Thursday, November 29, 2018

Why Lordstown Had to Close

Image result for lordstown

Long subject to labor strife, the outdated Lordstown plant was long overdue for closure.

"They'll never close this plant!   They have too much invested in it!" was the cry I would hear from GM employees at New Departure-Hyatt Bearings, in Bristol, Connecticut.   Connecticut, once the home of Yankee tinkerers and clockmakers, is today in serious trouble.  Manufacturing left long ago, and the insurance industry left not long after.   You can't support an entire State based on ESPN and bedroom communities near New York City.   Taxes are skyrocketing and more people are on some sort of assistance than not.  It is sad to see the nutmeg State fall so far.

Today, the New Departure plant on Chippen's hill - 22 acres under one roof - is mostly a warehouse for Chinese-made goods.  The writing was on the wall when I was there in 1979.   We were moving out the forge plant machines - huge things that took an entire rail car to move, sticking out ten feet on each side.   They were taken to the coast, loaded on ships, and sent to India.  Shortly before I left, we had an auction to sell off our German-made ball grinding equipment.   Little by little, the plant was parsed out, sold off, and shut down.

And it wasn't hard to see why.   The plant was losing tons of money for GM.   The division was acquired during the Sloan era of vertical integration.  GM would make cars and all the parts for the cars, except the gasoline and tires.   And in the 1930's maybe that was a good strategy.  You could control costs and the cost of parts.  Efficient management and scientific manufacturing principles meant efficiency.   But of course, the unions had other ideas.

And so did the Japanese.  The Japanese used a different system - Keiretsu - where captive suppliers would provide 100% of their output to the car company, which did little more than design the cars and assemble the components.   It was a far cheaper system and one that was more immune to cost increases.

During World War II, the government stepped in and asked GM and other automakers to make war materials.  This went far beyond Ford assembling B-24 Liberators or Cadillac making tanks.   Parts companies made various other war materials as well.  And New Departure made bearings.  Prior to the war, we relied on German-made bearings for aircraft instruments such as artificial horizons and the like.  Tiny bearings whose races were no bigger than a pencil lead, they required precision machining.   So, NDH got away from wheel bearings and into other bearings.  And after the war, they were also making bearings for agriculture, railroad cars, and jet engines - with automotive output being only a fraction of the overall production.

Problem was, they were losing money on most of these sales.   UAW wages were double the wages of metalworkers' unions at a non-GM bearing plant down the road from us - which in turn were easily double what prevailing wages were in non-union shops.  With this kind of cost basis, we simply couldn't compete, and went happily along, losing money on each sale, hoping that the greater GM organization would prop us up indefinitely.   At one point, we decided to stop making Stellite bearings for jet engines for the military, as we were hemorrhaging cash on each sale.  The DoD showed up and explained that we were the only company making these expensive bearings.  Whether they re-negotiated the price or simply went on losing money, I do not know.

The unions were a problem from a number of perspectives.  Granted, in the early days, the union movement was necessary, particularly in places like coal towns, where mine owners could work people literally to death, through illness or accident.  This was less of a problem in the auto factories, although the assembly line could be wearing.   Henry Ford, faced with high turnover in his factories, doubled wages and went to a 40-hour workweek, long before the unions got involved.   His paternalistic approach to his workers, however, backfired on him, as they wanted to maintain some modicum of independence.

By the 1950's, however, the unions were realizing that not only could they bargain for better wages and working conditions, they could hold companies hostage to their demands.   By the 1960's, wages were skyrocketing, and to preserve jobs (and thus preserve union dues income) they bargained for and got, restrictive work rules which insured that three people would be hired to do the job of one.  Management tried to rebel, but the crippling GM strike of 1970 sent a message to the industry - capitulate or else. And it was only one of a series of strikes in that era - including the longest strike in GM history - not-so-coincidentally at Lordstown.  Revenge is a dish best served cold, no?

Not only were restrictive work rules and high wages stifling productivity, outright sabotage, of both products and the assembly line, added to costs and smeared the reputation of the company.   Workers thought it was "funny" to put an empty coke bottle in the car door, so the new owner would be subject to annoying rattles.   People would put a wrench in the conveyor belt chain to cause the line to stop, so they could have a break.   Our plant was subject to a mysterious fire that cost the company tens of millions of dollars to repair.  I witnessed, firsthand, workers sabotaging products out of spite or sheer boredom.  There are a lot of crazy people in the world, and when people feel they can "get away" with things, they often resort to such petty vandalism.  This is why we can't have nice things.

