Going on a Low-Car Diet

End our reliance on foreign oil?  More than a dozen San Diegans are doing a lot more than just talking about it.  They literally gave up their cars for a month by dropping their car keys in a lockbox as part of the first ever San Diego Low-Car Diet. Sponsored by Flexcar, Metropolitan Transit System, Amtrak, Air Pollution Control District, the American Lung Association, and Universal Studios, the participants pledged to use Flexcar and other modes of transportation to get around town for the month of February.
While we are certain the participants have altruistic motives, they might also find ditching their cars to be a big money-saver.  San Diego has some of the highest insurance and gas prices in the country, not to mention serious traffic.  Because of that, San Diegans are increasingly looking for alternatives to owning a car, but not at the expense of convenience. San Diego's bus and trolley system can provide part of the alternative and walking adds the bonus of great health benefits. There's no doubt that sometimes you just need a car and Flexcar is a vital part of the transportation mix in the low-car diet.  Flexcar, which allows participants to share cars on a rational basis, gives participants the option to use a car when they truly need one, rather than owning one full time.

"In many ways, Flexcar is like an iPod," said William del Valle, the general manager of Flexcar's San Diego office. "Hardly anyone buys a full CD anymore when you can buy the one or two songs you really like via iTunes. With Flexcar, people only pay for the time they need a car -- about $10 an hour, which includes gas, insurance, parking, maintenance, unlimited miles, and 24/7 emergency service."
Low-Car Diet participants will be given 25 hours of free Flexcar use during the month, as well as a transit pass and other goodies including two roundtrip Amtrak tickets to Los Angeles and free passes to Universal Studios designed to make their month-long car "diet" enjoyable. Should they complete the month without driving their own car, they will be awarded free hours of Flexcar use each month for a year. And if they decide to sell their own car and continue to use Flexcar, they will enjoy savings of up to several hundred dollars per month over owning a personal vehicle.

"For those who have been reluctant to use public transit because they need their car during the work day for travel to and from meetings, Flexcar is the answer," says San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts.  Now San Diegans can take the bus or trolley to work, knowing that there's an affordable way to get more places they want to go."

Part of the appeal of living and working downtown in San Diego is the number of amenities that are reachable by walking throughout the city. Restaurants, nightlife, groceries, coffee, and health clubs are all located within arms reach of urban residents. Add to that an excellent transit system including a trolley system with stops in every downtown neighborhood, and the region is ripe for a low-car environment. Fewer cars mean less pollution, less congestion and more room for open spaces -- all highly desired elements in urban planning.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini notes that his home city is much like San Diego...without the palm trees and surfers, that is.

Is the Car Industry Going Nuts?

Everybody I know who attended the North American International Auto Show in Detroit left Cobo Hall shaking his or her head.  In looking for common threads within the mind-boggling expensive exhibition of the latest wares from the world's car companies one trend was obvious -- there was no trend.  Or, perhaps more accurately, there were several trends, some running in parallel but others clearly contradictory to one another.  If one were to take a clinical view, one might say the auto industry is demonstrating a serious case of schizophrenia.  And that disease, if indeed it is a disease, was never more apparent than at the press conferences that preceded the public opening of the Detroit auto show. 

Why the diagnosis of schizophrenia?  Is the auto industry, beset by competition from within and pressure from without, on the verge of simply blowing its top?  A tour from press conference to press conference might suggest that.  In a generally subdued series of presentations that came on the heels of the announcement of layoffs of 30,000 workers, General Motors made a strong case for its devotion to fuel-saving hybrids and cleaner E85 Flex Fuel vehicles, and then nearly stole the show with its 400-horsepower Chevrolet Camaro concept.  Chrysler group unveiled its own high-horsepower ponycar, the Dodge Challenger, and, at the same time, made news with its economical Dodge Caliber.  Ford extolled the virtues of its Reflex diesel-electric hybrid concept and, in almost the same breath, expounded on the Super Chief truck concept, whose purported ability to run on hydrogen was designed to offset its incredible mass.  Similar schizoid behavior was in evidence from the Japanese, Korean and European manufacturers.  For instance Mercedes-Benz showed off its GL450 seven-passenger SUV and on the next turntable the E320 BLUETEC, designed to sip low-sulfur diesel fuel. Toyota showed its economical Yaris, and the next day its Lexus division introduced the high-horsepower LS 460.

