The tides are changing in the world of sports and entertainment. All sports have been battling the shortening attention spans of key demographics that instead are turning to drone racing, eSports, YouTube and Snapchat. Major League Baseball is trying to figure out how to shorten games. The NBA is pushing the star power of the game’s best players like never before, and the NFL is still sitting pretty compared to the others, but the league has a wealth issues of its own. As the overall interest in cars and motoring has waned recently, sanctioning bodies like F1, IndyCar, IMSA, WEC and NASCAR have been frantically trying to figure out how to get the attention of the younger consumer in order to secure the long term health of their respective series. As Eric Cartman so eloquently put it, in South Park’s Season 12, Episode 5… “How do I reach these keeeeds?”
Of all the major motorsport governing bodies out there, NASCAR seems the most committed to change. They just announced their 2020 schedule this week, and the internet has officially broken. NASCAR fans all over are wondering just what the hell is going on here. A double-header at Pocono? A new host for the season championship? Have those in charge lost their collective minds?! Well…maybe, but before we draw any conclusions let’s examine further:
The first big change to discuss is that the championship will be awarded at a new venue next year. Instead of Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the big check has been given out since 2002, ISM Raceway in Phoenix is where the confetti will fly. Homestead’s date moves from November to March, becoming race #6 of the season. To be honest, I really don’t care that Homestead doesn’t host the championship. It’s a relatively newer facility in South Florida that doesn’t have any real lineage in the sport. The only significance of Homestead schedule is that…well, it hosted championship weekend. Now that their date has lost that importance, is it even worth keeping on the calendar? I think Miami residents have enough going on that they don’t need a NASCAR race to attend, and if it is now just an “also ran” on the schedule, who’s going to show up? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first step in removing Homestead from the calendar completely.
That brings us to Phoenix hosting the championship race. I don’t get this move. At all. I’ve seen NASCAR and IndyCar races at the track. It’s a great facility, and it deserves the two dates it has on the calendar (March 8 is the 1st race there) because NASCAR needs to maintain presence in the Southwestern US. Since I last visited, the powers-that-be even gave the track a $175 million facelift! But I feel like that’s the only reason they got rewarded with the final date of the season on November 8. NASCAR is a sport based in the Southeast – Charlotte, to be specific. There are plenty of tracks in the “heart” of the sport that would be a perfect to close the season. What about NASCAR's Final Four racing at Darlington, the track "Too Tough To Tame"? What about Atlanta? Hell, what about Charlotte? But instead we get Phoenix; A flat, 1 mile track, thousands of miles away from NASCAR Country. I agree that Homestead isn’t needed to crown champions, and the final race could be anywhere, but I feel like NASCAR missed big by picking Phoenix to take its place. The only thing that could be a bigger gaff is if they made a wild card restrictor plate race hold some sort of significance -- What's that you say?
The next talking point in next year’s schedule is the swap between Daytona’s 4th of July date and Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s slot in August, even though Daytona has hosted a race on America’s birthday weekend since 1959 (!). If there is ONE track in the United States with more gravitas than Daytona, it’s The Brickyard, and their traditional August 29-30 slot is an important one, as it has always been the last race of modern NASCAR’s regular season. All of the playoff contenders are finalized on that date. But here’s the hard truth: NASCAR sucks at Indianapolis. The track was built for open-wheelers with high downforce and blinding speed. Stock cars need either short tracks or high banks to put on a remotely entertaining show, and Indy has neither of those features. If you want to go watch a 4 hour parade, be my guest, but even as a racing, Indy, and NASCAR addict, I don’t bother tuning in. And most people agree with me. NASCAR’s Indianapolis race is hemorrhaging ticket sales and TV ratings, and this move to the July 4th weekend is a last gasp to save it. The move also means that the final race before the playoffs is Daytona. That's right: The last chance anyone has a chance to punch their ticket for the championship fight is at a race track with restrictor plates, 200mph traffic jams, and crashes so big you’d think a tornado had ripped through the property. Remember the 2019 Daytona 500? You know, just last month? There was a crash with 10 laps to go that took out 21 cars. TWENTY ONE! So, you mean to tell me that a driver who has battled tooth and nail for 25 weeks for a chance to make the playoffs could have all that hard work go to shit because a couple cars 12 rows in front of him/her make contact, and no one has anywhere to go? Sounds like pure stupidity to me.