By the time I was a freshman at General Motors Institute (along with a young woman named Mary Barra), GM management had been effectively neutered as Knickers the cow.   Management decided that instead of running the company efficiently, they would merely hang onto their perks, such as they were, and hope to make it to retirement before the Titanic sank completely.   "Don't rock the boat" was the message of the day.  Don't piss off the union workers - who were viewed as fragile hand grenades ready to go off at a moment's notice.   Growing up with a schizophrenic mother, I felt right at home.

Our professors at GMI explained to us that every five minutes, a shiny new Chevy Caprice, complete with vinyl top and optional opera lights, came off the assembly line, making $5000 (the sales price) for GM.   If a strike lasts for a week, think of the lost income!   Do whatever you have to, to appease the workers.  Shine their shoes if you want - light their cigars!

Well, maybe it wasn't quite that bad, but it was bad.  And management took a page from the union, and decided to pad its ranks as well, and do as little work as necessary.   I spend an afternoon with two older gentlemen once, at NDH, adding up a column of numbers.  A task that was supposed to take five minutes was stretched out for hours.   I suspect they would have stretched it out until their retirement, if they could have.

Jeff Bezos gave an illuminating speech the other day.  He said that Amazon, now one of the world's largest companies, will cease to exist one day - as all companies eventually do.   And this will occur when employees lose focus on their customers and instead focus on their own perks.  Of course, this is easy to say when you are one of the richest men in the world and have good perks of your own.  But what he says is true - and troubling for investors - that all companies eventually fail.  And usually this failure occurs when people working for the company want to see how much they can extract from it, rather than working together toward a common goal.   Hourly, salary, shareholder, bondholder, owner, whatever - it makes no difference.  When people (including local municipalities) start to look at a company as a cash cow and their personal bank account - the company will eventually fail.   You can't run a company without customers.

This is not to say you have to work like Elon Musk - staying up 22 hours a day (no doubt with chemical assistance) trying to work through "manufacturing hell", but that people have to be productive and not work against the enterprise, but for it.

Lordstown assembly is a plant with a troubled history.  John DeLorean detailed the problems in his book, On a Clear Day, You Can See General Motors.  The plant was famous for being the site of Vega assembly, and was subject to work slowdowns, wildcat strikes, walkouts, and various forms of labor strife.  They even had a name for it - "Lordstown Syndrome".   The mostly young workforce (at the time) rebelled against plant management.   Over the years, not too much has changed, other than the products offered from that plant are finding a smaller and smaller audience.  If you want a small sedan today, you are looking at a Honda or a Toyota - perhaps a Nissan.   For the price, you end up with a better car and a better deal.  Sales of the Chevy Cruz - the successor to the Cobalt, which was the successor to the Cavalier, which was the successor to the Vega - are fading quickly, and GM is losing money on each one sold.

Like Ford and Chrysler, GM is shedding its car lines to concentrate on profitable trucks and SUVs.  This is what people want.   I just bought one myself, two days ago.  So, to blame GM for closing an unprofitable plant is just nonsense.

But why not switch over to making more popular SUVs?  Ford has done that, converting a plant from small car production to the new Bronco and Ranger.   And Wall Street has punished the stock price as a result.   While these products might be more in demand, and Ford might actually make a profit on them, the profit margins will be a lot slimmer as a result of making them in the US, and in particular, in the midwest, as opposed to making them in Mexico or importing them from Korea or India or China (as GM and Ford also do).  We can only hope the delayed introduction of these two new Ford  products doesn't coincide with a recession in 2020!

One of the workers at Lordstown made a telling comment.  "I have a teaching degree," she said, "but this pays so much better!"   In other words, this person gave up a career for fast and easy money in the assembly plant.   Union wages in an assembly plant are still far higher than in non-union jobs, or even union jobs (teaching) in the public sector!

