The decline of General Motors and Ford (maybe they should license designs)

During my two weeks in Hawaii, it seems that the decline of Ford and GM became much more apparent to Wall Street and the general public.  I think I’ve written about this before in this Weblog, but I continue to be surprised that this isn’t covered more from the angle of “What would you expect to happen in a society that pays financial engineers 10-100X what it pays automotive engineers?”  It is true that Ford and GM are being sunk to some extent by pension and health care obligations (something their highly paid financial engineers should have noticed before signing those union agreements), but they’d have a much easier time if they had designs like the Honda Accord or the BMW 3-series sedans instead of the clumsy sedans that they end up having to unload on the rental car companies (is there anyone who ever rented a Pontiac Grand Am and walked away saying “I need to buy me one of these”?).  .  In fact, why should car renters have to suffer with the Pontiac Grand Am?  Perhaps it is time for GM and Ford to give up on design engineering of ordinary sedans.  If you look at Car and Driver’s 10-best cars, the only American nameplates on the list are the Corvette, the Mustang GT, and the Chrysler 300.  The Corvette and Mustang are specialty sports cars that seem to have attracted some able and creative engineers.  The Chrysler 300 is built on top of a Mercedes design and possibly points toward a sustainable future for Ford and GM.  Let the Germans and the Japanese engineer the fundamentals of Ford and GM sedans.  The American companies can tweak the body design and add some electronic intelligence (GM was way ahead of its (moribund) peers with the OnStar system).

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Two weeks of helicoptering in Kona, Hawaii

Just arrived back to Boston from my helicopter experience in Hawaii and here is a report for friends and family…

I have now finished my helicopter instructor rating and also got five hours of training in a Robinson R44 four-seat helicopter, which is required if one wants to be the pilot-in-command of an R44.  My instructor at Mauna Loa Helicopters was a Swiss-German guy named Jerome, a serious and demanding guy in his early 30s.  Until Jerome contracted the helicopter disease, he was a mechanic for the very expensive Swiss diesel engines that run the world’s big merchant ships, so his ability to explain the systems of the Robinson helicopters was better than anyone else I’ve flown with.

Flight training has never been fun for me and six hours per day of training (two flights with some ground instruction in between) left me feeling pretty well beat up at the end of a lot of days.  I had expected to show up there and have the Hawaiians say “You fly so well, just take your checkride tomorrow,” but Jerome immediately noticed that I had a tendency to stop talking at the ends of autorotations and during other potentially scary maneuvers.  He wanted to make sure that I could fly and explain simultaneously during all phases of every maneuver.  One reason that flight training isn’t fun for me is because the goal is always perfection and after almost every maneuver I think of some way in which it could have been better or smoother.  So at the end of every flight I feel like a failure and, indeed, at 200 hours I was not flying as well as Jerome with 800 hours.  This is a common error for students:  comparing themselves to the instructor, who is the only other person around.  On the checkride, by contrast, the goal is not perfect but rather to fly within the standards of allowable sloppiness articulated by the FAA.  Due to nerves, I probably flew a little worse on the checkride than during training, but I felt a lot better about the outcome.

Mauna Loa was a more fun environment than the big city schools where I’ve trained.  Except for the beach, there isn’t much for a young person to do on the Kona side of the Big Island.  Therefore, the students tend to train intensively and hang out together.  By contrast at the helicopter schools in Maryland, New England, and Los Angeles, the students show up for a lesson and then zip off to their day job.

Hawaii is a good place to learn to fly because the weather is almost always reasonable.  The main challenge is the wind, which regularly picks up to 30 knots and more on the windward sides of the islands in the afternoon.  If you’re on the lee side of a ridge trying to do some sightseeing, the ride can get rough and scary.  Students who do all of their training in Kona will get a rude shock when they come to California or the Northeast and have to deal with complex airspace and crowded airports.

How about the rest of the island? On my one previous visit, I loved the Big Island because there was so much open space and it seemed so uncrowded.  That was 15 years ago.  Now it regularly takes 45 minutes to get from one side of Kona town to the other.  There isn’t much room for development between the volcano and the sea, so roads and neighborhoods can seem quite congested.  What is worse is that there is no compensation for the congestion and traffic.  Kona is not a city; it is linear sprawl.  You’ve got Walmart, K-Mart, Costco, and Safeway.  Culture is Borders and a couple of shopping mall multiplex cinemas.  That wouldn’t bother me if not for the $700,000 prices for prefab houses, the paralyzed roads, and the lack of any social focus.  In some ways I think Oahu/Honolulu might be better because at least after you sit in 45 minutes of traffic, you end up among smart interesting people at the University of Hawaii.  Housing costs on the Big Island are very high compared to the available jobs.  Most of the jobs seem to be $10 per hour service and retail.  Crummy condos start at around $500,000.  Ocean-view houses on an acre or two can be $2-3 million, even if they are in some of the areas of the island that receive 20 knots of wind all day every day.  Everyone who doesn’t work in a shop or a hotel seems to work in construction or real estate sales.

There are some funky old towns spread out along the highway that rings the Big Island (about five hours to drive around), but almost 100 percent of the structures built since 1960 are utterly charmless.  With so many houses being finished every week, you’d think that someone would manage to build a charming house by accident, but it doesn’t seem to have happened.  If you compare Hawaii to volcanic islands in Greece, e.g., Santorini, it is remarkable how much extra charm the Greeks get simply by telling everyone to build out of white stone and concrete.  Hawaii should be nicer because it is bigger, offers vastly larger natural areas, has better infrastructure (including L&L Drive Inn!), a much cleaner ocean, etc.  But there is something depressing about seeing so many ugly houses and commercial buildings.  Great place to visit for a few weeks, especially if you’ve got a helicopter rating to finish, but I don’t understand why people would want to live there.

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