There are some positives to the 2020 schedule changes that NASCAR announced. Fans wanted more short tracks in the playoff rounds, and they got their wish. Richmond (.75 mile), Bristol (.6) and Martinsville (.5) all have races in the playoffs. Combine that with Darlington, Talladega, and the Charlotte “Roval” thing, and you’ve actually got a pretty diverse mix of circuits for the 16 playoff contenders to conquer if they want to hoist the cup...in Phoenix…Jesus, that just doesn’t sound right. The spring Martinsville race, on Mother’s Day weekend, will be completely under the lights for the first time, which is awesome and long overdue. And Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway gets a double-header! That’s right, a full race on Saturday, followed by a full race on Sunday. I’m wondering if it’s a good idea to have both races be 400 miles long though. Pocono is almost Indianapolis. Not as bad, but 400 miles there is A LOT to sit through. I hope that after 2020, they try to change up the format for the Pocono weekend. It would be a great change of pace if Saturday had single car qualifying followed by heat races of some sort that set the final grid for a “feature” race on Sunday. Remember, the younger demographic has shorter attention spans, not longer. If you can’t get them to sit through one 400 miler, you probably won’t get them to sit through 2 in a row. I probably won't even make it.
All in all, NASCAR has taken some big swings here. Some could be extra base hits, even home runs. Others are 3 pitch strikeouts, in my opinion. But what does all this really mean? To me it’s obvious and can be summed up in three words:
NASCAR. IS. DESPERATE.
It’s that simple. Long gone are the days of Earnhardt vs Gordon. The sport's best personalities and most marketable names like Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Danica and Carl Edwards have retired. TV ratings are slipping, and ticket sales are slumping. Their current TV deal expires in 2024, and they need to drum up some interest quick, fast, and in a hurry if they want a renewal anywhere near the $8.2 billion they are currently getting. Remember all the stuff they’ve tried in the past few years: Playoffs (horrible), multiple “stages” in each race (good idea), new aerodynamic rules package (doesn’t seem to be working), the “green-white-checkered” finish (horrible), signing Monster Energy as title sponsor (intriguing), the Charlotte “Roval” (an entertaining shit show). All of these shots in the dark were meant to try and draw more eyeballs and grab more headlines, so we can get the attention of the younger consumers out there who have attention spans like gnats.
The 2020 schedule shakeup is the next phase. While the series is becoming more and more gimmicky, to the point where it makes racing purists like myself cringe at times, I actually applaud NASCAR for trying as hard as they do. Although IndyCar and IMSA have seen some positive momentum in the past few years, NASCAR is still the big fish in American racing. To their credit, they aren’t resting on those laurels, but are constantly willing to try new things and take steps to improve and maintain relevance. No, NASCAR fans, your sport hasn't gone insane. The minds behind stock car still seem least somewhat intact, and all of these changes are for a purpose. But I’m going to stick with the positive growth and pure racing that IMSA and IndyCar have to offer, and wish you all the best of luck from a safe distance.
Last week I took my car in for a scheduled service. Oil change, tire rotation, blinker fluid top-up, and oh wait. There's an open recall on your car, sir, should I schedule that fix as well?
I don't claim to be the great car-info-all-knower, but I am certainly tuned into both car news and Veloster news enough that I think I would have at least heard rumors about any open recalls on my own car. I asked what the recall was for, and the Service Department Administrative Assistant told me it was for a "pump". Okay, cool, schedule the service, take the car as long as you need it, yes, yes, fine, yes, Tuesday morning is great, okay, bye. I immediately hit the internet to see if I could find out about this recall.
There are several websites that keep records of all open recalls for every car manufacturer, not least of which is the NHTSA itself. I plugged my car's VIN into the database, and...no recalls. Nothing open. I checked a few more websites. Nothing listed anywhere for the 2017 Veloster, Turbo or R-Spec trim. Hmm. Now, Kia and Hyundai are having a bit of recall difficulty at the moment. There are several models under each brand that are having a problem with engine fires, which is a massive, massive deal. The recalled cars are the Kia Optima, Kia Sorento, Kia Soul, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tuscon, Hyundai Sonata, and Hyundai Sante Fe Sport. Please, if you own one of those vehicles, check the database immediately. The very worst part of this large recall is that Hyundai and Kia are being a little...coy on which vehicles need to be recalled to fix this very serious problem. On their official site, everything is hidden behind a VIN entry search, and more models seem to be added to the recall quietly, with little to no fanfare. Several of the recalled Kia models have also been recalled before for other engine issues, which further complicates matters, because how can any consumer be expected to keep the third engine recall separated from the fourth? People just want to, oh I don't know, drive the cars they bought. The long and short of this string of recalls is that the engine map needs to be altered or the fuel pump or fuel lines need to be replaced to prevent poor fuel/air from mixture causing a rather serious problem quaintly called "engine knocking". However, if the pump or lines have not been replaced, or have previously been replaced incorrectly, the lines may leak, causing engine bay fires, thus the recall on the recall.
