Monday, February 02, 2009

Travel Rewind: Detroit and the North American Auto Show (1/25/03)

Travel Rewind: Detroit and the North American Auto Show (1/25/03): (In honor of the North American Auto Show's dutiful continuance in the face of the Carpocalypse, here is a re-run of my attendance from back in '03. The only thing I can say about this is that the comments about Detroit are as accurate today as they were then. Although I should have been less snarky, I claim validation.)

In the days before I attended the North American Auto Show, there was a minor dust-up going on about this article wherein some English journalist trashes Detroit.

"This is the biggest annual motoring festival in the United States but is held in the bleak and frozen inner-city wasteland that is Detroit. They advise you not to go out alone after dark in the centre, not that you can walk far in Motor City, where the pavement is a mere add-on to the wide roads and the cold freezes your breath on your lips."

The good people of Detroit loosened the thick woolen scarves from around their faces to shout in outrage. They fumed behind their triple locked doors. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (who gives new meaning to the term Black Irish) dashed off an angry letter to the London Times in protest. Detroit may be a fiscal mess, but he has his priorities. How dare they?

Now, I'm generally delighted to lambaste some euro-weenie who takes the opportunity to dis' things over here. After all, what business does this clown have denigrating the weather? Does he miss the year-round sunshine and balmy North Sea breezes of England?

But sadly, I'm on his side with regards to Detroit. Many, many people, including some of my friends, bristle when someone complains about Detroit. It just the reputation, they say, in reality it's not that bad.

Well, I'm sorry, but it is that bad. Oh I know, you can have some fun -- Greektown is fine and there are casinos and new stadiums and so forth. But that all misses the point.

While much of the country has experienced significant drops in violent crime, Detroit has always been one of the most dangerous cities. It may not be the murder capital of the nation anymore, but I bet it has never slipped out of the top five.

It is dirty and run down everywhere you look. They may have built a glistening new stadium, Comerica Park, yet directly across the street is a building that has been abandoned for ten years, covered with boarded-up windows and graffiti.

The infrastructure is atrocious. The People Mover? Don't make me laugh. As transportation it is only slightly more effective than the horsey ride outside of Wal-Mart. Streets lead off in seemingly random directions and it's not like you have any signs you can follow. Basically, you should not drive in Detroit unless you already know how to drive in Detroit.

The civil servants rival those of Washington D.C. for discourteous deportment.

Example 1: Naturally, due to the Auto Show, traffic was a mess down there -- bumper to bumper. At one point someone to the left of me needed to cut across in front of me to the right lane so that he could make a right turn. I let him through, but before he could make the turn he found himself being berated by some traffic cop for cutting across lanes. Now, there was no danger here, no one was going more than half a mile-per-hour. The guy was probably from out of town, just struggling to find his way around. But if you are a Detroit traffic cop, why pass up the opportunity to get in someone's face?

Example 2: I'm in a throng of people, now about 27 minutes into a wait on the People Mover platform. We have all been shepherded back a safe distance from the tracks by a transit worker. One couple is trying to keep their little kids under control but, bored from standing around for almost a half-hour, one of them breaks free and crosses a couple of feet out beyond the safe distance. The transit worker shouts, "Now I'm not a babysitter! You are going to have to keep those kids under control!" Even as a veteran of many trips to Washington D.C., the capitol of dismissive rudeness, I was amazed at the manner of these people at a time when the city should have been on its best behavior.

When you point things like this out to Detroit defenders, they say "that's just one bad experience" or "all cities are like that" or the classic, "it's not that bad." The underlying assumption is that everyone is just reacting to an unfair reputation. Despite all the statistics and all the experiences that make people flee Detroit, the powers behind the city proclaim it's really just an erroneous perception. So the response is to use public money for enormous rebuilding projects and to run PR campaigns claiming that Detroit is on the road to Renaissance and everyone should lend a hand.

Detroit has been rebuilding for the entirety of my adult life. Businesses are regularly duped or guilted or bribed into locating downtown, only to find that no one wants to work down there. Yet you can always find someone to appear on the local news express indignation at any belittling of the city, invariably invoking the phrase, "it's not that bad."

Yes, it is that bad. You can build all the bright shiny monoliths tax money can buy and they will still be outnumbered by the boarded up edifices between them. You can put on sporting events and festivals and auto shows, but people are still treated rudely, and every visitor to Detroit has the crime rate in the back of his mind.

Pretty buildings and public relations do not make it better. Convincing a lot of people to say "it's not that bad" doesn't make it better. The only thing that will make it better is to actually make it better in reality, not just words and facades.

But I was going to talk about the Auto Show.

One thing I noticed was, in contrast to the outside world, the Auto Show was not dominated by enormous SUVs.

I dislike SUVs. They are gaudy and crass. They block your view at almost every turn. They cause you to have to back out of your parking space blind. What's worse, the only way to see beyond them is to buy an SUV yourself. They are like an automotive virus.

And yet, if I was still in the market for a new car I would consider buying one just to irritate people who feel that SUVs help terrorists. That has to be one of the silliest, most poorly reasoned opinions I have ever heard. The supposition that oil consumption "helps terrorists" is ludicrous. By that way of thinking, if we did away with all petroleum based products and lived in caves, we might impoverish the terrorists to the point where they had to live in caves. That's terribly inefficient. It is more efficient, and less troublesome, to pay for the A-10s and Special Forces to make the terrorists live in caves. And to do that we need to buy the A-10s and pay the Special Forces. And to do that we need to have a strong economy that generates enough tax money. And to have that we need to a lot of commerce, which requires the use of petroleum. I'd be willing to bet there's a strong correlation between oil-consumption and tax revenue.

