engineers.
Like the Ranger, it could be all done in Australia, and made and sold in a number of global markets. It could even be sold in Australia as a Falcon, except local manufacturing may be a past glory by that time.
I'm certain Ford Motor Company does not want to jettison the big investment it has in Australia, not only in design and engineering skills, but also manufacturing experience - but it could bring Ford Australia into line with Alan Mulally’s ‘One Ford’ policy, by harnessing those skills and experience across a single platform development.
This concept may just be my own personal dream, but I would be thrilled if it came to pass. It could make up for management missteps of the past, in one decisive stroke.
Just imagine, Ford Australia could provide a replacement for Crown Victoria taxi and police cars, Town Car limos, Scorpio, Falcon and whatever else a RWD platform could become - and you know it would be a globally-competitive product if it was done in Australia. I hope so!

Holden's Hot Wheels

You don’t have to be an auto industry insider to wonder at, and question, the chasm in distance and difference between business and product decisions made by GM Holden, and its ‘competitor’ Ford Australia.
Whilst Ford Australia faces the potential ignominy of losing its manufacturer status Down Under, GM Holden is going from strength to strength. It’s decision to introduce the Cruze sedan is paying off; Commodore is still Australia’s preferred ‘big’ car, it’s profitable and Holden has new models headed here which will entrench the company as the leading manufacturer.
In New York last week GM continued to show its confidence in the Holden operation, and journalists attending the New York Auto Show came away with some tantalising teasers about future developments.
Chevy/Holden Malibu
First will be the local assembly of Cruze sedan and hatch, followed by the Malibu as the replacement for Epica, and also the prospect of a Malibu wagon based on the Opel Insignia wagon.
Then, waiting in the wings is the Chevy Volt, which undoubtedly will wear Holden badges before long.
Chevy/Holden Volt

Bob Lutz told me many years ago that Holden was a true jewel in GM’s crown and needed to be nurtured, protected and encouraged as a centre of engineering excellence. He has long been a supporter and cheer leader for the Australian division, and that confidence will be endorsed as the new product plan rolls out in Australia, and the Australian engineering and development work becomes a reality in future global GM products.
The Holden-designed Cruze hatchback was shown in Geneva in March and a detailed look at the design, fit and finish, margins and overall quality reveals that this is a well-engineered car. In Australia Cruze sales started slowly, but have been building steadily, and the diesel model is also growing in popularity.
Chevy/Holden Cruze Hatchback
When the Malibu arrives here to replace the unloved Epica, I believe it will strengthen Holden’s market position significantly. It’s a good-looking car built on the global Epsilon platform which means that build quality will be easier to achieve and maintain. GM invested heavily in the development of the Epsilon platform, and it is key to the success of a number of models including Buick Regal and Opel Insignia.
The Ford Australia team must be looking enviously at Holden’s model spread, market potential and probable success from this explosion of new product.
Automotive News writer Rick Kranz is promoting the idea that GM could create a wagon version of Malibu very quickly, by adapting the Opel Insignia design cues. He’s not wrong.
Opel/Chevy/Holden Insignia/Malibu wagon

A compact wagon, the size of a Mazda 626 wagon would be a great addition to the GM lineup. In New York last week GM’s Mark Reuss didn’t deny that rumour/possibility.
The only downside for Holden right now is the strength of the Australian dollar against the greenback, which must be badly affecting export pricing for the Police Patrol Vehicle (PPV), that’s based on the LWB Holden Caprice. The currency situation must also be causing GM to rethink plans to export consumer versions of the Holden Caprice to the USA, as a Chevrolet.
Holden has endured almost as many ‘when-the-music-stops’ changes in CEOs as Ford Australia has in the past few years, but there still seems to be much more uniformity and cohesion in GM Holden’s decision-making than Ford Australia, despite a succession of CEOs. Also, Holden appears to ‘have a seat at the table’ in Detroit - something which Ford Australia has never really enjoyed in Dearborn.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Personal Mobility - What's Coming?

There’s a paradigm shift in personal mobility coming at us at warp speed. Now that the oil price regularly sits above $100 a barrel we need to get serious about the future beyond engines powered solely by gasoline and diesel.

The fuel(s) of the future, their availability and use will dictate what we drive, how we drive and when we drive. In fact as this is being written we are beginning to see a significant loss of the freedom and independence which personal mobility provides now.

