Posts Tagged Volkswagen

Other People’s Cars: Citroën 2CV

Citroen 2CVThe Citroën 2CV or deux chevaux is essentially France’s version of the Volkswagen Beetle, and was very surprised to find one at work yesterday morning. I’m not sure where it came from, but it definitely looked out of place parked among the late model sedans. I wish I had my camera with me; the above photo is of a 2CV I saw in Paris awhile back.

The 2CV is a “people’s car.” Like the Beetle, Fiat 500, and Mini, it provided basic but economical transportation and helped mobilize a nation. It’s also a cultural icon and boasts one of the longest production runs of any car.

The last 2CV rolled off the assembly line in 1990, after 42 years of production. That puts it in the same club as the original Mini, which was produced from 1959 to 2000, and the Beetle, which was produced from 1938 to 2003. Considering that most cars are redesigned after four years, these people’s cars’ long lives are very impressive.

Key to the 2CV’s longevity was its simplicity. It featured a small engine that was easy to work on, rugged suspension for dealing with less-than-optimal road conditions, and front-wheel drive for better traction.

Durability was the 2CV’s only real positive quality, though. The engine and suspension may have helped mobilize French farmers after World War II, but they could not provide enjoyable performance or handling. “Comfort” was not on the list of priorities either.

As its styling makes abundantly, clear, the 2CV is a car from another time. It was designed for a world that viewed cars as tools, not lifestyle accessories. Whereas car designers today try to model their products on smartphones, Citroën’s designers looked to the cockroach for inspiration.

Today’s Western buyers can’t tolerate a car as unrefined (or, it has to be said, as unsafe) as a 2CV, which shows just how far technology has progressed since 1949. It’s just too bad that new cars aren’t as bulletproof as this French wonder.

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“Job Creators” at work

Photo courtesy of VW.

“Car companies will go to an awful lot of trouble to avoid dealing with the United Auto Workers Union,” Jamie Kitman declared in a recent Automobile column. Volkswagen’s new factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee is not only far from the UAW’s Detroit stronghold, it’s also near a sewage treatment plant that makes the city stink during periods of light rainfall.

Still, With its new factory and plans to build cars for Americans with American labor, Volkswagen seems like a corporation sent by central casting to confirm the right wing rhetoric of “job creators” and laissez-faire economic policies. However, the truth, as Kitman points out, is never that rosy. The corporate set will always put money first, and the American people should realize this before they entrust the private sector with their future.

If Volkswagen can pull its Americanization strategy off, it will be a marketing coup. The car company founded by Adolf Hitler was always among the most foreign of foreign carmakers in the American market. To shed this image, VW tailored the new Passat to ‘murican tastes: it is bigger and simpler than the outgoing model, with a softer ride and duller handling. It also has a bigger optional engine than its predecessor, although it is less efficient. In short, the new Passat is less like a European sports sedan and more like the car most Americans buy: the Toyota Camry.

The new car may seem inferior, but so what? Volkswagen is finally speaking our language, complete with a hillbilly twang. More importantly, the plant that builds the Passat will employ thousands. That, however, comes with a caveat. Volkswagen followed Toyota’s lead in more ways than one. In addition to tailoring products for the American market, they have made sure to place their factories out of the reach of unions.

Detroit may be the home of the American automobile, but the Deep South is the home of the Asian automobile. Nissan has three plants in the South: two in Tennessee, and one in Canton, Mississippi. Hyundai has a factory in Alabama, and its subsidiary Kia has one in Georgia. Toyota has five assembly plants spread across the U.S., in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana, Texas, and West Virginia; another plant in Mississippi will open soon.

All this means that, yes, people in rural areas have easier access to work. It also means that management can turn the tables on these workers any time they want. A few years ago, when General Motors was facing bankruptcy, critics blamed the UAW for its inflexibility. It wasn’t just idle union-bashing: the Japanese and Korean carmakers made significant cuts to production costs by offering fewer benefits. It’s a good way to do business, but is it the American way?

Volkswagen may have had other reasons for building its factory amid the sewage fumes of Chattanooga, but the main benefit will probably be the more malleable Tennessee workforce. Many Americans are desperate for work right now, but they need to think about whether they can live with said job for the rest of their lives. Politicians may not seem interested in helping average people, but at least the law obligates them to serve those people. The big wigs at VW’s corporate headquarters are only obligated to serve the bottom line.

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Do smart cars make dumb consumers?