Keen readers may remember that the Administrative Assistant said my car was being recalled for a "pump", and that Kia and Hyundai are stealth-adding cars to their recall list. I was concerned. Not just because of the information I had, but also because my Veloster and all those cars that were recalled share a similar engine technology: GDI, or Gasoline Direct Injection. And this is going to go way out past the limits of my technical knowledge, so bear with me. Currently, the recalled cars use one of three engines, the 2.4L Theta II, the 2.0L Nu, or the 1.8L Nu. To me, the Theta II can be put to the side because it's an engine that has been problematic for it's entire production life. So, the two Nu engines remain. My Veloster has a 1.6L Gamma engine, and while I believe the Gamma and the Nu are related mechanically (with the Gamma released one year before the Nu, pioneering the all-aluminum construction, GDI technology, the engine configuration, and the timing chain) and that the Nu may be a larger-bored and longer-stroked version of the Gamma, I can't prove that.
What I can prove is that all the recalled cars and my car share both that GDI technology and varying amounts of "issues" with the fuel pump. Of course, the Nu engines have real problems with the fuel pump. The fiery, recally kind. But the Veloster is also known for fuel pump issues, especially in the tuner community. You see, the factory fuel pump and fuel lines that are used on the Veloster are exactly strong enough to power the engine reliably. But exactly strong enough actually isn't exactly strong enough. Most 1st Gen Veloster Turbos will experience stuttering under hard acceleration that almost feels like interference from the traction control. But it isn't. It's actually the fuel lines intermittently clamping themselves shut for fractions of a second as the engine demands more fuel than can comfortably run from the pump at the back of the car to the engine bay. All of this assorted information meant to me that I was either missing something, or somebody wasn't telling me something. So I tweeted and Instagrammed Hyundai from my personal and podcast accounts. No response. I poked around online, and couldn't find anything definite. I even asked the dealership, and they told me they "weren't sure" if the recall on my car was related to the Hyundai/Kia engine recall. My car was going in a few days later, no big deal. But still: HMM.
On the day I took my car in, I asked the head of the service department to pull up the recall notice on my car so I could see it. He said there wasn't one. HMMMMMMMMMMMM!
What there was, and what there is on all 2017 Hyundai Veloster Turbos, R-Specs, and Rally Editions is an open Technical Service Bulletin. For a vacuum pump. He told me that the issue would have shown up as warning lights, and because I didn't have any warning lights on, there would be an easy fix. Now, I'm stupid, and I don't know shit about car parts, so I just nodded, thanked him and left. Later, I looked up the service bulletin by searching "Veloster vaccum pump recall". TSB ID #5NP-P9V7R-11 reads as follows:
"Hyundai Motor America is conducting a Service Campaign to inspect and (if necessary) replace the vacuum pump cap on certain 2015-17 Veloster vehicles. Service Campaign T3F provides a service procedure to inspect and apply sealant or replace."
Cool! What? That actually doesn't help at all! I will reiterate at this point that I am stupid, and there's probably some of you reading this that are screaming out the information that I'm missing, but the long and short of the rabbit hole I went down is that in this context, the "vacuum pump" (and the cap that sits thereupon), is either related to the brakes, or it's related to the turbo and the fuel system. There's vacuum pumps in each system, and the failure of the pump in each system would lead to warning lights. In this case, I'm leaning towards the vacuum pump in this TSB being in the fuel system, as that is the category heading the TSB is filed under.
But I've got a few nagging questions: Why in the Banarama FUCK was this information so hard to find? Why do I still not have all the information I need after two weeks of looking into this whole "recall" thing as a person with a hefty knowledge base in cars in general, Hyundai Motor Group specifically, and the 1st Gen Veloster Turbo in detail? Why did every single person give me a different answer to the same questions? Just...WHY? Why to all of this? And here's the even worse part: Let's say that the next time I take my car in, there's another TSB, and it also relates to the fuel system. That's how this all started for all of those other cars that are now being recalled lest they burn to the ground. Every single one had nebulous engine and/or fuel system TSBs released, and they didn't fix the problem even for the customers who got the repair work done. What if this escalates from warning lights to car fires for Velosters? That's very much on the table here. And monitoring and digging for answers on TSBs from Hyundai could be a second job, that's how hard this information can be to find. And there's a worst part too: Im actually in one of the better situations for car buyers, because I can mostly trust my dealership, and that's a genuine rarity. First, they bothered to tell me about the open TSB, and second, they didn't charge me a cent for the work.
That header image is a fake recall notice. Predatory dealerships use them to get people in the doors under the pretense of fake recalls, and my guess is that those dealerships link recalls to TSBs in order to get around fraud charges. Doing forum research into this vacuum pump thing, I found people who paid $300, $500, or even up to $2,000 to get some kind of "vacuum pump" repaired, either related to the TSB I found, or related to a possible different one of which I couldn't find a consistent record. Those owners paid just because the dealer told them they had to. They ponied up because the mechanic told them there was a "recall" on their car, and it wasn't covered under warranty. And I find it hard to blame the victims. I know that recalls MUST be covered at manufacturers expense, but I can't blame anyone who caves under a surprise pressure that suddenly puts their lives in the crosshairs. There's truth in every lie, and the truth, typically, is this: TSBs are not technically covered under either the manufacturer's warranty or the legal liabilities of a recall. They are most often guides created by car manufacturers, and intended for dealerships, which detail how to perform certain work for common problems of varying degrees of severity. Of course, there's lot of very obvious problems with that system. Should Hyundai be using the same system to issue repair instructions for faulty Tuscon fuel pumps that they use to issue notifications to mechanics that sometimes Sonatas with high mileage get clunks in the steering rack? No! Should Toyota be able to issue the exact same iterative EVAP system TSB for successive generations of RAV4? No! But it's legal to do that. It's so legal that it's almost impossible to say that car manufacturers are doing anything wrong by issuing TSBs, deeply shitty though it may be at times. And of course, what's the alternative? NOT being told about known and somewhat common problems?
