New Automation Update

There’s a huge new Automation update that, thanks to a collaboration with BeamNG.Drive, allows players who own both games to do something fans have been asking for for a long time-drive their creations.

An Automation dev is demonstrating it with everything from city cars to luxury barges in a series titled “Great Engineer, Terrible Driver.” It’s well worth a watch.

 

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Stretching a Car Platform

In this post, when I refer to stretching a car platform, I mean in the sense of extending its lifespan, not physically stretching it (although I have seen a six door 1995 Cadillac limo used as a daily driver-it was something).

There are very good reasons for cars being updated as frequently as they are, for lesser models will be devoured in the notoriously competitive market. Yet some linger on, with unsurprising results. A purely commercial model like the Chevy Express or a niche one like the Land Cruiser-70 can last longer than a car at the forefront of the market. The exception to this is the Camry, which had/has stayed on a similar platform for around 15 years, but that’s an example of not fixing what isn’t broken.

This got my attention with the announcement of “facelifts” and platform updates in Automation.

I was wondering “how much could you extend a basic car platform’s life, or change it into something else by fiddling/replacing the engine.” It’s an interesting question, and I like the ideas of cars in some out-of-the-way assembly line or plant still being built as part of my love of the weird (an older variant of the Lada was like this)

 

 

Ueno Motors

This is a fictional car company that I’ve done a few sample cars of in Automation.

Ueno Motors, named after its controlling family (surname example), is a car company headquartered in outlying Hokkaido. In broad terms, it’s followed the industry’s path. However, I’ve made it more successful than my previous interpretation/version of it-then, it was in US terms a wheezing bottom-feeder. Here, it’s a more successful niche manufacturer.

Ueno has been defined by paradoxes. Its cars, for the most part, are knowingly sedate, knowingly bland. Yet its actual business exists in an attitude of frenzied pushes, the kind of risky lunges one must make to compensate for structural weaknesses. Ueno has, for the most part, succeeded in this. It went upmarket in a large way, because it needed higher per-car margins to counteract everything from the vagarities of currency and trade to the costs of shipping parts from Honshu-and did so with its own brand name, not creating a sub-brand.

This sort of strange mixture leads it to do varied things-it has rushed plants over into markets where it fears being shut out, yet is hesitant to expand. Its leadership has moved with surprising speed and ruthlessness in ditching its lowest-margin products, yet persists in making (as one example) clunky four-speed transmissions as a cost-saving measure.

Brand image for Ueno is clear and has been so for decades, with its mainline models keeping the same names for very good reasons: This is a relaxing car, a reward for a hard life’s work. Thus squishy comfort is (generally) prioritized over sportiness. When styling is emphasized, it’s done in a retro fashion, because Ueno, unlike many other car companies, does not shy away from having their vehicles be labeled “old people cars”.

Even by the grueling standards of the auto industry, Ueno is notoriously difficult to work for or with. While the family and company’s reputation for “thrift” has played a role in the legitimate accomplishment of keeping it alive and independent for over a century, it manifests itself in obvious and terrible ways. In Hokkaido proper, its already-natural clout is furthered by its status as the area’s largest industrial employer-one does not step on the toes of such a beast lightly.

In automotive terms, Ueno offers a fairly conventional lineup of vehicles, ranging from low-premium to the occasional $60,000+ flagship. Certain niches, especially low-margin ones, are avoided-Ueno has long since stopped its kei car business and relies on badge-engineering deals for some “niche” models (including keis in the JDM). But not others-it was successful by having one of the last personal luxury coupes remaining, grabbing a few big sales off a two-door, brougham-upped version of an otherwise-conventional car.

Ueno achieves decent sales in North America and Eurasia, and is a surprisingly big fish in the shrinking pond of the JDM.

In-game, Ueno represents one of the hardest challenges-making a car that’s just a little bit “premium”, not on the extremes of econobox or supercar. And some of my desires clash with the company ethos (c’mon, you’d think stately luxurious penny-pinchers would greenlight an engine with an exotic five-valves-per-cylinder head?), but it’s still fun to play.

Barton Motors

How to keep a small American car company alive and independent? The thought kept going through my mind, and went to the forefront after the release of the latest open beta for Automation.

