Editor’s note: David Cole, who heads the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, agreed to let veteran journalist Howard Lovy shadow him during the lead-up to this year’s Detroit auto show.
It is the first day of the press preview for the 2010 North American International Auto Show and Ann Arbor’s David Cole is strolling down “Electric Avenue.”
The “Avenue” is an actual strip of Cobo Center real estate where electric-vehicle makers show off their wares. But it is also a branch of a metaphorical road, paved with “green technology,” that is supposed to lead to Michigan’s future.
Cole is skeptical. Not that he doesn’t think that the auto industry is getting cleaner and greener – he and his Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR) have been instrumental in steering Detroit down this path. But he is skeptical that it is happening as quickly as many in politics and the media have hyped it. And the hyperbole has been flying fast and furious so far at this year’s Detroit auto show.
A self-described natural introvert, Cole is nevertheless not shy about throwing just a little cold water on green dreams to whomever will listen. And, as Cole is one of only a handful of first-tier automotive analysts, a great many people listen.
On the first day of the auto show press preview, those listeners range from a reporter for a small Canadian newspaper to the governor of the state of Michigan.
In fact, Cole is talking about how all-electric vehicles will remain nothing but a niche product for the foreseeable future, when Gov. Jennifer Granholm strolls by, going the other direction on Electric Avenue.
“Governor, how are you?” he says, as Granholm steps away from her entourage and warmly greets him. The two of them launch into a conversation that one senses is a continuation of a previous dialog, or an ongoing one, that they have been engaging in for some time. It’s about battery technology – a topic that is near and dear to Granholm and her vision for Michigan’s economic revival as a center for automotive battery manufacturing.
Cole is repeating his mantra that the batteries that will power the plug-in electric vehicles – which the federal and state governments are pushing – are still not ready to transform and revive the auto industry, no matter how hard the government hypes them.
“The concern that I have is that we drive it too hard before the battery is economical,” Cole tells Granholm. “And for the next five years, it’s just not going to be economical.”
The governor responds that federal and state incentives – for battery makers to improve the product, and for consumers to buy them – should help bridge that gap.
Cole: “As long as there’s a realistic approach on the regulatory side so that you don’t drive things faster than …”
“… what’s doable,” Granholm interrupts.
“… than what’s doable,” Cole continues. “And it looks like zero to five years is not going to be economical. But once you get five-plus, that’s where the numbers start to kick in.”
Granholm has a rebuttal for Cole, but to understand where the rest of the conversation is going, let’s rewind Cole’s auto show tour about an hour, and listen in on a discussion he had with a Canadian journalist.
Norman De Bono of the London (Ont.) Free Press approached Cole following a Toyota press conference to talk about the revival of the U.S. and Canadian auto industries.
During the interview, De Bono makes a statement rather than posing a question. “This comeback is going to be a green comeback,” he says, echoing sentiments often repeated as fact among the auto show press corps.
“Well,” Cole said, drawing out the word for emphasis, “this is a really big issue because, frankly, we don’t know whether the price of fuel next year or in five years is going to be $1.50 a gallon or $5 a gallon.”
A buck fifty, even two bucks, consumers don’t care so much. Five dollars a gallon and, yes, the green auto revolution is on.
Right now, though, the reason the auto show is filled with small, efficient hybrids has little to do with what consumers want. It’s about meeting new government fuel efficiency standards. This is a government push, and not a consumer pull. What is uncertain in all this is where exactly the consumer fits in, along with the price of fuel. That’s a “wildcard,” Cole said. And with all the alternative fuels and new battery technologies available, he suggested, we’re likely to see less-expensive gas.
That point brings us back to Cole’s conversation with Granholm over on Electric Avenue, where he tells the governor that it will be another five years before the cost of new lithium-ion batteries will become “economical.”
“When you say ‘economical,’ you’re referring to economical for the company,” Granholm says.
“No,” Cole replies. “I’m saying economically in terms of consumer purchase.”
“Well, except for the (federal and state government) incentives,” Granholm says, hopefully.
“Yeah, the incentives are a bridging strategy,” Cole replies, then quickly adds. “But it’s not there yet.”
What Cole is doing in this exchange with the governor is what he always does no matter what the audience: be sober, be realistic, don’t let anybody get too carried away or too short-sighted.
“One of the things that we’ve tried to do is to get people to think very realistically about technology, to not get really too far out or too far behind on it, but … focus on what’s … realistic, and we have a pretty good feel for that,” Cole says. “It’s easy for people to get caught up in the hype of technology.”
Stone Cole Sober
This kind of sober analysis has worked for Cole and makes his advice and analysis very much sought-after by the news media and auto industry leaders. An example: Chrysler/Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, in town for the auto show, called Cole and wanted a meeting. Note that Cole did not need to call Marchionne.
Cole dismisses the attention and just says that he is quoted a great deal in the media simply because he is old enough to be in a lot of Rolodexes. Really, he’s much more comfortable out of the spotlight.