Whichever route is chosen we have to have not only widespread availability of fuel, but also the infrastructure to deliver it to our vehicles. Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) recharged solely from the power grid are not a practical option in countries like Australia, the USA and Canada, where single journeys can average around 30km.

Renault Zoe

In fact BEVs could be a good solution for crowded environments like Europe, Japan, China and India – but only if the recharging infrastructure is built. But, really it’s just a City Car concept at best, like Renault’s Zoe BEV.

The term ‘Range Anxiety’ is now a part of the lexicon, and the limited distances over which BEVs can be used without a long and unproductive recharge cycle really rules them out as personal mobility devices, the way we currently see our cars.

This leaves us with two options at the moment – first, Hybrids (like the Lexus CT200H) or Extended Range Vehicles (like the Chevy Volt). These are the only formats which provide a decent distance, and allow freedom to move about that we now enjoy.

Lexus CT200H

Beyond that, electric cars are a solution, but only if they’re powered by Hydrogen, or even Natural Gas.

The choices made by the car manufacturers over the next ten years are critical to their survival, because if they choose the wrong format, they lose in the marketplace, simple as that.

In France, Peugeot is developing a Hybrid 3008, using a diesel engine rather than a petrol version, and it already enjoys good relationships with a number of manufacturers and could share its hybrid-diesel technology.

Peugeot 3008 diesel-hybrid

Mercedes-Benz is moving towards Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs), as is Honda, Hyundai and Toyota. The recent F-Cell World Tour using three B Series FCEVs was a good indicator of how advanced Mercedes-Benz technology is.

Mercedes-Benz B Series F-Cell

General Motors is currently selling the Chevy Volt, an Extended Range Vehicle (ERV).

Ford is hedging its bets. Firstly, it is a joint-venture partner with Mercedes-Benz in developing fuel cell technology, and as well it has a range of Plug-In BEVs on its drawing board.

In Australia however, the clear differences in choices between the two leading makers (GM & Ford) once again show that Holden will likely emerge a winner, and Ford Australia will (again) get left behind. Both companies have an entrant in the Green Car segment, and GM is on a winner, and Ford is on a loser.

Chevy Volt

Holden will launch the Volt ERV, and Ford will likely try to compete with the Focus Plug-In BEV. Holden’s Volt will go around 400km, the Focus will travel roughly 100km before it needs an 8 hour recharge.

Focus BEV

The reason Ford Australia will be forced down this path is because Ford of Europe isn’t working on ERVs, because its European drivers travel shorter average distances, so it thinks BEVs will suffice.

The Australian market is too small and insignificant to create a special car for this country, so Ford Australia will simply have to take what’s available.

Affordable Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles are at least ten years away, plus there is the question of a Hydrogen gas refuelling infrastructure. However, Mercedes-Benz is very well advanced with its FCEV technology and could have affordable technology in less than 10 years. It’s at that point Ford could have a winner.

As far as infrastructure for hydrogen refuelling is concerned, this is a very easy series of decisions. If enough car manufacturers choose the FCEV format, then the investment, building and maintenance of a refuelling infrastructure is practical, affordable, sensible and profitable – it just needs some enlightened venture capitalists to get in first and begin the project to build such stations on a global basis.

So where does this leave our Personal Mobility Paradigm? Enjoy how you drive today, because 20 years from now it will be a distant memory.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Falcon - Market Reality Bites!

To stem the potential for poison-pen letters from Ford fans I’d like to point out that the survival of Ford Australia’s indigenously-designed and built Falcon is at the mercy of market mechanisms, and poor planning by both successive federal governments and bureaucrats. 
Don’t get me wrong, as a passionate car enthusiast and a seasoned automotive executive I think the current Falcon is brilliant - on so many levels. Design, styling, engineering, interior, comfort, performance and build quality, to name a few. It’s just the wrong car at the wrong time, soaking up Ford Australia’s meagre investment dollars.
The sad thing is that this great effort by a talented team of car designers, engineers and manufacturing people has ended up looking like a loser, when it’s such a great car.
Market mechanisms are working, as they should, if you build and price a product nobody wants, they don’t buy it! Simple.
With regard to the naiveté and plain ineptitude of government and public service planning, nothing highlights its failure to provide good policy, than the success enjoyed by the car companies via their highly-professional lobby group, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries.
Car companies bleat that they need financial help to survive, and governments buckled. The response from government is that it’s protecting jobs and helping to maintain skills in a significant manufacturing sector.
Well, it could have succeeded at both those aims even if it had not provided financial incentives to the industry. Let the market do its work. Car companies pretty soon work out what they should be selling, when the market mechanisms are allowed to put pressure on product offerings.
The plain truth is that Australia’s tiny population can’t support car manufacturing on the scale we’ve seen it. It makes no business sense at all, and government responses (of all political colours) has made matters worse by propping it up with taxpayer dollars that could  be used elsewhere to wider social benefit.
Sure, it’s great to maintain those skills, but freeing up the import duty regime, and opening up the market to competition has seen Australians enjoy a disproportionately higher number and variety of cars than some overseas markets. We have great choices.
What could Ford Australia have done better? Going back ten years or more, its management(s) could have initiated a post-Falcon plan. The fact that they didn’t does not pay a significant enough tribute to the employees of this long-established company. They deserve better.
Operating on the smell of an oily rag Ford Australia teams have consistently, over the years, produced some great cars, the current Falcon being, without a doubt, the best version of the car, ever!
Get used to seeing the V8 Supercar ranks made up of locally-built Holdens, and a Taurus with a V8 engine and a Falcon badge on it in the not too distant future. It’s not whether, it’s when!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Falcon Hits The Wall!