I learned a lot during this whole vacuum pump thing, and almost none of it was complete, useful, or positive. I don't have the investigative chops to go further, and I don't have the car repair chops to fill the gaps in the information I already have. I just know that I really, REALLY don't like having to get my information on Reddit or other forums, especially when it relates to a possible manufacturing defect in my car. But Reddit and the Veloster.org forum are where I got my best free information. Incredibly unscrupulous websites will hide TSB data behind a paywall, or at least pretend to, and then print the full text of the bulletins. Of course the TSBs themselves are universally worded obscurely and awkwardly, often referencing diagrams or manuals that customers don't have easy access to, if that information can even be found on the open internet. How is that fair? When safety is at risk, how is it reasonable for brands to assume that customers either don't care, shouldn't know, or must be a brand-certified mechanic just to know the problem?
As I see it, this TSB/recall/repair nexus is not only a system that's ripe for abuse, it's a system that is actively abused every single day by virulent and predatory dealerships. And here's what haunts me most about what I learned. If, last week, the mechanic had told me that the TSB fix for my car would cost $200, I probably would have paid it without thinking, like pretty much everyone else would do, and I think that's frightening. It's obvious to me that there's a huge problem with how car problems are reported to consumers, and it goes way beyond this Hyundai recall, even if that swollen mess of TSBs and recall notices does grow to include my car too. I don't have any answers for what can or should be done to improve the situation, but I'm going to think on that, and perhaps write a follow-up at a late date. Because if Season Two of the Check Engine Podcast has taught me anything, it's that the three of us can - at least in theory - fix absolutely any problem we see.
Hello CEP readers! As has become tradition for me, I’m here to offer you another dose of Tristan’s Deep Thought TM. This week’s deep thoughts spring from a discussion I had with my dad (who has been a guest writer for this blog before) on the merits of a new car versus an old car. It came after watching one of the episodes from the most recent seasons of The Grand Tour. I know we try to distance ourselves from that here at CEP and not directly rip content or ideas from them, but it was just the trigger for a discussion. In their episode, they talk about resto-modding vintage cars.
For anyone unfamiliar with that term, resto-modding is the process of restoring a vintage car with all of the cosmetic or aesthetic elements in place while replacing the important safety, performance, or everyday convenience bits with new ones. The Grand Tour made the argument that that is the best way kind of car to drive, ever. All the reliability, safety, and performance of new mechanicals with the far more interesting and storied shell and interior of some classic car. That statement isn’t something that I disagree with. However, resto-modding can be VERY expensive to do. Most of these cars end up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s just not attainable for most people. That got my dad and I thinking. Would it be worth buying older cars anyway? Even without the resto-mod?
My family has a very long history of buying cars and keeping them forever or buying used cars and... also keeping them forever. We received this advice (probably slightly self-serving, now that I come to think of it) from our local mechanic of choice: What are else are you going to get that’s better for the price of the repair? Let me give you a little bit of an example to clarify. In 1992 my dad bought a 1989 Merkur Scorpio. Merkur was Ford’s attempt at giving a little European flair to the Lincoln/Mercury dealers of the time. It was based on the German pronunciation of Mercury and was meant to attract buyers of European “Executive sedans” to the Ford family of brands. The cars were even mostly built with parts sourced from Europe, and the car was assembled in Germany. My dad purchased his Scorpio for $9000, and couldn’t have put more than $8000 in repairs over the course of it’s 100,000+ mile life. It retailed for $30,000... in 1989. That's more than the MSRP of my base model WRX today. Before accounting for inflation. For about 50% of the price that the car was going off of lots, my dad got and drove what, in his words, was “a really nice car!” for 100,000+ miles, just repairing it as it broke. He was able to purchase a car that would have been well out of his price range, had he bought it new, and have that experience every day instead of buying some econobox.
Even when my parent's finances exited the post-college stage, things didn’t change. Although they were purchased new, the Audi A4 and Audi A6 that you might have heard me talk about in our first episode “You Never Forget Your First" were cars that were around forever. In fact the last one just recently left the family fleet. That longevity was driven by the idea of “What could you get for the same money as a repair that would be a better car?”. In fact, the same thought is currently working for my 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. We probably got three or even four cars worth of use out of the cars we bought new instead of always trading them in for new ones. That also allowed us to save up for huge periods of time to buy cars, so the ones that we bought were real gems.