“I didn’t realize the car in front of me had stopped short,” the talking head on the television screen says,” luckily, my Mercedes did.”   A Lincoln is not just a luxury car, “It’s smarter than that.” In a crash, a VW Jetta will automatically cut its fuel pump, unlock the doors, and put on its hazards, because that is the smart thing to do. ExxonMobil even has smart gasoline.

Technology-enabled irresponsibility is making intelligence as important to buyers as fuel economy. Despite the recent tenth anniversary of The Matrix, most people do not seem to think that handing over everyday tasks to machines is a problem. In fact, researchers are working on making the human driver irrelevant. Volvo recently tested a “road train” of autonomous cars, and a robotic Audi TT sports car recently tackled the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb.  But few are questioning the ramifications of this technological shift.  Should we really give the wheel to robots?

Proponents of robo-cars point to the fact that humans are terrible drivers.  Anyone who has driven in Worcester, or even tried to cross the street, can attest to that.  We get tired, angry, and distracted.  We don’t get adequate training and then panic when faced with a difficult situation.  Our reaction times are glacial.  The proliferation of electronics in cars is only making things worse.  Recently, I encountered a car swerving wildly between lanes as its driver talked on the phone.

So autonomous cars will save us from ourselves; they will get us to our destinations faster, more efficiently, and more safely.  And since we won’t have to concentrate on driving, we’ll have plenty of time to do important stuff, like watch YouTube videos.

It all sounds great, but I’m not convinced.  Blaming all car crashes on driver error ignores mechanical faults.  Every year, most major manufacturers recall thousands of defective vehicles.  These defects are usually minor, but sometimes they can be serious.  In a couple of high-profile cases, Ford Pintos exploded when rear-ended and Explorers’ tires shredded under hard cornering.  At this time last year, America was besieged by out-of-control Toyotas.  I may not trust the idiot in the next lane, but I don’t trust his Camry either.

Even if a car is mechanically flawless, the roads it drives on probably aren’t.  Autonomous cars will need “smart roads” with sensors imbedded in them; the cars will use these sensors to orient themselves.  Go outside right now and take a look at your street.  How long do you think a delicate, expensive, piece of electronic hardware will survive there? America’s infrastructure is in bad shape and will require a significant investment just to make it safe for regular cars. Since funding for public works has become entangled in the larger debate over government spending and taxation, it is unlikely that large amounts of money will be invested anytime soon. Americans hate the delays roadwork causes and the taxpayer money it consumes with a passion; they will not tolerate the amount of maintenance a “smart road” will require.

Autonomous cars are taking people out of the equation, but few proponents have pondered the cars’ affect on the people themselves.  At one time, technology as viewed as a tool, a way to assist human beings in their endeavors.  Now, it seems like technology is supposed to do everything for us, while we vegetate.  Cars used to be powerful cultural symbols, they represented progress and freedom.  Driving is now viewed as a chore and cars are viewed as gas-guzzling money pits.  Given the automobile’s contribution to global warming, this may not be a bad thing.  But the loss of interest in driving is.

People used to take pride in their driving, like hitting a baseball or reducing a complex thought into 140 characters, it was a skill.  Operating (or even riding in) a motor vehicle will always be dangerous, but danger can be managed when people take it seriously.  Germany’s unrestricted autobahns are not a cruel Darwinian experiment because Germans take pride in their driving.  American always have better things to do, and that’s why so many of us are terrible drivers.  If you are really too busy to pay attention to driving, maybe you should take the train.

Good driving can be more than a safety issue. Caught between the ever-expanding powers of the wealthy and the fear of big government, individual Americans are feeling increasingly disenfranchised. Consumerism has become an attempt to empower people in a society that otherwise ignores them: individuals can express their personal qualities through their purchases. A Mercedes, Lincoln, or Volkswagen is a “smart purchase,” thus it shows the consumer’s intelligence.

Individuals should not let themselves get backed into a corner like this. Building a car that watches the road ahead denies its driver the opportunity to show that he or she is skilled enough to do so. It may seem frivolous, but how autonomous can individuals be when their only real choices in life are purchasing decisions?

Humans are pretty bad drivers, but the fact is that we are still capable of being good drivers and we should not let ourselves off the hook.  Today’s society worships convenience; if we encounter something that we are forced to do, we look for an excuse to not do it.  Self-driving cars will only make us lazier, and no utopian future is every built on laziness.  Instead, people will demand more convenience.  They will ask machines to help them, so they can stay in front of the computer all day.  The machines will oblige them, although they may want to harvest a little electricity in return.

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