In addition to all of that, Lordstown is an old plant at this point - over 40 years old.   It makes sense to shift production to newer plants, or to build anew, further South.   But likely GM won't build anew. Like most car companies - and the car industry worldwide - they have a horrendous amount of overcapacity.  It makes no sense to keep factories running with only one shift (as opposed to three) at a fraction of capacity to "save jobs."  Oshawa, Ontario, also slated to close, is running at 15% of capacity, compared to its glory years.   This makes no freaking economic sense.  Ford long ago closed its Crown Vic plant in Ontario.  GM is finally following suit.  And no, they no longer make Camaros in Quebec - that closed long ago.   The cost of doing business in Canada is just too high.

Expecting companies to make poor economic choices just to save a few hundred jobs or to appease a political blowhard President who wants to fulfill a campaign promise is just nonsense.   You can't run a company that way - GM tried, in the past, and went bankrupt as well.   Oh, and for the record, GM paid back all that bailout money, Mr. President.   You want them to pay it back twice?

Of course, the government did own GM stock, which it sold for a $10 billion loss.   Maybe they should have hung onto it?   Regardless of that past history, you can't expect the company to run as a charity - providing jobs in a swing state so that an unpopular President gets re-elected.  If we go down that road, GM could go bankrupt again - and then be bailed out one more time?   You have to expect management to make management decisions, and this includes closing under-performing plants making products no one wants.

A lot has changed at GM since I was there in 1979 - or since the bankruptcy of 2009.   A majority of its profits now come from China.  And those profits could evaporate overnight if trade tensions with China continue.  Already, foreign manufacturers have seen their sales plummet in the world's largest car market, if buying their brand is seen as "unpatriotic" by Chinese consumers.  GM needs to make money on its North American operations, if it is to remain profitable and robust for the long run.

And by profitable, that doesn't mean making a dollar more than you spent.   You have to make a profit that is larger than what investors can get with government bonds.  A profit that represents the risk involved for capital.  And profit is not a dirty word, despite what the new Democratic Socialists tell you.

Running a business or opening or closing a factory should not be a political decision.   Tell that to Mr. Bezos, who played city against city for tax breaks. Since the 1970's, even Republicans campaign on "creating jobs" and thus pander to companies with tax breaks and incentives for relocating to their jurisdiction.   But closing plants?   Where are the incentives to stay?   And if governments make it hard to close an unprofitable enterprise, where does that lead us?  To Communism?  Where governments dictate what products are to be made at what price?  Where factories churn out obsolete products for decades, even though no one wants them?

It is a relevant question, as GM sold off its European operations for that very reason. They tried to shutter or cut back on unprofitable factories in Germany and the UK, only to learn that they needed the permission of the local governments, the unions, and even the customers, before they closed the plants.   And guess who wasn't giving permission?   Peugeot bought GM's European operations - and is in the process of trying to do what GM failed to do - close or cut back on these profit-losing monsters.  It could be the end of Peugeot.

Worldwide, auto production capacity far exceeds actual demand.  And the auto industry is facing a slowdown in recent months, which portends a recession in the next year or so.  Demand, if anything, will slacken.   GM is right to trim its sails now, to prepare for the storm. Workers at Lordstown are not "entitled" to perpetual employment, anymore than the rest of us are (again, tell that to the "Democratic Socialists" - they think a job is a "right").  Obsolete factories selling obsolete products, with a history of labor strife - what's not to like?

And of course, the ultimate irony is that a Republican President - the party of industry and big business - is trying to tell a company what to do and what products to make.  This, after decrying the Obama administration for "picking winners" in the marketplace after the Solyndra fiasco.  But then again, this might turn out to be another situation like Carrier (another one of my alma maters) where the President blusters and bluffs, claims victory, and then everyone loses their jobs anyway.  So long as his followers think he won, that is all that matters for the Reality TeeVee President.

The silver lining is, of course, that there are jobs aplenty in this economy - in auto plants located further South.   This does mean you have to move away from blighted places like Flint, Michigan or Youngstown, Ohio.  It also means that at these new plants, you have to work harder and often for less money, instead of whining about what a rotten deal you got out of life and how your employer is an asshole.

But then again, no one put a gun to your head and said you had to work on an assembly line.  Maybe it is time to "fall back" on that teaching degree?

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Data Diet - The Wireless Experiment Continues...


Going all-wireless has its advantages - and pitfalls.

We are a couple of weeks into our experiment with going wireless.  We were spending about $65 a month on Uverse service, which was slow and spotty and deactivated itself once a year when we went on vacation.   Since you can stream video on your phone (and mirror it, wirelessly, to your television) there seemed to be little point in having a landline internet connection anymore.