“I’m an introvert,” Cole says. “It’s not easy. I’m not a sales type of guy at all. I act like an extrovert when I’m out and about, but that’s not my normal inclination. I would tend to be more in the back row rather than somebody that sits in the front row.”
“Out and about” at the auto show, one could hardly tell Cole is an introvert. Auto racing magnate Roger Penske passes Cole in the corridor and waves. “It’s a good place to wander around and make connections,” Cole says of the auto show.
Cole runs into Bob Larsen, of Argonne National Laboratory, a Department of Energy facility in Chicago. He talks to Larsen about developing a “portal to get IP in and out of the auto industry,” and wants the DOE to be involved.
“I’d love to chat about it with you, but I’ve got to go say hello to this guy over here,” Cole says, turning to Bruce Brownlee of the Toyota Planning Center in the Ann Arbor area, to whom he speaks quietly – a conversation clearly not for public consumption.
Asked later what he and Brownlee were discussing, Cole said, “There’s a legal case where I happen to know both sides pretty well and it’s a bad situation. They need to settle it.” Cole will not say what the case involves, except that it’s “something related to technology.”
Window into the Soul
Moving past the Ford displays and a giant robot arm, Cole stops to chat with Doug Pergament, automotive vice president for Sirius XM Radio. They briefly chat about business. Cole: “Are profits starting to come together?” Pergament: “Yes, we’ve had three consecutive quarters of positive cash flow.”
Then they talk about what could be described as a window into Cole’s soul: Which of the 130 or so satellite radio stations does he listen to?
“Now, I’m a pretty conservative guy,” Cole says. “I listen to Fox News.” He also loves Laugh USA because of its good, “clean” comedy, and Radio Classics – old shows like The Lone Ranger and The Shadow – because it makes him “feel younger.”
Howard Stern? Well, when he signed on to Sirius, “for both my wife and I that was a negative.”
Pergament says he understands that Stern is controversial, but getting him on board helped satellite radio achieve “critical mass.”
There may be a good business reason behind Sirius signing Stern, which Cole can appreciate, but he remains unimpressed. “There are some people that are into his humor,” Cole says. “I am not.”
Moving along, a freelance writer for The New York Times decides to politely chide Cole for his conservatism. They talk about President Obama’s proposed health-care plan. Cole is opposed because he has a problem with that massive of a “government takeover.” The NYT writer’s trap is set, and he springs it. “You conservative guys jumped over the fence for a little while,” he says, when it came to a government bailout of the auto companies.
Well, that’s different, Cole says, refusing to be baited. Bankrupt auto companies “would have taken the whole supply structure down, and then taken the industry out,” he says. So, government-run health care? Bad. Government bailout of auto companies? Good.
He has no problem balancing the two, just as he has no problem working with people of all political stripes.
Where’s Ann Arbor?
This takes us back to Gov. Granholm, with whom Cole enjoys a good “apolitical” working relationship despite philosophical differences. “In terms of auto, we are politically, absolutely neutral and our focus is to make sure that we use the best knowledge that there is,” Cole says.
Granholm confirms this relationship.
“Part of our strategy – the battery strategy we’ve taken on as a state – was thanks to the advice of Dr. Cole’s group,” Granholm says. “If CAR had not advised us that this is where it’s headed, we wouldn’t be doing this.
“A year ago, I signed the bills here for the battery incentives, and here we are this year, when coupled with the federal, Michigan really is going to be the battery capital of the world. So, yeah, CAR has been instrumental.”
If Michigan is truly going to be manufacturing batteries, then Ann Arbor’s role will continue to be the intellectual property hub.
“Ann Arbor’s a unique community,” Cole says. “We’re probably never going to have anybody make anything there,” but it is the place where the ideas come from – largely through University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman’s variation on the old academic mantra, “Partner or perish.” UM is aggressively pursuing business relationships to turn academic ideas into business realities.
“Ann Arbor’s got a community where you have critical mass in some important areas related to people that generally are on the front edge of technology,” Cole says.
It also doesn’t hurt that, especially in a region that gets a bad rap nationwide, Ann Arbor is seen as a tolerable place to live.
“One of the real values of Ann Arbor, particularly in southeast Michigan, is it’s a place where you can get people to come from outside,” Cole says. It’s very difficult to get, say, technically skilled people to come from other areas. You can do it, but it’s hard because of the state of the economy, the state’s reputation and the state of the state.
Cole then adds something that could also describe his own role at the Detroit auto show.
“Ann Arbor has some ability to attract.”
Veteran journalist Howard Lovy has focused his writing the last several years on science, technology and business. He was news editor at Small Times, a magazine focusing on nanotechnology and microsystems, when it first launched in Ann Arbor in 2001. His freelance work has appeared in Wired News, Salon.com, X-OLOGY Magazine and The Michigan Messenger. His current research focus includes the future of the auto industry.