So why pick on SUVs as if oil consumption for SUVs is evil, as opposed to other oil consumption? Simply, because they block your view and disrupt your parking and generally annoy you in many ways. But you can't really get on your soap box and build yourself a noble cause out of fighting something that is just annoying -- you have to fight something that is immoral. Thus, the effort to ally SUV drivers with terrorists.

That's why I would consider actually buying one; just out of righteous indignation towards the righteously indignant.

But I was going to talk about the Auto Show.

I attended the Auto Show as part of a marketing project put on by a company called Gongos Associates, who were quite obviously employed by GM. My mission was to spend time evaluating three exhibits and responding to survey questions about them. In return I would get free admission, $8 for parking, and $75 for my trouble. The Saturn, Pontiac and GM Advance Tech exhibit were assigned to me. I suppose there is relationship between me getting those exhibits and the fact that I recently bought a Toyota Camry, but I cannot fathom what it is.

The results of my evaluation: Saturn had a very cool setup. Terminals where you could build your own car (virtually, of course) and they had a rotating platform with seating -- about the only place in the entire show that had seats. But the cars remain some of the most plain vanilla vehicles ever produced. [Update: still true. - dam]

Judging from the Pontiac display, they are about to go the way of Oldsmobile. Nothing much to show, no razzle dazzle, and pretty dour looking employees. They had a couple of things that looked like video games, but I don't think they actually did anything except play a video when you sat in them. Weird. [update: Despite the short-lived G8, I still maintain there is no reason for Pontiac to exist. - dam]

The GM Advanced Tech exhibit had one interesting tech demonstration -- a Drive by Wire car. Drive by Wire basically means all inputs are computer controlled. For example, when you hit the gas, instead of a mechanical link to the carburetor or fuel injection system, a sensor measures the pressure you exert and transmits an electronic signal to tell the fuel system how hard to kick it up. Similarly, instead of a mechanical link between the front wheels and the steering wheel, desired changes in direction are transmitted electronically. The effect is that control is much more consistent and precise, and there are safeguards built in to stop you from doing something stupid, like causing a spin out. Think of it as anti-lock brakes in the extreme. Advanced military aircraft have had this for years. It's a much better use of modern technology than, say, voice recognition. Have you ever spoken to a machine? I don't know about you, but I'd feel like a complete tool sitting in traffic and talking to my car.

Other than that there was nothing special at the tech exhibit. There was a truck standing up on four hydraulic lifts being jostled around, and an engine being run under various stressful conditions. These were designed to demonstrate how committed GM is to testing and quality -- despite their reputation -- thanks mostly to Cadillac, which is always bringing up the rear in any quality surveys. [Caddy's doing better these days. -dam] Speaking of Cadillac, they had a sofa sized, 16 cylinder, 1000-HP engine on display. Terrorists praised Allah.

With my assigned duties completed I was able to spend time wandering the rest of the show. As I said, SUVs are on the way out. The new big things are station wagons, which were last seen as new big things in the '60s. These new-breed station wagons have a little SUV influence. They are a little taller and sit a little higher of the ground than normal cars, but they don't go anywhere near the extreme of SUVs with their truck pretensions.

I like these nouveau wagons. They are technically referred to as Crossovers, as in they cross-over the line between cars and SUVs. They come in all shapes and sizes, and offer a good deal of character. Despite the commonality of the station wagon, the designs vary considerably.

Getting a lot of attention was the BMW xActive, which had a number of interesting features, not including the cutesy high-tech name. Along the same lines is the Infiniti FX45. There's even the Maserati Kubang. These are meant to meld the look and vibe of quality sports cars with the practicality of the station wagons. They are quite fetching, and I would consider getting one, but I'm afraid I would have to become a player first -- you know, read GQ, buy art deco kitchen appliances, hit on women at Starbucks, and so forth.

Some crossovers are just funky cool -- the Dodge Kahuna for example, although I would never buy a Chrysler product for quality reasons (I know three people who have had Chrysler products spontaneously combust). Equally funky and fun is the Honda Element. Yeah it looks goofy, but it's my kind of goofy. Of all the cars I saw, this was the one I would have possibly purchased over my Camry, had it been available at the time. [Not a bad call - dam]

Of course there was plenty of extravagance out on display also. Daimler introduced the Maybach. At 330,000 simoleans, the target audience is those who find the top of the line Mercedes too downscale. The Maybach was placed in the middle of a large platform behind velvet ropes and under high security -- the peasants were allowed to view from afar, not touch. Problem: even from afar you could tell that the Maybach is just plain ugly.

Less expensive but equally ugly is the entire line of Cadillacs. Sorry, but that toothy grill and those chrome encircled headlights make me think of a dorky looking guy with thick glasses and braces. In their commercials, they always show these freaky things in contrast to beautiful tail-finned classic Caddies from the '50s. Talk about advertising your faults. [Not a good call - dam]

These cars are for people who are long on money and short on taste. They are the automotive equivalent of Anna Nicole.

Is the Auto Show a good time? Yeah, sort of. It could be. There are lots of shiny cars to see and sit in. There are big flashy displays. There are smiling spokesmodels. On the other hand, it's crowded all the time. You might think mid-afternoon on a weekday would be less popular, but no -- it is always filled with people.

It would be fun to casually walk through for about an hour or so, but that's it -- unless you had another purpose: you were actually in the market for a car or you were with some friends and planning on dinner and gambling afterwards at Greektown. Absent something like that, it really becomes just a big auto showroom that you must survive the squalorous insanity of Detroit to reach.

How to make it better? Have it in the summer -- outside (or at least open air), give it twice as much space and locate it somewhere you can actually get to without having to adopt an eat-or-be-eaten mindset to survive.

Until then, I'll pass on future Auto Shows, unless I get offered a lot more than $75.

Originally posted 1/25/2003