Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Seven strikes -- Need evidence that GM is structurally unfit to compete effectively on the world automotive stage? The for-now world's largest automaker has seven minivan nameplates that combine for just 14.1% of the mini-van market. With the Odyssey alone, Honda sold just 2,931 fewer minivans.

Clearly there's an execution problem. GM has brought nothing innovative or class-leading to the segment (other than the Warner Brothers co-branding). But, the fact that it would take minivan fans even greater than ourselves to distinguish among the General's newest offerings has to be a big factor.

How could GM settle for four singles and not swing for the fences on at least one new model? Our guess is Azteck-phobia and the dealer tail wagging the GM dog. Nobody wants to be the guy who green-lights the next Azteck, so they steer clear of what could be the next, say, Dodge Caravan. And, no single-branded dealer wants to get saddled with the high-risk entry if another dealer on the automile is getting the more conventional model.

Shame really that GM hasn't figured out how to use it's brands and dealer network to deliver a mix of safe and out there that Honda (see CRV and Element), VW (Golf and Beetle), Toyota (Echo and Scion xB), etc. manage to do routinely.

At one point, wasn't Bob Lutz castigated for saying that, in the end, he thought the Azteck wasn't so bad? Maybe it's time to instill some more Azteck-like thinking.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

We can't be trusted -- For years, various Car and Driver editors have been railing against the command-and-control nature of traffic regulations. As one example, the regular drumbeat to get rid of the arbitrary, one-size fits all national speed limit in favor of road-specific limits that reflect the 85th percentile speed. The argument: traffic finds a rational compromise between speed and safety.

Now comes Patrick Bedard to criticize roundabouts, the poster traffic device for letting motorists take care of themselves. His concern? Morons can't navigate them. The solution? Traffic lights.

Huh?

The beauty of a roundabout or rotary is that it relies on driver discretion, self-interest, and survival instinct to manage traffic. No government regulation. No arbitrariness. Few opportunities to turn traffic control into revenue opportunities. In most cases, if the dopes can't figure it out, only the dopes suffer.

How to explain Bedard's apparent philosophical about-face? His big bugaboo is traffic calming -- efforts by traffic engineers to design roadways to slow traffic by infrastructure rather than fiat. Traffic-calming devices include speed bumps, raised intersections, chicanes, and roundabouts. All are designed to discourage traffic to travel slower than it would otherwise by appealing to self-interest. If you travel faster than the devices intend, you won't get a ticket. You'll get an uncomfortable jolt, or find yourself up on a curb, your undercarriage a mass of twisted metal. (Roundabouts and rotaries are not only traffic-calming devices. They are often used where traffic management is a goal. In some cases, they can be effective in allowing traffic to move more freely and, ultimately, faster.)

Bedard apparently thinks traffic calming is never legitimate. He values "the quick flow of traffic" above all else. We at Downshift Central recognize that there are roads for which the quick flow of traffic ought to be the secondary goal (behind a reasonable level of safety). On arterial roads, any tertiary goal lags far behind.

But there are by-ways where there are higher priorities than a quick flow of traffic. In some residential and commercial neighborhoods, traffic moving at the 85th percentile speed creates unacceptable noise; limits the use of the road and abutting sidewalk and yards for pedestrian, commercial, and recreational activities; and constrains the movement of non-vehicular traffic across and around the road.

Put more plainly, a Cadillac Escalade (hell even a Toyota Prius) barrelling down a narrow residential street at 40 mph may not constitute a safety risk, but such traffic changes the character of the neighborhood. Sometimes, there are bigger issues than how fast you can drive.

Our go-to traffic engineer has a far more productive saying than Bedard's -- the right traffic on the right road. People and goods need to be able to move freely across town and across country. So a network of quick-flowing traffic, effective mass-transit, and multi-modal freight shipping is essential. But not every slab of bitumen is essential to those ends.

We don't know enough about the approaches into and out of Sedona to know if there are legitimate reasons to calm traffic. Might be. Might not be. But the problem isn't roundabouts. The problem is the narrow thinking that every car on every road is entitled to go as fast as is safely possible.

What's the opposite of alfalfa-smoking?