We are using GoPhone from AT&T which is now called AT&T Prepaid.   For $40 a month ($40.75 with taxes) you get 6GB of data, which we never went over in the years we've had the service.  Unused data "rolls over" and during the summer months, we tend to use up this rolled-over data when on vacation.   So we decided to sign up my phone for the same plan, giving us a whopping 12 GB combined data for both phones.

Before the month was out, we ran out of data.  The culprits?  Using the wireless hotspot eats up a lot of data.  A lot of websites chew up data with wasteful practices.  I log into a banking site, and they treat me with lots of photos in a slide show of ethnically diverse people grinning like idiots as they check their bank balance on their phone and pay bounce charges.  Most corporations indulge in this nonsense.   Edmunds.com is almost impossible to use anymore, as they play a slideshow of cars you don't want, while you are trying to navigate the site.

There are some options.  Gmail has an simplified site for "slow connections" and I bookmarked that page and use it instead of the code-heavy regular page.  For some reason, the regular Gmail page takes forever to load and uses a lot of data.   On your cellphone, this is less the case, as designers of apps realized that the data bandwidth of cellphones was limited, and there was no time for screwing around with animated logos and slideshows.  But once we get 5G service - watch out!  Because the coders will go back to their evil old ways and load up even simple sites with unnecessary graphics.  IT people should be shot like dogs.

I reviewed the ATT "Prepaid" site and realized we could "upgrade" to an 8GB plan for $50 a month, which after the auto-renew discount is... $40.75 a month with taxes.   In other words, you can 2GB more for the same price as the 6GB plan.  This makes no sense at all, but I clicked on it.  For some reason, Mark's phone upgraded to the new plan and pro-rated it.  With my phone, it charged me for a full month's service (!!) which was a bummer.  The learning curve is steep!

But nevertheless, we are now spending about $20 less a month for communications than before.

There is an $85 plan with unnamed "savings" if you use auto-renew (for the $45 plan, the savings is $5, for the $50 plan, the savings if $10, for the $85 plan, the savings is.... unknown).   This gives a whopping 22GB of data (which is not unlimited per se, is it?) and 10GB for hotspot.   There is a similar plan at $65, but it does not allow for hotspot use.

I think we will experiment for another month and upgrade at least one phone to the "unlimited" plan and see where that goes.   That would be more than enough data to stream movies and whatnot, as well as use the hotspot.  The cost might be slightly more than the previous cost of Uverse and GoPhone, but the flexibility and portability might make it worthwhile.  Or not.  I hate to spend more, and would rather spend less.

I will also explore other carriers - some of which, like Tracphone, are a lot cheaper.   Our phones are rapidly becoming obsolete, so we may have to move to a new phone, anyway, which provides the opportunity to use a different carrier using a different wireless system, if need be.  One idea I've had is to have one phone on one carrier (AT&T) and the other on a different carrier.   Since we travel a lot, sometimes you end up in places where you get service on one carrier, but not on the other.  So it would be handy to have a foot in each camp.

But I think like cutting the cord on cable, cutting the cord on wired internet is the wave of the future.  I am sure the young people already do this - living a dorm or transient apartment housing, it just isn't worth it to sign up for internet installation and hassles, and pay enough per month to get an unlimited data plan on the phone.   When 5G comes along, well, there may be no reason whatsoever to have a wired internet line into your home.

We'll see!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Technological Tour-de-Force or Technological Nightmare?


Self-driving cars are on their way.  In a way, much of this technology is already here.

We test-drove a F-150 King Ranch edition the other day.  The actual King Ranch, in Texas, is in the news lately, as apparently the sugar industry (which King Ranch owns a part of) was taking Florida politicians on free trips there, which is considered - and is - an illegal bribe.   Florida politics!  As nasty and sweaty as a tourist's swimsuit in July.

The King Ranch (and the Platinum, which is similar, without the licensed branding logos) has every available option you can get on an F-150, and the technology is impressive, if not a bit scary.   As I noted before, our "fully loaded" 1995 F-150 came with such exotic options as power windows, air conditioning, and cruise control.   Things like panoramic sunroofs and air-conditioned leather seats were not even thought of back then.