The same rationale of “what could you get for the same money” can be used when looking at purchasing old, good cars. The question just comes to bear on a later part of the life cycle. My dad now owns a mid-90s Mercedes SL that was freshly purchased just last year. He’s always dreamed of owning a SL. Sure, my dad could have (theoretically) plopped down nearly NINETY THOUSAND dollars on a new SL (the styling of which he doesn’t even really like as much) instead of spending the few thousand he did on his mid-nineties one. You can buy a NEW car, but we all know the costs of that. If you enjoy your current car, why not fix it? You’ve always wanted to drive that dream car? Why not buy it used for a VERY low price and fix it when it inevitably breaks? You could even do a little, light resto-mod yourself like I did with the Jeep. I replaced it’s old, tired suspension with one that was MUCH better than the factory would have likely even had access to at the time. There is a dark side to all of this, however: Downtime.
Just recently, I’ve leased two new cars in succession: my Outback and my WRX. This action was driven by the absolute, ever-present fear that my car was always about to need a wrench applied to it. Or worse... it would be something terminal, unfixable. It seemed like we were always down a vehicle, in one way or another. Cars were at the mechanic for work, they needed work and couldn’t be driven too far, or they were strewn across the garage in a storm of parts (that, by far, was my mom’s FAVORITE state for them to be in... ehem...). This atmosphere is, quite frankly, a little oppressive. The consistent air of uncertainty around the question of “will my car start today” or “will a wheel fall off on this road trip I’m taking” can cause you to lose your mind a little. That’s why I’ve made the decision to go new this time, but... I don’t think that’s the fully the best way to go either.
What I’ve come to as the perfect balance is some wisdom imparted to me by my mother. Her mantra has always been “Why choose?” I think this is the best way to own cars. Currently, I have my relatively shiny, relatively new WRX that is still under warranty and doesn’t give me nightmares about trips to the dealer or shop. I also share ownership of the old Jeep. This is the way to live. I have the joy of having an older car to work on, that I couldn’t pay full price for alongside paying for my new car, and I get to experience many different joys of driving. I can rip along in the WRX or I can rumble off-road and carry large objects in my Jeep. My hope for my future when the Jeep inevitably and sadly goes ashes to ashes, rust to rust, is that I will be able to relegate the WRX to the older, hobby car and I would replace the Jeep with a new Jeep, truck, SUV, whatever. I’ve enjoyed having both worlds. One paid off and the other under warranty. Now, I’m able to sustain this due to having enough garage space, disposable income, etc. That may not be the case for everyone. So, much like my last blog, that leads me to ask you, reader-friends, what would you do? How do YOU live your car life? A boneyard of fun but only half working cars? A gleaming example of automotive ease replaced every three years under lease? The sensible, certified pre-owned vehicle? Some combination? None of the above? Let us know in the blog comments or shoot us an email. I want to know!
As a young recent college grad with a marketing degree, I had a dream to work for a race team. I had sent out hundreds upon hundreds of resumes via email and snail mail, made personal business cards and bought extra paddock passes so I could wander around and make as many contacts with team principals or marketing professionals as I could, and I even got up at 2am to take a one-day road trip to Indianapolis so I could hand-deliver resumes to IndyCar race shops and talk to whoever would take a couple of minutes to listen. So working in motorsports was the only thing on my mind when I went to Road Atlanta in the fall of 2012.
My co-host and serial Deep Thinker Tristan, his dad, and I took a trip to Petit Le Mans, the season finale for the American Le Mans Series (now IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship). One of the best parts of these races, as we’ve mentioned on the podcast, is the grid walk. Fans can walk the pit lane right before the command to start engines and get a close-up look at the drivers, teams and machines that are about to hit the track. Armed with a stack of business cards and a memorized personal sales pitch, I set off down the Road Atlanta pit lane. One of the people I ran into and chatted with was a man named Scott Tucker, owner and co-driver for the Level 5 Motorsports prototype team. Level 5 was a championship-caliber team and Mr. Tucker was a very pleasant person to talk with. He took my card, wrote notes on the back so he could remember where we met, and passed the card to another team member for further review. A few weeks later, in the off season, I followed up with a visit to the team’s facility in Madison, WI. See, not only was this team a championship level organization, they were based about an hour from where I grew up. Plus, Scott was one of those “gentleman drivers” who's racing was a passion project, not what they did for a living. I was gunning for chance to work for a person that had the desire, work ethic, and finances to turn a hobby into a top tier racing program which rivaled Penske in terms of equipment, presentation, and talent, both on track and off. Names like IMSA champ Ryan Briscoe and IndyCar stalwarts Simon Pagenaud, Townsend Bell and Ryan Hunter-Reay have all sat in a Level 5 Motorsports seat at one time or another. I was desperate for that opportunity. That is until I, and the rest of the world, found out how Scott Tucker made his fortune.
