Carmakers Spin Doctoring the Alloy Wheel Story
When car industry spin doctors and bad reporting collides, over counterfeit alloy wheels...
Corporate stooges simply should not pretend to be reporters. It's an insult - to your intelligence, not to mention actual reporters - when they do. So , for me, this is like being a fly on the wall at a high roller’s bullshit roulette table at Casino Car Industry. Three morally reprehensible high rollers: First, the only prestige German carmaker with two cars in America’s official least reliable cars list (Mercedes-Benz). Joining them, the poster boy for how not to run a profitable car company in Australia (GM Holden). And, lastly, the agency tasked with apologising obsequiously and collectively for carmakers in Australia (the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries). These three jumped into bed recently to produce a faux report. (See the video below.)
In that report, they're really pumping out the BS about alloy wheels. So, get your barf bag ready and play the video (right) to see vested-interest barrow pushing dressed up - in the manner of an under-done transvestite - as faux journalism. This is actually an important issue, and they could have done it properly, without the self-interested bullshit.
So, an unholy trinity of weapons-grade bullshitters are sitting here at the high-stakes table, rolling obscenely loaded dice on an issue that is actually important to you - counterfeit parts. Specifically, alloy wheels. Cheap, nasty knock-offs, mainly from China, that might break and kill you if you hit a pothole at speed. Instead of treating this issue with the respect it demands, these Barnham and Bailey-style clowns - and I’m talking about the organisations, not the individuals - they’ve turned this issue into a bullshit sandwich.
What, exactly, is bullshit?
We’ll drill down into the problem in just a second. But first, let’s define bullshit. We each contribute our share, perhaps, but very few of us know exactly what bullshit is, and most people probably couldn’t define it with a gun at their heads. It’s not merely a set of lies.
The Encyclopedia Britanica of bullshit - bullshit-pedia - was written by Professor of Philosophy Emeritus Harry G Frankfurt, from Princeton University. It’s only 67 tiny pages of fascinating reading. A glorified essay. (Right.)
To paraphrase the good Dr Harry, bullshit is a kind of misrepresentational camouflage that might be wholly or partially true, or wholly or partially false, or any combination of truths and falsehoods, an amalgam of belief and non-belief.
At its core, it’s a form of deception about the bullshitter’s underlying agenda - presenting an argument for personal or collective gain. And this is textbook bullshit. Let’s shovel, like it’s 1999.
The Fake Wheel Test
At the core of this issue is a robust, scientific test. Conducted by the bullshitters. Cheap, knock-off Chinese wheels purchased online versus the genuine article. A calibrated pothole on a controlled test track, a bunch of engineers and an impact speed of just 50km/h. Take a look at how the cheap knock-off wheel fared (right, a freeze-frame from the BS video).
The cheap counterfeit failed. And, at higher speed, with more impact energy, out there on a public road, the result might be a disaster. No argument from me there. This is an important issue.
The genuine wheel survived. It’s not exactly a surprise. Genuine parts are - mostly - manufactured to a high standard. Except GM ignition switches, Ford dual-clutch transmissions, Jeep transmissions, Nissan CVT transmissions, Mercedes-Benz power steering and infotainment systems, The entirety of the Holden Cruze and Captiva, and of course Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Porsche, and Seat engines...
But let’s open the bullshit tap and see how spin doctor David McCarthy from Mercedes-Benz starts framing this debate.
"The whole industry is concerned about genuine parts being substituted for non-genuine parts. It's a very, very important issue, not just for the industry, but for every single person who drives or is a passenger in a car in Australia. It's a matter of public safety." - David McCarthy, Mercedes-Benz's big cheese of spin here in Australia.
This is the core of the issue. In my opinion, Mr McCarthy's statement for Mercedes-Benz, above, is either ill-informed or intentionally disingenuous. Is this a story about fake parts, or non-genuine parts? Is Mr McCarthy, presumably speaking on behalf of Mercedes-Benz, dissing the counterfeitters and missing the target, or attacking the entire aftermarket industry - many of whom supply high-quality wheels? Make up your own mind on that.