And a funny thing, we have these fancy new options in our Hamster, which is a low-priced "economy" car.   And if you look at the fittings and display screens across different marques, you come to the conclusion that a lot of this hardware is being sourced from the same place - likely China.   And that is the problem for car makers today.  Assembly plants are just that - places where parts are assembled to make a car.   More than half the work in "building" a car or truck takes place in parts factories, not on the assembly line.

When I worked at GM, the Sloan vertical integration system was just starting to come apart.  Back then, Delco made batteries and radios.   Guide Lamp made headlamps.   Fisher body made body panels.   New Departure made bearings.   We made every part of every car except the tires and the gasoline in the tank.    Over the next 20 years, GM sold off or closed these parts divisions (and Frigidaire, Electromotive, and other non-core competencies) and concentrated on just assembling cars.

Some of these spun-off divisions did well.  Others, not so well.  Since GM (and Ford and Chrysler) could source parts from anywhere, they did.  And often this meant overseas, and increasingly, China. So if we start a "trade war" with China, we are in trouble, as the "made in America" automobile is often a collection of parts that are made overseas.

What was interesting about this truck we test drove, was the staggering amount of technology in it - and this was a 2016 model - the technology has ramped up since then. Ford invested heavily in Aluminum body technology (which went on the market in 2015), and other manufacturers have yet to follow suit.   Ford took Obama's 50-mpg CAFE requirement for 2025 seriously.  I guess the others felt they could lobby their way out of it. Trump had granted a temporary reprieve, but the requirement will eventually kick in, perhaps by 2030 this time.  And if a far-leftist takes office in 2020, perhaps sooner.

I think other companies may follow Ford (of course Land Rover was doing this back in the 1950's, so they are ahead of the curve and learned hard lessons about galvanic corrosion).  In a way, it is like Boeing and the 787.  Boeing went "all in" on composite technology and Airbus sneered that it wouldn't work.   Now, years later, Airbus is playing catch-up and developing an all-composite aircraft of their own.

Ford has also invested heavily in turbocharging.   In the old days, you had a choice of the old 300 c.i. in-line six, or the 302 or 351 V-8's.   Ford long ago chucked its pushrod engines for overhead cams. And today, they offer two twin-turbocharged V-6's (2.7 and 3.5 liters), a 5.0 liter V-8 and a 3.3 non-turbo V-6 that no one talks about.   These turbo V-6's crank out a lot of power - more than the 225 HP my old 302 was good for, and even more than the 265 HP the naturally aspirated 4.0 in the Frontier makes.

Some are skeptical about these engines.  Turbochargers have a long history, and in the early days, they were not very reliable.  Oldsmobile offered one in the mid-1960's and then quickly pulled it from the market.  High temperatures and high rpms meant that turbo life could be very short.   Early turbos required oil lines from the engine to keep the bearings lubricated and cool.  Shutting off the engine with the turbo at high speed could result in oil starvation.    When the turbo eventually died, the cost of replacement was staggering.  And back then, turbo lag was a real issue.

A lot of these problems have been solved over the years, and turbos are no longer esoteric technology.  Nevertheless, it is an increased level of complexity, and when complicated things break, they can be hard for the backyard mechanic to fix - and parts can be costly as well.  Ford recently re-designed their 3.5 "ecoboost" turbo for the 2017 model year.  Earlier versions seemed to work well.  We'll see how the new one lasts - we'll know by 2027.

Then there is the transmission. Ford relied on a pretty durable 6-speed transmission, but in 2017 offered a ten speed (!) transmission that they co-developed with GM.  GM in turn developed a 9-speed front-drive transaxle that they share with Ford.   The staggering cost of development has to be shared - even among bitter rivals.  The jury is out on the ten-speed, although review sites say it shifts well and performs well.   But from a durability standpoint?   Ten sets of clutches?   Again, the more complicated something is, the costlier it is to fix.   You have to hope it never breaks, as your only option at that point is to yank one from a wrecked truck or pay thousands (tens of thousands?) for a factory replacement.   It is unlikely that the local transmission shop will be able to rebuild such a monster.

The gee-whiz options we ordered on the hamster are, these days, pretty common across all car lines.  Like I said, my friend with the Mercedes was annoyed that the "luxury" features of his E-class were available in my lowly KIA.  High-end stereo systems, pushbutton start, heated and cooled leather seats, LED and HID lighting, [panoramic sunroofs, and so forth can be had on any vehicle these days, and needless to say, the King Ranch had all of these and more.