Barton Motors is one of my concept car companies. An independent auto manufacturer in New Jersey, it survives World War II and then…

Something. I want it to be a general purpose producer, at least at first. The only problem is that general purpose is in many ways the toughest segment. The only options for a poor independent once the artificial boom of the late 1940s subsides are:

  • Go head to head against the Big Three with fewer resources. This was tried by AMC’s Rob Abernethy in the 1960s, with predictable results.
  • Try to fill a niche. At first, compact cars were the niche, the problem being that every independent tried to pile into a small market. Then came AMC’s Ramblers, followed by renewed competition from the Big Three compacts and imports. This need not be limited to compacts-if an independent got a Mustang-style car before the Mustang (or something else), a similar logic would undoubtedly occur.

 

What I decided was Barton getting enough of a certain image to survive by going upmarket. Starting as a mass volume producer, it decides to live on as a low tooling cost, niche producer after one device fails. Of course, this means it goes from thousands to hundreds of employees, but at least it’s still in business for longer.

To my knowledge, there is no real life precedent (the closest is BMW, who built everything from tiny bubble cars to giant luxury vehicles before settling on the upper-mid premium market.) There was, however, an attempt-the Alchemy proposal for the MG Rover group, that would have slimmed it down to a low-production sports car company. This was rejected in favor of a politically preferable bid that kept the workforce employed in full, the disastrous Phoenix Four.

There’s skepticism that the original offer was actually viable-other British sports-car firms have gone decades without making a profit. But the theoretical precedent is there. I still wouldn’t bet on Barton surviving to the present. But you never know.

 

Car Company Names

What do I name my car companies? The car companies across the world have many historical precedents.

  • Founder names (Ford). These are the easiest-I just need to find a family name of the appropriate nationality and slap it on.
  • Geographic names (BMW). The example of BMW stands for “Bavarian Motor Works”, which fits its initial business as an aircraft engine manufacturer. One of my companies, TAZ (Tashkent Avto Zavod/Tashkent Auto Factory), has a geographic name. These are harder.
  • Non-founder/non-geographic names (Mitsubishi). The absolute hardest, especially for non-English names (which I’ll admit I’m not good at pronouncing, much less understanding).

So far, an incomplete list of companies, for Automation and imagination:

TAZ (Russia/USSR, general purpose, geographic)

Lelli-Folino (Italy, supercars, founder)

Barton Motors (US, general purpose, founder)

The Car Engine is Thirsty

Trying to get back into Automation, my cars have never been able to get that high mileage. This is for several reasons, including my own lack of skill. However, the two biggest ones are that I tend to have either a monstrous stereotypical American giant engine, or a stereotypical European displacement-tax dodging engine that revs like crazy to squeeze every last kilowatt out of its small frame.

Neither is conducive to fuel economy.

My own tendency to go to extremes exacerbates the problem. If not that, it’s a small city car engine. Even then, I tend to rev it to maximum power to get every last drop of-you see where this is going.

The Horsepower War

I chuckle at the ridiculous horsepower figures given for the latest internet supercars.

(To make a long story short, the limitations of tires if nothing else means that increased engine power will pass the point of diminishing returns before it reaches the theoretical limit.)

In my Automation playthroughs, the jewel in the horsepower crown has been a 574 horsepower engine with development starting in the mid 1980s and, going by engineering time, being ready for mass production in the early 1990s. It’s a V8 rather than a V12.

Naturally, the car is a two-seat supercar with an inflation-adjusted price of over $300,000.

Enter this creative writing exercise.

_ _ _ _ _ _

“Now, this sort of thing only happens once. We seek a partner, and can use the marque as an overall luxury one. We have a perfectly good plant for high-end, low value production, and we have the Folino brand. Otherwise, we run up a ton of debt trying to build a successor to the Power8 and hope lightning strikes twice.”

Samuele Lelli had heard a variation of that argument a million times before. From a business perspective, it made total sense.

Sell most of-but not all of your stake in L-F, then start or join a small engine tuner, and live your performance dream there.

But his heart didn’t want to put engines in Fords, Cadillacs or Tatras. What his heart wanted was to build a car from the ground up, a street car that could win the war. Leapfrog ahead, with the dream. The years he’d spent designing the Power8 had been the happiest of his life, and he wanted to keep going, to reach the goal of-

10,000 horsepower. Ten. Thousand. Horsepower.