Self-interest & Spin
The tests were conducted at GM Holden’s proving grounds in Victoria. And I find it morally reprehensible that these monkies - and again here I’m talking only about the organisations, not the individuals - have the gall to reduce the debate, by implication, as if, when it comes to wheels, there is only a bi-polar proposition. Genuine is safe; everything else is gunna kill you. A neat soundbite, but bullshit, and in my view it’s borderline uncompetitive.
It's also very poorly timed, seeing as local manufacturers of aftermarket wheels are doing it doubly tough thanks to the free-trade agreement with China, and the cessation of local carmaking in Australia. Why is Holden, in particular, endorsing these comments? Or is GM Holden's external communications department also asleep at the wheel?
All the parties to this test have an unspoken set of aligned vested interests: Mercedes-Benz wants to sell more genuine wheels. So does Holden. And the Federal chamber wants every carmaker in the land to sell more of everything. And that’s why, in my view, the report drowns a very important public safety issue in self-serving bullshit. It might appear that they’re all sprinting to the summit of the moral high ground of public safety, but really they’re not. They’re sexing up self-interest with the pretext of safety. It’s undignified.
The ridiculously optional Australian Standard
There is actually a robust, well-designed engineering standard for alloy wheel safety here in Australia. It’s called AS 1638. If you’re not an engineer it’s another miracle cure for insomnia, but it includes some very robust propositions - a dynamic cornering fatigue test, a dynamic radial fatigue test and a 30-degree impact test - plus a comprehensive roadmap on how to demonstrate standards-compliance. There are counterpart standards in other markets internationally, too. But our standard is - ridiculously enough - optional - in other words, aftermarket wheels sold here in Australia, in practice, do not have to comply. Absurd.
Wake up, Federal Government
This is a monumental regulatory failure. Another brick in the wall of government regulators being asleep at the wheel, which was highlighted so vividly by the ongoing Volkswagen NOx-gate scandal. (Imagine if we did this with crimes … well, the standard is ‘don’t rape anyone’ … but we don’t really enforce it. It’s more of a guideline, really...)
When I go to Bing Lee and buy a kettle, I expect that kettle not to blow up in my face like some kind of steam-powered Molotov cocktail because, presumably, there are design standards that engineer out this kind of unfortunate speed hump on the road to one’s morning coffee. With aftermarket alloy wheels, you apparently don’t get that protection.
The fact is, this bullshit report we’re talking about here does not dare to criticise the regulatory apparatus because the last thing an arsehole lobby group like the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries wants to do is get the minister who makes carmaker-related policy, offside. It’s a massive conflict of interest. These arseholes are simply not empowered to tell you the truth.
State governments: Just as limp
In Victoria, the registration authority, VicRoads, has an official guide to the modifications of motor vehicles. It’s called - not that cryptically, Guide to Modifications for Motor Vehicles. You can download it for free.
The guide says that it’s a breach of the regulations for a person to use (quote): “a modified vehicle unless the modification has been approved by VicRoads or has been carried out in accordance with guidelines published by VicRoads.”
In that same document, under “Aluminium Alloy Wheels” - it says unequivocally compliance with one of these key standards - the Aussie one of one of the respected overseas ones mentioned earlier - is required when you fit different wheels to your car.
But our bullshit-reporting trinity of non-reporters makes absolutely no mention of the fact that the Victorians - and probably the other states and territories as well - apparently do not enforce this regulation.
The rules are, apparently, in place. They just don't bother.
Quality aftermarket wheels & China free trade
In its submission on the issues relevant to the China free trade agreement, the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association told the Federal Government that Australian wheel manufacturers comply with the wheel standard - AS 1638 - because doing so gives them a commercial edge (not because they’re legally compelled to comply) - and if you go to the websites of the quality aftermarket wheel brands you know and trust - like ROH - you will find in just a few clicks the all-important statement that that company’s wheels meet or exceed the requirements of that AS 1638.
Take a look at what the AAAA told the Federal Government about cheap Chinese knock-off wheels.
AAAA submission (above) was delivered - incredibly enough - 10 years ago. All 20 pages of it. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, but this is a friggin' joke ... on the voting public. At least the AAAA had the good grace to get the issues straight and not (in the manner of Mercedes-Benz, Holden and the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries) cast all non-genuine wheels in the same 'death trap' context.