In addition to pushbutton start, the truck had remote start and the newer ones have start/stop technology, that shuts down the engine when you stop at a stoplight (the tow mode on the transmission disables this, though).  You can even program your cell phone to start the truck remotely - from anywhere in the world there is internet service.  Want to make sure your battery is topped off when you park it in long-term parking at the airport?  You can start the car from your cell phone - while you are in Japan - and run it for a few minutes.  Of course, doing this while the car is parked in your garage might be a bad idea - unless you plan on murdering your sleeping spouse with CO poisoning (what a great plot device for a mystery novel!).

Micro-impulse radar devices are now mainstream - mostly as backup sensors.  We even have this in our mid-level "SV" Frontier.  I was treated to a demonstration of this technology at Lawrence Livermore laboratories back in the late 1990's.   Today, it is everywhere.  In addition to beeping when you are about to back over a small child, side sensors can detect when you are about to hit someone next to you.  Forward sensors are used for "adapative cruise control" which will allow you to lock onto the car ahead of you for miles and miles.   And if the guy ahead of you slams on the brakes, an accident avoidance system warns you and then applies the brakes if you fail to do so in time.

Toss in "lane control" which warns you if you are wandering out of your lane - and takes control of the steering wheel if you fail to respond, and you almost have Tesla's vaunted "autopilot" technology.  Almost, that is.   But it is getting closer and closer to the real deal.

The nice thing about the new trucks is the technology for towing.  Back in 1995, the "tow package" included a class-IV load receiver, a seven prong plug, and a pre-wire for a brake controller.   You also got a heavy-duty suspension and a transmission oil cooler.  And some trucks had a "tow mode" which changed shift points on the transmission.   Today, trucks have all of that, plus much more.

Towing anti-sway is standard even on a stripped F-150 XL and other manufactures, such as Jeep offer this as well (probably from the same parts supplier, again)  If the trailer starts swaying, it corrects it electronically.   I got into a sway situation once many years ago, and it is like  a tail-heavy airplane - dynamically unstable.  Any attempt to counteract the sway makes it worse.  It is like the stealth fighter - only a computer can control it.   This sway control is a  nice feature to have. 

Trailer Hitch Assist provides a hitch camera has a line that curves to show you how to line up the trailer with the hitch.  Nice touch, although a simple backup camera, such as on the Frontier works fine for me.  Backup cameras were unheard of in 1995, today they are pretty commonplace, even on mid-level optioned vehicles.

A built-in brake controller is offered on the F-150 at certain trim levels.  Saves the hassle of wiring up a controller yourself, but provides even more features.   You enter the data on your trailer, including weight and length, into the dashboard interface, and the brake controller is programmed with the correct settings.  You can store up to 18 trailers in memory this way.

The BLIS - blind spot information system - uses micro-impulse radar transmitters in the rear taillghts to monitor whether anyone is in your blind spot - including next to the trailer -  and alerts you before you change lanes.  This is a really handy thing, as people love to ride next to the Casita while looking at it, and on more than one occasion, I have almost sideswiped them.

Backup Assist is kind of a lame feature, if you know how to back up a trailer.  You turn a knob to move the trailer right or left, and the truck backs up slowly and steers itself (an extension of auto-parallel park).  Of course, you can do the same thing by simply turning the lower half of the wheel in the direction you want the ass-end of the trailer to go.

But the technology doesn't end there.  There is a "parking assist" system that allows you to push a button and the truck parallel parks itself.   This is nothing short of magic.  Of course, this feature has been out a few years now, but it is still freaky to see the steering wheel take on a life of its own.

The truck also had 360 degree cameras - which lets you see all around the truck.  Combined with a backup camera on the trailer, and well, you can see everything.  Again, this is not "new" tech today - I saw this on a KIA 900 sedan a few years back.   It is nice, but not really necessary.

The King Ranch is distinguished by its retractable running boards - something that Cadillac uses on its SUVs as well.  Oddly enough, there is no sensor on these running boards, so if your leg, a rock, or a small child is next to the truck when you open the door, they will get whacked by the running boards, and I saw no way to disable this feature.   As a test, I extended my leg under the truck and opened the door, and the retractable step shot out and nearly broke my tibia.