What's going on here?  Are all the car manufacturers nuts? Well, while it might seem like the carmakers are working against themselves, the fact is what they are doing is utterly rational.  Fact is car buyers want high fuel economy; they want power; they want luxury; they want to be kind to the environment; they want popcorn with butter; they want popcorn without butter; or they feel that those who pop corn are being cruel to a living thing.  The point of this is that carmakers are at least as rational as the people who buy their wares, which, I'm afraid, means not much.  And, as they are well aware, the car buying public is not a monolithic mass.  Instead, in the US alone, it consists of some 15 million individuals who have individual needs and desires that might well be in conflict with one another. Hence road rage, bar fights and debates about candidates for "American Idol." 

So, to answer the original question so provocatively posed by this article's headline, the auto industry is not going nuts.  But it is going crazy trying to satisfy all the disparate needs of the world's car buyers.

Take Your Car on Vacation, Part II

A week ago we postulated about the joys of bonding with a new car by taking it on vacation with you, and we set out to prove that premise by participating in Volvo's Overseas Delivery Program.  Thus we took delivery of our brand spanking new Volvo XC90 V-8 at Volvo's Gothenburg assembly plant and delivery center.  We then launched on an idyllic trek across southern Sweden, first taking a quick swing toward the postcard-ready village of Marstrand, favored by herring fishermen and King Oscar alike.  Sated by its awe-inspiring vistas, we moved toward the interior of the country, skirting Saab's hometown of Trollhattan to settle for the night in the Bjertorp Slott Manor Hotel.  Built by Consul Littorin, a confidante of the Russian czar, it seemed an appropriate site to pretend to be a late-19th Century millionaire.

While draining yet another after-dinner drink -- not the first and, thankfully, not the last -- a hare-brained scheme was conceived.  My wife Sandi and I, who had not held golf clubs in our hands since our child-free days oh-so-long ago, resolved to play golf the following morning, bright and early, and our ever-genial host, James Hope, in an absolute fit of over-geniality, vowed that he would play too.

Somehow against all odds and the alcohol gods, at the crack of 9:15 we piloted our XC90 to the adjacent Bjertorp-Vara golf links to attempt to conquer what must be the most difficult sport this side of tossing the caber.  Immediately, we ran afoul of the head pro, who was insulted by the temerity of both James and I to play left-handed.  Reluctantly, he threw together two mis-matched sets of lefty clubs, not that any small setback like that could disrupt our round.  Frankly, if he had put a croquet mallet and a shovel into the bag it would not have made much difference.

Out on the course, we were advised to play holes nine through 12 so as not to disturb the real golfers, and off we went to predictable results.  We were still in mid-fairway (well actually mid-rough) on nine when the three of us mutually decided that actually counting strokes was an over-rated and utterly unnecessary aspect of true golf.  Freed of these artificial bounds we made our way slowly and sloppily to the 11th tee, where I committed a serious mental blunder.  Eyeing a dog-leg around a cattail-strewn pond, I had the absence of judgment to attempt to drive over this hazard.  (Get real, Nerad!)  Miraculously my shot had the distance to reach the pond where it immediately disappeared with a silent splash.  While my golfing compatriots, Sandi and James, strategically skirted the hole with a well-chosen succession of 25- and 50-yard shots, I took a drop, whipped out my five iron (eschewing all the others including shovel and mallet) and took a mighty swing.  Unfortuitously, however, the club struck the turf a good six inches in front of the ball, ricocheted into the elusive sphere sending it careening lazily into the pond, while, at the same time, my feet slid out from under me, and I crashed to the wet turf on my left shoulder.  Oh, the humanity!

Since I was in a small hollow, lying painfully on my side, I suddenly disappeared from my golfing partners' sight, and Sandi undoubtedly had a glimmer of hope that her fondest wish had come true.  But alas, after a minute or two, it seemed that they could hear my anguished screams and were reassured that I wasn't quite dead yet, though neither lifted a finger to help me.  Bravely, my shoulder throbbing, I finished the round, posed for the obligatory pictures and congratulated James and Sandi on their fine play.

Back in the XC90, we set our sights on Aspa Herrgard, a 17th-Century manor house that lies on the northwest point of Lake Vattern.  Not only did this small hotel and dining establishment offer us a spectacular lunch, highlighted by a delightfully saut‚ed chicken breast and flawless mashed potatoes, but it also introduced us to the legendary Swedish figure Carl Michael Bellman.  A short walk from Aspa Herrgard lies the Bellman Museum, which chronicles the life of a man who was part Johnny Carson, part Robert Frost and part John Fogerty.  Though he longed to be considered a serious poet, Bellman spent most of his adult life composing drinking songs, dodging debtors' prison and writing Biblical parodies (because what's a bigger hoot than goofin' on the Apostle Paul?)  Bellman struck gold when he started kissing up to King Gustav III, who enjoyed the bouquets the poet tossed his way, but all that came to a sad end in 1792 when Gustav was assassinated.  His meal ticket punched, Bellman himself checked out three years later, but to most Swedes, who value their drinking songs highly, he is still legend.