In 2001, Scott Tucker and his brother co-founded AMG Services, an online payday loan service. He was one of the first in that industry to harness the power of the internet, so business grew quickly, eventually becoming a company of 600 employees and earning him over $400 million. As he started making more, he began pursuing his passion for racing more seriously, climbing the ranks through SCCA, Ferrari Challenge and eventually the Grand-Am series and American Le Mans Series, naming his team Level 5 Motorsports. But Tucker’s massive fortune was tainted, in a big way. You see, Tucker’s group made their bones preying off of desperate people using loan contracts that were hard to follow and purposely written poorly. When a customer went to one of Tucker’s many payday loan brands (500FastCash, Advantage Cash Services, Ameriloan, OneClickCash, Star Cash Processing, UnitedCashLoans or USFastCash to name a few), what they thought was a minimum payment was actually a loan renewal payment. All they were doing was paying to extend the terms of the loan, which would incur finance charges, and their principal payment hadn’t been touched. On top of that, when the loan was extended, an interest rate of up to 700% was applied. Quick example…for a simple $300 loan, customers would pay up to $585 in finance charges before they even touched the original $300 principal! This kind of deception is highly illegal, but in an attempt to work around the system, AMG Services claimed affiliation with Native American tribes and reservations to avoid state lending laws. Reservations are considered sovereign nations and are immune from most state and some federal laws, and AMG would give the tribes a cut of the profits and employ residents of the often impoverished reservations in exchange for letting them operate there. Even though AMG Services was located in Overland Park, Kansas, call center employees were instructed to say they were located in Oklahoma, Nebraska or the Dakotas if they were asked by customers. Managers even sent out weather reports from those areas to cover their tracks in case a disgruntled customer wanted to dig deeper with the call center rep.
It wouldn’t be long before the FTC got wise to what was going on. In April 2012, they filed a civil suit against AMG Services citing “illegal business tactics.” Less than 2 years later, a U.S. grand jury filed a subpoena against the company regarding wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering. Of course, Tucker maintained his innocence, but he was arrested in February 2016 and in September of that year he and other defendants were ordered to pay a $1.266 billion judgement. Scott and his attorney were convicted of 14 counts of wire fraud, money laundering, racketeering and Truth In Lending Act violations. On top of all that, in December of 2017, Tucker was indicted for filing false tax returns. Apparently, he failed to report earnings of $117.5 million in 2009 and 2010. Scott was sentenced to a 16 year, 8 month prison sentence for his crimes and the FTC announced this past December that they were returning $505 million to his victims, the largest payout in the history of the agency…and I could have worked for that guy! Him! Scott Tucker, Douchebag Extraordinaire! In my defense, and I’m guessing the defense of most who worked for the race team, I wasn’t aware of how he made his money. I mean, I knew he was a businessman but until all this went public, I never knew any of this. I’m sure the mechanics, truck drivers, engineers, PR people etc. saw their deposits every two weeks and went about their work.
Even though I didn’t get the job, I always still pulled for the Level 5 guys. You can ask my two co-hosts, I used to wear a Level 5 team shirt to the races we went to. I was always cheering for the local team, especially when they went overseas to race in the the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s crazy to think of what was happening behind this overachieving underdog team. Hearing about this peaked my curiosity, and this story isn’t the only example of folks funding their motorsports dreams using “questionable” means (stay tuned for an episode later this year). Looking back now, it’s funny how things turned out after that meeting on the grid in October 2012: At the time, I was bummed I never got that marketing job for Level 5 Motorsports, but here I am now with a job that I enjoy, writing a blog for a podcast that has become my favorite pastime, while Scott Tucker is inmate number 06133-045, scheduled for release on June 27, 2032.
There's a worrying trend in the auto industry right now. The idiom for this trend is along the lines of "Putting all your eggs in one basket". But it actually goes further than that in the auto industry. Companies around the world are doing more than putting all of their eggs in one basket, they're actually getting rid of every egg they possibly can, and then taking their one or two remaining eggs and putting them each in a separate basket. Of course, I'm talking about EVs and AVs, commonly known as electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles.
You know, every time I write about this I feel the need to do disclaimers. Yes, technology must move on. Yes, traditional internal combustion engines must change and be phased out, blah blah blah. I'm skipping it this time. If you don't know where I stand on this yet, go back and read some previous blogs, I'm sick of repeating myself. All the usual disclaimers apply. What I'm here to say today is that the baskets that the auto industry have chosen have every appearance of being dumb ones. To dispense with the metaphor, EV and AV tech are not the kind of technologies that you want to bet your company's future on. Because they're fiction.
