Auto manufacturers discover “vaporware”

“Some day soon our new software will enable you to…” <insert marketing fantasy>

This has been a consistent tagline in the software business: product announcements couched in the vocabulary of insurgent revolutionaries, extravagant promises and lofty ideals. What follows after several years and multiple apologetic post-scripts to the original press release, is a shadow of the original vision or more likely: nothing.

Recently in the grip of a bad case of the environmentalist fever (finding its way into lame advertising slogans along the lines of “most efficient V8 in its class“) automobile manufacturers are taking up this ancient art and perfecting it for mainstream appeal For example, there is the Chevy Volt from General Motor, an electric concept car with 40 mile range that promises to eliminate fuel consumption for majority of commuters. While still boasting two engines, the Volt improves on the hybrid concept: instead of having both engines drive the power-train, only the electric motor is hooked up to the wheels and the internal combustion engine is run only to charge the batteries. On the website it is described in glowing terms:

“Off-the-line torque is instantaneous, giving you responsive acceleration. Plus, this four- to five-passenger sport sedan still maintains the passenger and cargo capacities of a production car.(2) You’ll also enjoy the benefits of features you’ve grown to expect — driver and front passenger air bags(3) and the StabiliTrak Stability Control System, for instance — as well as new convenience features allowing you to charge certain small electronic devices without plugging them in.”

There is only one problem with the car: it does not exist in production. There is no way to walk into a show-room and experience that much vaunted low-end torque.

Volt represents another fantasy taking flight for GM, an attempt to recast an old-school traditional company heavily dependent on trucks and SUVs as some type of environmental pioneer. It is in the same vein as the yellow-washed ethanol campaign ads bragging about the number of E85-compatible vehicles GM has sold. (And how many of them are actually running on E85 outside the Midwest? Never mind questions about the long-term viability of a biofuel program that takes away more farmland to grow crops.)

Not to be outdone, BMW joins the fray with its own hydrogen vehicle. TV commercials featuring CGI animation show the car dissolving into water, to emphasize that the only output of burning water is pure water. Fair enough and at least this one can be seen on the roads because it’s based on a production model, a conversion of the 7 series to run on both regular gasoline and hydrogen. But as the German Spiegel magazine points out, the car is not particularly efficient in either mode. Currently being leased to celebrities, it remains at best a test platform for developing the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen refueling. As it turns out, the BMW 745h is true “vaporware” in a different sense of the word: due to challenges of  confining liquid hydrogen long term, its massive 45 gallon tank is slowly but continuously leaking hydrogen vapor.

No reason to let these details ruin a good PR campaign.
Next up: Lexus as the worst offender for exploiting “hybrid” technology for marketting.


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