Exiting Lake Vattern we continued our journey eastward to our evening's destination, the charming manor of Sundbyholm.  The hostelry is actually a complex of buildings, one dating back to the 17th-Century, built at the direction of Admiral Carl Carlsson Gyllenhielm, while another dating to the 1700s has been converted into an upscale honeymoon haven.  Our accommodations consisted of a suite in a cottage of more recent vintage, but it captured more than a little of the antique aura issued by the place despite its sizable whirlpool tub.

A walk through one of the property's formal gardens took us to a marina on Lake Malaren, where we boarded an electric-powered raft to view the Sigurd engraving -- an 11th-Century folktale etched in rock.  That mission completed, we returned to the oldest of the Sundbyholm structures where the most raucous of our dinners took place, fueled not only by a succession of alcoholic beverages, but also by the fact all the members of our party wore 18th-Century dress.  What this meant, in practice, was that the women on the tour all looked fabulous in their elaborate gowns while the menfolk resembled preening geeks.  After parading around all night in velvet and brocade I can only say thank heaven for Brooks Brothers.

The following morning we tumbled back into our stalwart XC90 for our last drive on the tour, and it was a bittersweet moment.  After a relatively quick stop in the nearby town of Eskiltuna for a gander at glass-blowing, we got onto the beautifully engineered Swedish superhighway system for an hour's drive into Stockholm. 

After spending the bulk of the week in the agrarian Swedish hinterlands, pulling into the Stockholm metro area was a revelation.  This is a city that is big, cosmopolitan and crowded, yet it oozes charm.  It is both physically attractive (since it occupies a series of islands) and architecturally attractive (since it has only a handful of buildings that might be termed skyscrapers).  Evocative of both San Francisco and Seattle in its physical environs, it has a far richer history. 

Saying goodbye to our XC90 for the last time -- regrettably it would not be rejoining us in America because our venture was a simulation of the OSD experience -- we checked into the centrally located Grand Hotel and immediately partook of its justly famous smorgasbord.  Rejuvenated, we struck out to the nearby Gamla Stan ("Old Town") that was the original Stockholm, where we spent the remainder of the afternoon poking up and down the narrow streets, peering into art galleries and gift shops of all descriptions and generally lapping up local color as if it were cream.  After a spectacular tour of the harbor by steamship, we gathered at Gondolen, one of the very few restaurants that offer a view of the city, for a sunset dinner.  After warming up on a variety of wines in the restaurant, we retired to the crowded Grand Hotel bar where we toasted the success of our trip, the health of the Swedish royal family and anything else we could think of to toast until the wait staff actually turned the lights up and began sweeping under our feet.

The following morning we arose groggy but eager to explore and got onto a water taxi for the short journey to the Vasa Museum, which holds a good lesson for us all.  The Vasa's story has parallels to the Titanic.  Built as the King's Ship, the proudest fighting vessel in the Swedish Navy, it sailed into Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage and promptly rolled over and sank, trapping a number of its crew in the bowels of its hull.  Raised from the harbor depths decades ago, it now resides in a beautifully executed museum that chronicles every aspect of its short history.

Exiting the Vasa Museum it was a short walk to Skansen, a sort of Swedish Greenfield Village.  There we walked through working recreations of historic businesses like an 1800's bakery and a 1930's hardware store.  After getting a close look at a moose in the wildlife area, we took a leisurely walk back through the park-like setting to our hotel.  Then we set out on a final shopping spree before sitting down to a farewell dinner with the last few members of our company.

The following morning, as our cab ferried us to the sparkling modern Arlanda airport for our SAS flight back to the United States, we could only reflect on what a wonderful experience the week had brought us -- new sights, new sounds, and, most of all, new friends.  We only hope that your Overseas Delivery Experience is as special as ours was.

Next week's feature:  Okay, this sounds great, but what are the dollars-and-cents of the Volvo Overseas Delivery Program, and how do you go about participating?  We'll give you those answers in our upcoming feature.              

Take Your Car on Vacation

Some people use their car only as an appliance.  It is strictly a conveyance to get them from A to B, and they don't get any more emotionally attached to their cars than they would to their vacuum cleaner, blender or garbage disposal.  But then there are those of us who do get emotionally attached to our cars.  We bond with our vehicles, and they, for all intents and purposes, become members of our families.  They serve us faithfully and go with us to important functions.  They are with us when memories are being made -- occasions like family vacations, for example.