I could go on and on.  Electronic locking rear axle.  Anti-lock brakes. Traction control.  Airbags everywhere, including in the rear seatbelts.   All the usual toys and things one expects these days - voice activated navigation, high-end stereo, bluetooth connection, USB ports everywhere, a power inverter with two 110V outlets (for what, I don't know), massaging seats with 10-way adjustment and three memories, adjustable brake and gas pedals, memory steering wheel position (leather and heated, naturally) spotlights and puddle lamps in the side mirrors, which also have turn signals behind the glass - and so on and so forth.

And of course, the heavy King Ranch leather - heated and cooled seats - as well as armrest, and real wood trim, panoramic sunroof, and more buttons and switches than a small airplane has.   It is an amazing display of technology at work - in pickup truck no less.  It wasn't long ago that the idea of a "luxury truck" was laughed at.  In the 1950's, Dodge got a lot of flack for making a pickup with smooth bed sides and wheel covers and whitewalls.   Who would in their right mind buy that?  But within a few years, every manufacturer offered "fleetside" pickups and "luxury" features like cigarette lighters and a sun visor on the passenger side.

So, with all this technology, what could possibly go wrong?   Well, a lot, it seems.  And that gives me pause.  The truck we test drove was a "CPO" trade-in with 25,000 miles and a super-clean CarFax.  Other than a scratch here and there (and the disintegrated remains of a tonneau cover which was inexplicably left on the truck) it was in good shape.

Others, less so.   I mentioned before the odd 2017 model I saw for sale - an early 10-speed version, serial number 80 off the line.  It was shipped to the dealer in the fall of 2016 and sat for two years on the lot, only to be titled as a fleet vehicle (perhaps to the dealer itself) in the fall of 2018 (months ago!) and then auctioned off just last month and offered for sale (and apparently sold) at a Florida dealer.  What gives with that?  Was it wrecked in transit or during a test drive?  Or did the new 10-speed transmission give it fits?

After looking at the King Ranch, we saw another one for sale in Florida.  The dealer was up-front about the condition, displaying the CarFax and explaining that the truck has been bought-back by Ford as a "lemon law" recall.   I almost cried reading the CarFax report - it seems the owner brought the truck back for the same problem almost every month he owned it.   You can imagine the frustration the original owner felt owning this truck:

Date:Mileage:Source:Comments:
09/06/2015   NICBVehicle manufactured
and shipped to original dealer
09/25/2015  9  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Pre-delivery inspection completed
Wheel locks installed
10/04/2015   Dealer InventoryVehicle offered for sale
12/04/2015  114  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Vehicle sold
12/04/2015   Arkansas
Motor Vehicle Dept.
Rogers, AR
Titled or registered as
personal vehicle
12/11/2015   Arkansas
Motor Vehicle Dept.
Vehicle purchase reported
12/28/2015  516  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Exterior trim checked
01/15/2016   Arkansas
Motor Vehicle Dept.
Rogers, AR
Title #761004431026
Title issued or updated
First owner reported
Loan or lien reported
Vehicle color noted as Red
01/29/2016  3,039  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Engine/powertrain computer/module checked
05/10/2016  6,226  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Tires rotated
Engine electrical system checked
06/17/2016  6,265  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Engine/powertrain computer/module checked
Engine checked
09/13/2016  9,478  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Engine checked
09/22/2016  9,742  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Engine/powertrain computer/module checked
Exterior trim checked
10/05/2016  10,433  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Engine/powertrain computer/module checked
Engine checked
10/28/2016   Arkansas
Motor Vehicle Dept.
Rogers, AR
Title #761004431026
Registration issued or renewed
Loan or lien reported
Vehicle color noted as Red
06/26/2017  19,823  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Tires rotated
07/28/2017  20,766  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Drivability/performance checked
07/28/2017   Arkansas
Damage Report
Accident reported
09/27/2017  21,881  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Electrical system checked
10/11/2017  22,327  McLarty-Daniel Ford
Bentonville, AR
479-250-0401 
https://bentonvillef
ord.com/
Drivability/performance checked
11/13/2017   Arkansas
Motor Vehicle Dept.
Rogers, AR
Title #761004431026
Registration issued or renewed
Loan or lien reported
Vehicle color noted as Red
02/26/2018  23,047  Michigan
Motor Vehicle Dept.
Farmington, MI
Title #298G0541124
Title or registration issued
to manufacturer
06/13/2018  23,472  Gary Crossley Ford
Kansas City, MO
816-781-4844 
garycrossleyford.com
/
Maintenance inspection completed
Tire condition and pressure checked
Drivability/performance checked
Oil and filter changed
07/15/2018   Gary Crossley Ford
Kansas City, MO
816-781-4844 
garycrossleyford.com
/
Tire condition and pressure checked
09/26/2018   Ford Motor CompanyManufacturer Customer Satisfaction Program issued
Program #18N03 DOOR LATCH FREEZING CONCERNS

