Why Detroit is Actually Gotham City

Batman has an alter ego.  Why can’t Detroit be Gotham’s Bruce Wayne?

This is something that’s been rolling around in my head all summer.  Observe:



They both are dominated by large, gleaming towers paid for by the largest company calling the city home.

Detroit’s General Motors Renaissance Center

Gotham’s Wayne Industries Tower

Both these towers have awesome monorails leading right to them.

The Detroit “People Mover”

The Gotham “Liam Neeson Death Mobile”

And they’re both in desperate need of economic help.

Abandoned buildings abound in Detroit

Just… watch “Batman Begins”


Proving My Worth

This message comes to you from the tiny yet somehow pleasantly ergonomic keys of my new netbook, from the posh confines of my room in the Hampton Inn, and from the stultifying heat of Yuma, Arizona.  I am on the first business trip of my semi-professional career, and damn it feels good to be a GMstah.

This week, GM shipped me to their desert proving grounds in beautiful Yuma, Arizona, deep in the Sonoran Desert.  It is 106 degrees outside.  I have been informed that this is a particularly cool week.  So, in short, it’s a little different than Michigan.

Which is to say I went from this...

...to this. In under four hours.

The plane ride from Detroit to Phoenix was fairly standard, but the flight from Yuma to Phoenix was… an experience.  For the not-quite-hour-long flight, I was in row seven of nine in a tiny turboprop plane with a single flight attendant, two large propellers, and a planeful of prayers.  The flight wasn’t actually that bad, if a bit unnerving, but then we started to land — and veritably dove straight into Yuma.  I’m talking like a thirty degree descent here.  Felt like a Blue goddamn Angel.

Anyway, Yuma is pretty cool.  Except for the fact that it’s incredibly hot.  All the time.  But the city is desert-neo-adobe-quaint and the proving grounds are just as neat as Milford, if substantially smaller.  It’s covered in red rock and dust, though, so it’s easy to imagine I’m testing Mars rovers instead of Range Rovers.  (That’s admittedly a bit of a lie for phraseology’s sake.  Range Rovers are made by Tata Motors, not GM.  But Yukon XLs are pretty close.  So shush.)

By far the most interesting and unexpected part of the GM Yuma proving grounds, however, is that they are located on the US Army Yuma proving grounds.  The drive to work every morning (which, by the way, is in the absolute middle of nowhere) passes by one tank and two large artillery cannons, and there are signs all over the grounds reminding us we have to yield to any military vehicles.  I watched military paratrooper training today as I drove, and the absolute, unsettling, oppressive desert quiet is interrupted fairly frequently by what I can only assume are ordinance blasts.  And once, by a muffled, colorful chime that sounded like clock tower meets Close Encounters.  Still not sure what that one meant.

Other random business travel perks: GM bought me a spacious hotel room — and none of this collegiate roommate business — and I’m given $46 per day for food.  Which, in Yuma, is ridiculous.  Also, Las Vegas.  Assuming we get the all-clear to leave the grounds, they also bought me a room in the Luxor Las Vegas on Saturday night.  And in Vegas, the per diem is $71.  Which, anywhere, can include booze.  Whether I can get GM to front my high-roller gambling remains to be seen.

Other random business travel drawbacks: due to approaching deadlines and the temporal magic of time zones, by lunch on Thursday I’ll have put in a forty hour week.  And there’ll be probably thirty hours plus to go.

General Matters

I got an email from Dan Akerson, the Chairman and CEO of General Motors today (well, okay, I didn’t get it directly, but it was forwarded to my boss’ boss, who forwarded it to me), about the deal between the Obama administration and the automotive industry to set fuel economy averages to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

It’s an ambitious goal, but definitely reachable — and Akerson agrees, homey similes to the NFL salary cap aside.  It seems like a pretty typical CEO preaching-to-the-masses-from-the-pulpit email, congratulating everyone on their fine work and exhorting them to greatness in the future, which means the short email reads like what would happen if William Wallace became a used car salesman.  But then Akerson adds:

Going forward, reducing fuel consumption and lessening the automobile’s impact on the environment are important to our business because it’s important to our country and our customers.

Wait, what?  Those are the reasons?  Not because GM wants to of its own accord?  Not because the future of the planet, let alone transportation as we know it, is at stake?  Interesting choices.  I don’t think this is how he meant it to come across, but Akerson’s sentence has no conscience in it whatsoever, only a bottom line.  I guess I’m glad GM is doing what they are doing, but it pains my idealist sensibilities to think the Volt was made simply because there was an opening in the market.  I came to work for GM this summer because I believe in the promise of hybrid and electric vehicles to move humanity — quite literally — into a new era of transportation, to something clean and secure and filled with the quiet hum of electric motors.  That’s what’s important to me.