In our considered opinion, many Volvo drivers are in the second category.  They not only appreciate the functional aspects of their sedans, wagons or SUVs, they also become emotionally invested in their cars.  And for them there is no better way to start that relationship than with the Volvo Overseas Delivery Experience (OSD)  It allows them to not only take delivery of their Volvo right at its Gothenburg factory birthing point, but also to build their relationship with their vehicle on a splendid European vacation.

How do I know this?  Because my lovely wife Sandi and I got the opportunity to experience Volvo Overseas Delivery for ourselves on a late-summer trip that took us from our Los Angeles area home to Gothenburg and thence through the charming Swedish countryside to Stockholm.  It was an utterly idyllic way to begin a long-term relationship with a vehicle. 

Like all participants in the Volvo Overseas Delivery program, we were the recipients of two Scandinavian Air Service round trip tickets from our home to Volvo's home city of Gothenburg.  Though we left from a big city airport -- Los Angeles International -- this involved a series of flights: United to Chicago, SAS to Copenhagen and a short SAS flight to Gothenburg.  One might have expected to arrive exhausted after nearly a day in transit, but after a limousine ride from the airport (courtesy of Volvo) and an efficient check-in at the SAS Radisson Hotel (the host hotel for OSD), we were refreshed and ready to explore the city.

An hour-long walking tour confirmed our first impression -- the city, which, interestingly enough, was built in part by 17th Century English merchants, is charming and sparkling clean.  A series of waterways and canals interlace the area, and one of the best ways to experience the allure of the place is to take an open boat ride.  That's exactly what we did, and our tour of the canals quickly segued into a journey across the wide estuary that is Gothenburg's main harbor.  There small pleasure craft mingle with huge ferries that transport passengers and their cars to Kiel, Germany, and other European ports.  Our destination was far simpler -- the restaurant Sjomagasinet, overlooking the bay -- where we had the chance to immerse ourselves in Swedish cuisine.  Think fish, and more fish, and then some more fish.  Though it might seem one-note, each of our courses was sumptuous, and the festivities were made yet more festive by the beer and/or wine that accompanied each course.  Luckily, we were transported back to our hotel, rather than driving.

The following morning in our sparkling Scandinavian-modern hotel suite, we peeked out the curtains to see dark skies and sprinkles.  "Uh-oh, here it comes," we thought, fearing that our late-summer Northern Europe day would translate into pouring rain, but by the time we were transported to the Volvo headquarters to begin the process of taking delivery of our pre-ordered Volvo XC90 V-8 sport utility vehicle, the skies were already beginning to clear.

At Volvo, typical participants in OSD take a factory tour, marveling at the clean and quiet way their vehicles have been constructed, have a lunch of Swedish meatballs and actually take possession of their vehicles from well-trained, courteous Volvo personnel.  Our group deviated from this scenario a bit, by getting a visit with some of Volvo top designers at the Volvo Design Center located on the company campus.  Then we took the keys to our green XC90 V-8 from our uniformed guide, pulled out the route map and embarked on our adventure.

First stop was less than two hours away by a meandering, enchantingly scenic route to the vacation island of Marstrand, which is kind of Balboa, Mackinac and Nantucket all rolled into one.  But not only is Marstrand a sailing center opening onto the North Sea; it also has a rich and colorful history that we began to dive into immediately upon arrival. We had a sumptuous crayfish lunch at the Grand Hotell(sic), which in the late 1890s served as the summer residence for King Oscar I.  A true Swede, the king had the mansion equipped with two staircases -- one for the Queen and one for his mistress.

Towering above the Grand Hotell, the island is dominated by Carlstens Fastning, a truly imposing fortress that was built over the course of 200 years largely by convict labor.  Of the convicts, the most colorful was Lasse Maja, who often dressed in women's clothing during his criminal career not unlike Michael Jackson.  Finally caught and thrown into the prison-fortress he proved that capitalism is unstoppable by persuading a Gothenburg passenger-ship concern to begin sending regular excursions to Marstrand to view and feed the convicts.  Another prisoner in the fortress fared less well.  When prison administrators decided to experiment with solitary confinement, this unnamed soul was singled out.  He was only allowed to talk to humans once a year -- to a pastor at Christmas -- and this quickly drove him mad.  His cell is still decorated with the paintings he created out of his own blood and the stone windowsill is etched with the finger and thumbprints he created by scratching them there every waking hour.