I will make a bold prediction. After the ‘refreshment’ of the current Falcon in 2012, there will be no more Australian-designed-engineered or built Falcons. There simply isn’t a business case for investing a single dollar in a new Australian-made big car – especially with Alan Mulally’s ‘One Ford’ project gaining strength. Especially with Falcon sales continuing to fall like a lead weight.

This week’s announcement by Ford APA Engineering Chief, Jim Baumbick, reported in Go-Auto, that: “My single focus down here has been to meld Ford’s Australian operations into the global One Ford network, while leveraging the Aussie team’s talent, experience and expertise.” puts the final nail in Falcon’s coffin for my money!
Ford Australia-engineered Figo

After the local team’s great work on the Figo small car for India, the Ranger ute for Asia and the new Territory, Ford Head Office wants to ensure all this talent is directed into future products that MAKE money, not lose it! There is no doubting the depth of experience and expertise at Broadmeadows and Geelong, and Ford Motor Company is showing great judgement in keeping it fully-employed.
Ford Australia-engineered Ranger

That also means it will not spend any effort and energy on another time-wasting, money-sapping Aussie Falcon. Already Ford Australia diplomatically announced that the four cylinder turbo Falcon was on indefinite hold – it’s my belief that this concept bombed badly in clinics, and with many dealers.

Ford Australia-engineered Territory
 Imagine these scenarios? Anyone thinking of buying a four cylinder turbo would look at the Falcon four-pot, and just ‘see’ a big car. Traditional Falcon buyers won’t touch it because it sullies the image bred by V8 SuperCar racing, and also, it doesn’t make any sense – at all. Plus, fuel economy and performance disappears once you hitch up the boat trailer or caravan.

New Territory, which I think is a brilliant effort, could continue without Falcon, even though there’s a lot of common parts, but there are so many reasons why soldiering on with Falcon is a dumb idea.

Get used to an All Wheel Drive Taurus with a Falcon badge – Falcon fans have to get their kicks with some genuine Detroit iron.

The Down Under division is NOT 'The Falcon Motor Company of Australia'- it's a 'part' of Ford and it should play the most effective part it can. Designing and engineering profitable vehicles.

You read it here first!

Monday, April 4, 2011

It's March, Melbourne and the AGP!

Racing at the Australian Grand Prix began under a dark and cloudy sky, but thankfully the sun shone on race day. Unfortunately it did not shine on Mark Webber. In practice he and teammate Vettel swapped fastest times, but on race day he was overhauled by the world champion, and Vitaly Petrov, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso - really, Webber wasn’t in the race.

As usual Webber’s disappointment was marked by a phlegmatic reality check. He said himself: “I under-performed.” However, it makes you wonder if the two Red Bull F1 cars are truly equal. In a media interview I overhead team boss Christian Horner say: “We try to provide the same cars for both drivers.” What??

I’m conscious that F1 does not strike a chord with some people, probably only the fanatics, but there is no doubt that technically the sport does advance the frontiers of technology. So much so, that the FIA keeps inventing modifications to the rules to retain some sense of equality, and keep the big teams from steamrollering the small teams with money and technical brilliance.

An interesting development has been the Marussia-Virgin team’s decision to use “Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)” rather than depend for aerodynamic design to flow from a wind tunnel. F1 experts tell me it costs thirty million pounds to build and run a wind tunnel, and Virgin seems to think they can optimise their aerodynamics by computer modeling, rather than watching air at high speed ruffle some cotton tags. The decision certainly preserves its miniscule budget.