High Voltage

What my work days have consisted of:

  • Wake up at 6:45, which is a time I had forgotten existed.
  • Get into my rented Toyota Corolla (long story) and drive ~35 minutes to the Milford Proving Grounds, which, it’s worth noting, look like this:

That weird gray square towards the top is 67 acres of asphalt referred to as "Black Lake"

  • Find a parking spot for the Corolla, which is one of maybe five foreign cars (hell, non-GM cars) in the employee lot.
  • Walk through the underground tunnel to my desk.
  • Get in a Chevy Volt, plug my computer into the car, grab data.  It’s a little bit like plugging into the Matrix, but I use an ethernet wire instead of a giant brain needle and I don’t learn kung fu.
  • Tear like a 70-mile-per-hour, electrically powered, extremely heavy bat out of a parking lot so grievously full it may as well be considered an apt approximation of Hell onto the test track.
  • Do a couple of laps on the Oval Track (that’s the middle loop in the above picture that kind of looks like a lamb shank with a lake in the middle of it), then plug the car in to charge.
  • Go muddle around trying to figure out how to best air-cool the battery in a future SUV hybrid.  In a week or two, this is hopefully going to become “go air-cool the battery in a future SUV hybrid while driving it in the High Feature Test Facility.”  The High Feature Test Facility is a room with a car-sized treadmill and the ability to create weather.

The HFTF, probably (to be honest, I looked for a picture of Zeus first, but Tesla's waaaay more impressive)

  • Grab more charge data, do more laps
  • Rinse and repeat

So it’s been pretty cool.  The Proving Grounds are just massive, and very cool to get to see, let alone drive through.  The work is interesting, if straightforward, and seeing how a massive company like GM functions from the inside is a whole different post.  What’s been most interesting is discussion of the bailout — or, rather, the fact that no one ever brings it up.  It’s just this thing that happened, and no one seems to let on that it was a big deal.  In fairness, GM has done pretty well, I think: the US government owns only about a quarter of the stock after GM’s IPO last year, and GM paid back the entirety of the government’s loan — plus interest — in a matter of months (when the government gave them something like five years to pay the money back completely). Someone who actually understands economics should check me here.

Also, as long as I’m talking about my internship, if anyone knows who Dan Neil is (or even if you don’t), I recommend his review of the Volt from October of last year, right before the first models hit the market.  It includes this quote:

I get it. A lot of people don’t like GM because: 1) the bailout, or 1a) Obama; or 2) the United Auto Workers; or 3) because some Monte Carlo or Cutlass Sierra or deuce-and-a-quarter left them walking a long time ago. That’s understandable. These are sour times. But for the moment, we should suspend our rancor and savor a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet. And they did it in 29 months while the company they worked for was falling apart around them. That was downright heroic. Somebody ought to make a movie.

Which is pretty vintage Neil.  But also really true — the wristwatches are cheap and the Volt is an impressive feat of engineering.  Neil goes into the basics of how the Volt works, but here’s the summary: unlike the Toyota Prius, which has a full internal combustion engine and can be driven either in electric or gasoline modes, or the Nissan Leaf, which is a solely electric car, the Volt is a “series hybrid,” which means the only thing connected to the wheels is an electric motor.  The small gasoline engine on board isn’t really an engine at all — it’s a generator, used to charge the battery (if needed) while the car moves.  So the Volt is more like an electric car with the charging station from your garage inside of it than a traditional hybrid.

And, unlike the Prius, it looks pretty good while it does it

Just a bunch of Midwestern engineers pushing the frontiers of automotive technology, no big deal.

A final parting shot: I know they’re very different companies, but Tesla Motors definitely picked the better namesake.  Just look at this guy.

Count Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta, who invented the battery and was narrowly defeated by Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben for most names in the 18th century

The Great Midwest

For the uninitiated: I have accepted a ten-week long internship with General Motors, that mostly-stalwart of the automotive industry, which starts tomorrow.  I am currently writing this from what is euphemistically referred to as “student housing” in Novi, Michigan.  However, when I say it’s euphemistically student housing, I mean this apartment is friggin’ huge.  I have the master bedroom, which is probably 15 x 20 feet with its own walk-in closet and bathroom.  Oh, and a queen-sized bed.  A QUEEN BED.  It’s like I died and went to college dorm heaven.  Only heaven’s in Novi, Michigan.

I hope to chronicle my adventure in the American heartland here, but we’ll see how many adventures I get up to and whether they’re worth talking about.  I’m putting in full-time work on the Chevy Volt and don’t know anyone (plus my roommate hasn’t shown up and may not even be planning on showing up), but that’s no reason not to explore the Midwest, right?  I even read the Wikipedia article on Inland Northern American English so I can blend in like a local.  And work, at least, promises to entertain me.  I get to test drive things.

Random observations about Michigan so far:

  • it’s quite flat
  • it’s quite green
  • it’s goddamn humid
  • and I can’t tell if there are a disproportionate number of American cars on the road, or if I’m just used to Palo Alto and the distinct lack of BMWs, Audis, and Porsches is throwing me off