On that happy note, we left the cell and climbed the tower to the walls of the fortress.  The 360-degree views of the archipelago were absolutely spectacular -- sailboats dotting the whitecaps to the seaward side while red-roofed cottages highlighted the village to the east.  It was with reluctance that we pulled ourselves back down from the height in time to catch a quick pedestrian ferry to the mainland.  Then it was off in our XC90 on another sublime country drive to our lodgings for the night, Bjertorp Slott.

Set amidst yellowing grain fields, the manor home is one of several on the OSD "Castles and Manor Homes" tour.  Built by a Swedish tycoon who made millions in the first years of the 20th Century bartering oil for the Russian Czar, the mansion was a comfortable place to while away the hour or so before the next lavish meal, this time featuring reindeer and venison.  Sandi and I turned in for the night eager to try our skills on the adjacent golf links. 

We'll tell you about that (mis)adventure and others next week in this space as we continue our feature on the Volvo Overseas Delivery process.

Cars & TV: Arranged Marriages

It's no accident that Eva Longoria was driving an Aston Martin in a recent episode of "Desperate Housewives."  And it's no accident that the promotional ads for NBC's fall shows were filled with Mazda vehicles.  Getting cars on television shows isn't a new phenomenon -- the Chevrolet Corvette of the early Sixties TV class "Route 66" is just one example of this decades-old practice -- but these days the technique is being turned into a science and, far from keeping it secret, some car companies and their public relations counselors are crowing about their successes.

Why is the technique so hot these days?  Part of it is driven by technology and by Americans' frequently expressed desire to avoid advertising.  Once captive to ads within TV programs, many viewers now have tools that can make commercials all but disappear.  First, there is the remote control, a weapon that quickly comes into play when the football game or the sitcom stops for a break.  But the remote control and its accompanying phenomenon, channel-surfing, is old-tech in the light of TiVo and other digital video recording technologies.  With TiVo one can fast-forward through commercials at warp-speed (or watch bikini-strewn beer ads in languorous extreme slow motion.)  Further, viewers can watch when they want to watch rather than being slaves to network TV schedules.

While all of this is a boon to American TV watchers, it is scaring the double decaf cappuccinos out of network execs because the exact things that Americans are trying so assiduously to avoid watching are the exact things advertisers need Americans to watch to pay the freight for all the dramas, reality shows and comedies that fill the airwaves, the cables and the satellite dishes of the land.  Not to mention paying for those double decaf cappuccinos.

What to do about this?  Well, a partial solution to the networks' problem is what is being referred to in the industry by the code words "integrated content."  What this means is that advertisers are paying to have their products featured in TV programs themselves, not in the breaks that come between programming.  Extreme examples of this technique are the episodes of NBC's "The Apprentice" that featured the Pontiac Solstice and the Lamborghini Gallardo as the objects of the contestants' weekly assignments.  In the case of the Solstice, money ("promotional consideration") changed hands, the car got a big jolt of pre-introduction publicity on a top-rated show, and General Motors filled its Solstice order bank. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

But the practice isn't always that blatant.  This past summer NBC promos for "Earl" and other programs on its fall schedule included various Mazda vehicles.  The cars were never identified either in voiceover or on-screen but they were there and maybe, just maybe, they helped influence a sale or two. 

While most of these deals are under the radar, the practice is getting more visibility.  Rogers & Cowan, the entertainment marketing agency of record for the BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce brands in the United States, actually put out a press release touting the fact that "BMW Group has accelerated its entertainment presence as the 2005 fall TV line-up showcases the company's brands in many starring roles."

According to the release, the all-new BMW 3 Series recently appeared on ABC's "Alias" season premiere with Jennifer Garner and Michael Vartan; UPN's "All of Us" highlights the 6 Series Convertible with Duane Martin behind the wheel; NBC's "The West Wing" includes BMW motorcycles in the presidential motorcade; and upcoming episodes of CBS's "Ghost Whisperer" feature a MINI Cooper driven by Aisha Tyler.

In a town noted for its junkets, recently, the Rogers & Cowan team joined BMW representatives for a two-day studio tour showcasing BMW's vehicles and motorcycles. Hollywood decision-makers at Warner Bros., Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Raleigh Studios-Manhattan Beach saw firsthand the latest models, including the BMW 645Cic, 530i, 330i, MINI Cooper, K1200R motorcycle "and a sneak peak at the show-stopping M5."  Wow, I hope they all had their Zoloft with them.

So if you think your favorite TV character is driving a particular model because the writer who created the character specified it to help express what the character is all about, you might have to think again.  It might just be because the manufacturer of that car was the highest bidder.

So selling cars has taken yet another new turn.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.

A frequent viewer of American TV via his satellite dish, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.