I actually had a few issues with Nick's blog on EVs from January. I think he didn't go hard enough on EV tech in the areas that it most needs to be taken to task. Like the range thing. New research in this area comes out almost every month at this point, and I found that this article from the AAA was fairly interesting. It puts numbers to what we already knew: If you want to heat your EV when the temperature dips below 20 degrees, you will lose 40% of your range. 40%! On average! That's not just impractical, that's potentially dangerous. But to be more fair to EVs, let's think up a realistic, non-emergency situation into which we can place an electric car, and see how it fares.
Let's say it's March, and me and my wife head out for a nice dinner in our BMW i3, a car that roughly fits our lifestyle, if not budget. The i3 has a maximum range of about 100 miles. Because this is meant to be a real-life situation, let's say I drove the car to and from work that day on an average commute of 16 miles each way, popped it back on the charger when I got home, and the car is now charged back to 80%, for a range of about 80 miles. There's a nice place called The Capitol Grille in Milwaukee, about 20 miles from our house, mostly freeway driving. So, if we drove from our house to the nice restaurant we'd have a remaining range of about 60 miles, if BMW's advertised range can be believed (which it can't, but that's almost a separate lie at this point). But remember, it's March in Wisconsin. It was in the 30s when we left the house. But now, it's night time, and the temperature is in the teens or single digits. 60 miles of maximum possible range remained when we parked at above 20 degrees, but now the batteries are cold-soaked, minus the heater's 40% share - let us say there are 30-35 miles of maximum range remaining, 20 or so miles from the house. That could be enough, but it also might not be. Stopping at a charging station will add range, but it will also take at least 20 additional minutes of sitting, at night, outside, even if we drive the 5 miles to the nearest level 3 charging point. The level 2 charger a half-mile away might take an hour to add useful range. We could gamble and head home, but what if we hit traffic or a detour? What if we blow a tire? What if we need to use the high beams, or suddenly remember that we're out of eggs and milk and want to stop at the store? What would you do? To be honest, the mundanity of this situation scares the hot shits out of me. If we're as generous as possible with the range, efficiency, and charging capabilities of one of the most modern EVs on the market, going out for dinner in the spring is a fucking thought exercise. March isn't even the coldest month! And I picked the closest possible nice restaurant in Milwaukee! We wouldn't even get lakefront views with our steaks! That's pathetic! THIS is your future? THIS is your savior? No. That's fiction. EVs like the ones we have today will never be enough to kill regular cars, because they are not good enough.
The next thing nobody ever talks about when it comes to EVs is the scarcity of rare elements. Nick briefly brought it up in his post, but again, I think he didn't go far enough. Yes, the mining process is difficult, toxic, and extremely inefficient. But it has to be stressed how rare elements like cobalt, manganese, and lithium are. Of these elements, manganese is the most "common", weighing in at a massive .11% of the Earth's crust. Cobalt makes up a staggering .003%, and Lithium, the tricky little bugger, claims only .0017%. Those numbers are hard to conceptualize, but it is estimated that there are 380 million metric tons of manganese on Earth, which sounds like a whole lot! Until you realize that apart from EV batteries, manganese is a critical element used to manufacture steel, cast iron, and other metal alloys. Right now, 18.5 million tons of manganese are used annually. Before the EV becomes mainstream. At the current rate, we'll run through the world's supply of manganese in 20 years. Before we run out of oil. This is why paying attention to narrative is so important. Remember when the biggest advertising push behind EVs and hybrids was the scarcity of oil? They changed that real quick, didn't they? Know what replaced it? 0-60 times. Thanks, Elon. Cobalt is even more problematic. Some outlets estimate as much as 60% of the world's Cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than HALF of the world's supply, in a country a quarter the size of the US. And, speaking of the DRC...
I added a line in Nick's blog post about the human toll of mining for rare elements, because as a society, we have an opportunity to make a choice about which practices are okay and which practices are not okay at the advent of a newer technology. There is a moment here where we can all be on the right side of the eventual history, and stop human rights abuses before they become just part of the corporate EV machine. Here's what I'm talking about: The DRC is a famously corrupt country, and as of last year, more than 40,000 children were working in the "artisanal" cobalt mines of the DRC. These children are exposed not only to brutal conditions and unsafe practices, but also the toxicity of cobalt, which is known to cause respiratory problems and cardiomyopathy on its own. Oh, and also, cobalt is found alongside an element called uranium. You think a mine that uses child labor pays for safety equipment? They actually use the word "artisanal" to denote that the work is done by hand! You think people that evil give a shit about exposing a child to dangerous levels of radiation daily? Of course they don't! And those are just the problems the natural elements cause. What kind of health effects do you think the acids used in the refining process cause? Not just to the environment, but to the people. To the children. And yet that isn't far enough either. The towns near the mines suffer higher rates of birth defects and sickness. Their water supplies become contaminated, their soil poisoned, their air toxic. All of this is before EVs become mainstream.
