Auto Show: A Day with David Cole

Granholm, Cole talk batteries on Electric Avenue

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.


Gov. Jennifer Granholm and David Cole, chairman of Ann Arbor's Center for Automotive Research, talk batteries and electric cars during a press preview day for the Detroit auto show. (Photos by the writer.)

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.

Green Dreams

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 DeBono, of the London (Ontario) Free Press

Norman DeBono, of the London (Ontario) Free Press, interviews David Cole.

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.

David Cole chats with Bruce Brownlee, senior executive for external affairs at the Toyota Planning Center in Saline.

David Cole chats with Bruce Brownlee, senior executive for external affairs at the Toyota Planning Center.

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?

David Cole and a giant robot arm

The orange device behind David Cole is a robot arm used in auto manufacturing.

“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,, X-OLOGY Magazine and The Michigan Messenger. His current research focus includes the future of the auto industry.


  1. By Rod Johnson
    January 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm | permalink

    This is a good article, but it would be more interesting if it were a profile of David Cole, who is kind of an enigmatic figure in some ways. I’ve worked down the road from him for years and even spent time at UMTRI, but all my exposure to him has been through the national media. How did he get to be the go-to guy on everything automotive? Is it the family connection?

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 15, 2010 at 12:40 pm | permalink

    I’m sure there were lots of horse buggy factory owners just like Mr. Cole back in the 19th Century too.

    He thinks just the way upper management of the American autos companies have for decades, which is the reason for their near failure.

  3. By jcp2
    January 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm | permalink

    I think you mean horse buggy whip. Early cars were indeed horse buggies with an engine somewhere. Even now, the Landau top pays homage to the days where the carriage driver sat out front, while the passengers sat in the coach, protected from the elements.

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 15, 2010 at 3:03 pm | permalink


  5. By lorie
    January 15, 2010 at 4:37 pm | permalink

    This article was fabulous and thank you.

    It highlights for me what I have seen as the basic gap between what management says and what really happens. I addition, just think, this is guy speaking quietly in the US auto leader’s ears. Its, uh, challenging.

    What we really don’t understand here is that this industry has been run with straw hat labels without real meat to back ‘em up. Look at the leadership of GM – then you read what the real business analysis of the company what and all that education and supposed brain power didn’t do VERY SIMPLE math.

    Its not that complicated. It never really has been unless you are trying to game the systems.

  6. By ROB
    January 15, 2010 at 11:45 pm | permalink

    @Rod – I believe he’s related to Ed Cole, past President or similar top executive at GM. Maybe his son?

  7. January 16, 2010 at 8:33 am | permalink

    @1Rod & @6Rob: Yeah, he is Ed Cole’s son. His aversion to local exposure might be a survival issue. A lot of people probably want to get to him to promote one cause/issue or another. As far as I can tell, Dave is and has always been an objective assessor of the industry. Dedicating that capacity to people who can affect outcomes is probably a good idea. Sorry Rod, maybe your influence is in areas that are not of a major concern to Dave.

  8. By Ken Burkhalter
    January 16, 2010 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the nice article!

    Dave and I were fraternity brothers at U/M in the early 60′s, and I have always admired him greatly for his wisdom and great integrity. As the son of Ed Cole (GM President 1967-1974) Dave could have exploited the connection for financial gains, but has instead dedicated his career to advancing the automotive industry for the good of all.

    Way to go Dave. I’m mighty proud to have known you.

  9. By Rod Johnson
    January 16, 2010 at 9:24 pm | permalink

    Yes, I knew he was Ed Cole’s son–I’m interested in what (if any) part that connection has played in his career. And Gary, my “influence” is pretty meager–I’m lucky if I can get my kids to listen to me. I certainly have no beef with Cole, I’m just intrigued by his relative anonymity locally compared with his high profile in the industry.

  10. January 18, 2010 at 1:28 pm | permalink

    Congratulations on another example of exceptional journalism from the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Keep up the good work.