Ask yourself, how hard would it be to make standards compliance mandatory? How hard would it be to make it illegal to sell non-complying wheels? How hard would it be to require importers to test the wheels to that standard locally, using independent, onshore NATA-registered laboratories? If the regulators did that, the tsunami of cheap knock-offs would evaporate overnight.
Warren Truss (Deputy PM, and notionally in charge of the Dept. of Infrastructure): grow a pair. Change the rules, hand out a few big fines, make some headlines … word would get around pretty quick. Problem goes away. Easy set of dots to join.
Why spin doctors can't report
So, this far, you've sampled bullshit sandwich numbers one and two
- No critique of the regulators, owing to vested interest, and
- No mention whatsoever of the mainstream group of responsible aftermarket alloy wheel manufacturers and retailers who do comply with the standard. They offer safe wheels that are absolutely a viable alternative to the genuine article.
If I were a retailer or manufacturer of a quality, standards-compliant aftermarket alloys, I would be beyond incensed at the implied biased message in that report, which is: genuine/safe; non-genuine/death-trap. Arsehole bullshitters.
'Non-genuine' & 'counterfeit': not interchangeable terms
A part can be genuine, or non-genuine, and a part can be counterfeit. But not all non-genuine (or aftermarket) parts are counterfeit. And not all non-genuine parts are dangerous. Quite the opposite. Let’s see what pink shirt/green tie guy from Mercedes has to say on this - and you can decide for yourself whether he represents a beacon of clarity on this issue.
"We've cooperated with Holden and the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries to be able to demonstrate to you the danger that you face when you fit non-genuine parts." - Mercedes-Benz Australia spin doctor David McCarthy
I think he’s confused, don’t you? Or, he might have just told the whole truth, by mistake. At the very least, the statement is semantically promiscuous, and at worst it seems to me to be intentionally misleading over any distinction between counterfeit parts and quality aftermarket ones, both of which are 'non-genuine'.
On balance, I think Mercedes-Benz really is concerned about all non-genuine parts - the good ones and the bad - because a monopoly would be so much more profitable. So, just to clarify: If a part is unsafe, that’s a regulatory problem. The government needs to harden up. If a part is counterfeit, that’s a trademark/IP issue. And presumably a global company like Mercedes-Benz has pockets deep enough to pursue IP infringement. This so-called ‘report’ we’re discussing - it’s really a PR campaign being managed by an agency called The Project Group - apparently assumes we’re all incapable of independent analysis.
More self-serving BS
How’s your appetite? Are you still hungry? Because here’s bullshit sandwich number three. Genuine wheels are absurdly expensive. A set of four for a Mercedes-Benz can cost you $10,000 - easy. I dunno about you, but that seems extortionate to me. I’d want a pink check shirt and green stripey tie thrown in for that. Saville Row, too - not from some cheap Chinese knock off.
There’s about $60 worth of Aluminium in a set of four alloy wheels, and yeah - you have to cast them and machine them and batch test them and paint them, and ship them. But we are also talking about the hi-tech miracle of mass production.
it’s safe to assume an alloy wheel for $2500 represents beyond a healthy profit margin for both Mercedes-Benz and the dealer who sells it to you. And that’s why people look elsewhere - because if you own a 10-year-old Benz, $2500 for a replacement alloy wheel is like: go stand next to the defibrillator and then I’ll tell you the price. It’s an extortionate joke with you as the fall guy.
In a sense, marking up the price of an aftermarket alloy to the point of highway robbery in the manner of Mercedes-Benz’s SOPs has driven many consumers towards the cheap Chinese knock-off. Guaranteed, a more reasonable pricing policy would help to rectify this problem. No mention of that in the so-called ‘report’ - knock me down with a feather.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fundamentally disinclined to abrogate the responsibility for safety advocacy or safety policy onto a few corporate bullshitters with a steadicam and conveniently aligned vested interests. Like I said: this is an important problem, drowning in vested interest bullshit that does you and me a fundamental disservice. And it assumes we’re all idiots. I hate that, too.