How much worse will it get? What if the people from the DRC who deal with these international mining companies decide they're going to militarize? What happens if the money coming in from these foreign mining interests destabilizes the country and civil war breaks out again? If 40,000 children working in dangerous cobalt mines doesn't shock you, what would? 50,000? 150,000? Who do you think will be working in these mines as demand goes up? What price are we truly willing to accept for a technology that has far too many immediate and future limitations to ever be the long-term solution? The term blood diamonds had to become vogue before people began to realize the atrocious impact of the diamond cartels. What happens when the term blood battery enters public consciousness? Ignoring the human cost of EVs is already untenable, and assuming the industry will either take care of itself or continue apace without ever needing to confront the exploitation inherent in performing industrial-scale production in developing nations is a fiction. There is always a reckoning. And wouldn't it be nice, just for once, for an emerging industry to tackle it's exploitative tendencies BEFORE going mainstream? No matter what happens, the auto industry can't run from this forever, and neither can the technology companies.
Now let's talk AVs. Off the rip, fully autonomous vehicles are a complete work of fiction. They will never exist. Period. There is no debate. Like we already talked about on the podcast, the industry leader says so. Who would know better than him? My wife's Hyundai Kona is what's known as a level 2 AV, meaning it can stop itself and has lane assist that will keep the vehicle driving straight. All of that technology, in real-world applications, ends up just above "Fucking Useless". The auto-braking sensors turn themselves off so often we thought the car had a defect, but nope! That's just how the shit "works". It doesn't work in the snow, in the sleet, in the rain, in the mist, when there are no other cars around, in the fog, or when the car is dirty. The lane-keep assist is so high-strung it just goes off for no reason, so that's been turned off since the second day she owned the car. The only useful sensor on that car is the cross-traffic alert for the backup cam. And the Kona is an IIHS Safety Pick+! The safest tier! What are we even doing out here, people?
AV technology is a marketing trick, but I see it more accurately described as a scam. Despite all of the claims and all of the hot takes about how AVs will flood the market in just a few years, we are so far away from AVs becoming even a marginal practicality that it beggars belief. Yet this is a primary selling point for almost every single car brand in the world. Ford and VW announced a billion-dollar partnership over this kind of stuff. That partnership, by the way, still has not actually materialized. At what point does marketing become straight-up lies? At what point do companies step away from these fully-autonomous "concept" charlatans and come to grips with fact? I don't have any concrete answers, but if we use EVs as a guide, announcements about these "cars of the future" that are arriving now generally take about 10 years to show up for sale. The electric car concepts that I saw at Frankfurt in 2009 are just coming to market now, which seems pretty insane to me. If you're advertising a single technology for a decade and barely scraping together something passable at the farthest end of that timeline, how well is your R&D really doing? In which other tech industry would that kind of rollout be acceptable? Well let's look at some tech industry leaders.
In 2009, Apple released the iPhone 3GS, and last year they released the iPhone XR - two devices so different in capability, ability, and function that they only share a product name for brand recognition's sake. In 2009, Intel debuted the first-generation Core i7 860 processors, and last year they debuted the 9th generation Core i9-90060X, a processor that is more than one hundred and sixty percent faster in terms of raw power, and nearly three hundred percent more efficient in the same tasks. Listen, I hear you, AVs are just starting to come out now. They may very well see the same scalar improvement over a decade-long timeline. But never forget that AVs are already marketed as being ready right now, immediately, and imminently all at the same time, when the reality is that all three of those selling points might be lies, and two of them already are confirmed to be false. I have two words to describe all technologies in that same circumstance: Scam, and Fiction.
I said at the beginning that all disclaimers apply, and that remains true. I must also add that cars should be made safer, and that AV technology can in fact make cars safer. But can we not do it like this? I freely admit that my biggest obsession in car culture is narrative, and these are the two biggest out there. But when I look at the stories that these companies tell to consumers about EVs and AVs, what I see is disingenuous in the best case. Yet most companies are throwing their entire might behind these two technologies - some to the exclusion of all else - and I just don't see it working. Yes, over a long enough timeline, EVs and AV tech might work out the way they say it works now, but the entire point is that right now, these technologies don't work the way they are said to work.The counter to narrative is always reality, and the two are at direct odds at this very moment...but nobody really seems to care all that much. It feels more than a little like I'm screaming into a void here, especially when I look at car Twitter, where every other post is about an EV, an AV, or an EV/AV. It could also be that I'm wrong, and EVs and AVs are now too big to fail no matter how real they are or aren't at this very moment. That is often what happens when every company puts the same egg into the same basket: Wrong or right, damn the torpedoes, those ideas make it to market. But it's what happens after that determines whether or not the gamble paid off. 2019 is going to be a big year for EVs and AVs, so let's all watch and see what happens to these eggs. And also that Instagram egg too, I guess. Is that still a thing?