Despite the skeptics I really enjoy F1, and there are certainly some great characters, and many talented people who command respect for their ingenuity, determination and hard work.

Murray Walker

For me however, it’s always the people I enjoy meeting. I had a great chat with Murray Walker, who was in great form, and thrilled to be Down Under again, having just flown in from the Clipsal 500 in Adelaide.

Murray & Ron Walker

I spent some time with the gracious and energetic Chairman of the Grand Prix, Ron Walker.

Niki Lauda & Walter Rohrl

There were also a lot of past champions, including Niki Lauda, and Walter Rohrl.

Probably my most interesting meeting was with Billionaire Russian Eugene Kapsersky, who is the founder and chairman of Kasperky Lab, the world’s fastest-growing anti-virus software. What a character!

Eugene Kaspersky

Sir Jack, Mark & AJ

One highlight on race day was a photo session with Sir Jack Brabham, Mark Webber and Alan Jones. I think it’s remarkable that Australia has produced such great drivers.

Even more so when you think that our premier formula today is the rubbish, silhouette series called V8 Supercars, which everyone seems to think is wonderful. It’s nothing but a theatrical parade of dollars, egos and virtually identical cars, masquerading as sport.

An Australian F1 Grand Prix may well be priced out of our reach in years to come, so I’m just glad I’ve been around to witness our F1 AGPs from 1985 to the present.

(Photos: Getty Images and John Crawford)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Have Seen The Future - But Our Politicians Haven't!

How’s this for political arrogance? This month Mercedes-Benz brought it’s Fuel Cell program to Australia, as part of a 30,000km drive around the world with three F-Cell Mercedes Benz ‘B’ series cars. So far the cars have travelled 11,000km and they were in Australia to drive from Sydney to Melbourne, and across to Perth.

The F-Cell Drive - Round Trip from Stuttgart

The program travelled to Melbourne via Canberra, and for weeks the Australian division of Mercedes-Benz has been sending invitations to all our senior politicians, Government, Opposition, Greens and Independents. None responded to the invitation to come along and see what Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) were, and the potential the technology held for reducing emissions, and dependence on fossil fuels.

That’s right, none responded! How serious are these jokers about cutting carbon emissions? Not at all. What you’re hearing from the benches today is all political hot-air. Paul Keating was right, the government doesn’t have a policy on carbon. In fact it has precious few policies on anything.

The opposition is no better. It has shifted its major spokesman on carbon reduction, Malcolm Turnbull, out of the limelight so he isn’t a threat to ‘Gorilla-Man’ (just take note of the way the Opposition leader walks?). We all know the Greens don’t have any rational policies for reducing carbon emissions, or anything else for that matter, so why should I be surprised?

This demonstration by Mercedes-Benz is powerfully persuasive, and engages on human, social, technological, economic and rational levels, and is worth looking at. The interesting thing about the planned outcomes is that certainly M-B will use the technology for its own cars, but it is happy to share the knowledge and its real-world testing experience with anyone!

The leader of the company (Automotive Fuel Cell Corporation - a joint venture between Mercedes-Benz and Ford) is Andreas Truckenbrodt, who possesses excellent credentials to work in this field. He is an engineer par excellence. He is also an aerodynamicist, automotive engineer, fuel cell technologist and is a very humble, but dedicated guy.

Ing. Dr. Andreas Truckenbrodt

Mercedes-Benz began its experiments in fuel cell vehicles as far back as 1991, producing its first driveable car in 1994. Since then it has created fuel cell powerplants for buses and trucks, as well as cars, and has amassed a staggering amount of knowledge, experience and real-world results.

What does a Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle emit? Water vapour! Wouldn’t you think our politicians, whose current schemes threaten to wipe out Australia’s prosperity, would want to at least take a look at this technology - even if it didn’t accord with their own thinking?

Mercedes-Benz is the first to admit there are logistical and economic hurdles to having big fleets of fuel cell cars driving around anytime soon, but believe me the challenge of jumping these hurdles is NOT rocket science. Any political party dedicated to cleaning up carbon emissions from cars could pull together a plan to make FCEVs part of our motoring future.

Not even a return phone call! Makes you wonder how bright the boys and girls we elected really are, doesn’t it?

I’ll write more on the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell program in another posting.

Andreas, me and the B Series F-Cell