Locate an authorized Ford or Lincoln Mercury dealer or call 866-436-7332 to obtain more information
11/06/2018  23,473  Seller Disclosure
Missouri
Listed as a manufacturer vehicle
Manufacturer buyback disclosed by seller
Vehicle sold at auction
11/12/2018   Dealer InventoryVehicle offered for sale
11/16/2018  23,476  TrueFrame: ProView
Inspection Report
trueframe.com
Vehicle inspected for prior damage

Minor damage reported

Cosmetic repairs found to: rear-end

View the complete ProView Report

Not only was there some "drivabilty" issue, it appears that in November of 2017, the dealer wrecked the truck while test-driving it.   It was rear-ended apparently -  not a serious accident.  Nevertheless, this is a shitty CarFax report - if you ever tried to sell this truck, anyone reading it would give pause, particularly if you tried to unload it within a few years of buying it.   The 12-month warranty offered by Ford is reassuring, but on the other hand, if the issue isn't resolved, you could end up like the original owner - frustrated.   The discount in price offered isn't that great, considering the risk the potential buyer is taking and the scarlet letter CarFax that accompanies the truck.

The dealer is up-front about the condition (unlike the FSBO guy I almost bought from) but says the issue was a "display" that Ford replaced.  I am not sure how a display related to drivability and engine control issues.  I would like to see the service records and exactly what was done to "fix" the problem (and why the original dealer couldn't fix it over a period of two years).

I doubt I would buy that truck, unless it was heavily discounted and I had a grasp of what the problem was (and the solution).   Bear in mind that sometimes "lemon law buybacks" have less to do with the car being a "lemon" than the buyer having remorse.  I recall more than a decade ago, going for a drive with a friend in Vermont who bought a fully-loaded S-class Mercedes. Back then, things like pushbutton start and massaging seats were novelties limited to German cars. Today, they are in pickup trucks and hamsters. 

It was a nice car, but staggeringly expensive.  And I think he realized after buying it that it was more car than he could comfortably afford.  So he raised a stink about how it was a "lemon" by claiming faults with the car and hiring a "lemon law" lawyer to write threatening letters.   The company bought the car back, and he got out from under the payments.

And I suspect a lot of these "lemon law buybacks" are along the same lines.  After all, there is no such thing as an unfixable car.   An inexperienced mechanic may have trouble diagnosing problems, and there may be teething problems with some new technology.  But the idea that a car is so unfixable that it has to be scrapped is pretty ludicrous, unless of course, the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the vehicle.   And I expect that will be the case when a lot of these 10-speed pickups are 15 years old and the transmission loses a gear or two.   They just won't be worth fixing, and that aluminum body will have a greater value as scrap than as daily transportation.

But what this CarFax illustrates is that this technology can be wonderful, but potentially turn into a nightmare.   If your cell phone goes beserk, you can buy a new one (or a used one) fairly cheaply.   If the Hamster or the Frontier throws a rod through the side of the block, I can afford to walk away from the vehicle - they cost only $25,000 each and are likely worth half that today.

When people buy $70,000 pickup trucks, though, well, it is a different story.    You have to hope this stuff works and works well.  As I noted in my "Why You Don't Want a BMW" posting, you can spend twice as much on a fancy car like a BMW, and get half the value out of it.  It not only won't last twice as long as a more plebian Toyota, it likely won't last nearly as long as a more plebian car.   Old BMWs get expensive to fix, which is why a 10-year-old 7-Series can be had for a song.   No one can afford to repair all those broken toys that such cars come with.

And the problem with electrical gadgets is not that they break, but that they get flaky over time and do weird things.  That, and they become obsolete in very short order.   Bluetooth connectivity seems really cool today, but in a decade, could be as outdated and quaint as the cassette decks in my BMWs.

Maybe a better bargain is a stripped down XL with a towing package....