I know absolutely nothing about nuclear fusion and the accretion theory of spontaneous rotation in toroidal plasmas and the effects it has on the polar caps. Which explains why I'm a motoring editor and not a scientist. I'm pretty sure none of you would hold this against me, either – unless of course I represented our country in the international press room of the International Atomic Energy Agency and was tasked to deliver a featured published paper on the topic once I got back from the annual convention in Vienna.
Outrageous? Perhaps. Yet, amazingly, every time I attend an international press event of anything automotive, I notice a growing number of clueless new journalists huddled around the buffet talking passionately about Meteor Garden, without the foggiest idea of what was just launched. Collectively, they lack enough industry related knowledge to change a flat tire. And come the actual test drive, I will always end up stuck behind them as they hold up the entire event while trying to find first gear. Or second. Or those silly little pedals that are eating up into their legroom. And, on more than several occasions, it usually turns out to be the first time that the journalist has ever attempted to drive a car.
During the launch of the Porsche Carrera 4S in Europe, a journalist from Thailand managed to whack a shiny new test coupe into a wall. Twice. He mentioned something about it being left hand drive. A couple of months later, same guy was back in full form at the launch of the Porsche Cayman. He almost ended up off the cliff. A little further down the road, a couple of Chinese writers managed to beach their test unit in the middle of a farmer's soggy field, a long, long way from the road. Don't even ask how they got it there. On the press drive of the new S Class in Milan, a couple more journalists managed to wedge a brand new S500 in between a rock and a very hard place, causing considerable damage.
In Australia, while we were testing the IMV line up, Toyota lost a V8 Tacoma pick up five minutes before the program wrapped up after one of the guys from Thailand put it firmly into a wall. Recently, just before the Tokyo motor show this year, a group of Philippine journalists were invited to the Honda testing track in Japan, only to be told upon arrival that their test drive would be cancelled because a journalist from China had just written off the S2000. During the same trip, one of the members of another group recounted his experience of an event for a yet-to-be-released model that was cut short after another one of our Asian neighbours ended up rolling the vehicle 5 times, eventually leaving it to rest by the side of the test course on its twisted roof.
I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Forgive me if I'm starting to sound like a whining little brat that has just had his toys pulled, but this affects you as much as me. And the repercussions could be huge. The problem here is, it is reshaping the way the industry perceives and handles the press which ultimately affects the way manufacturers launch their vehicles – presumably because some journalists have been taking the 'launch' part too literally. As a result, lately it seems I spend far more time having my job xplained to me than I do actually doing it. Some manufacturers are dumbing down their events to compensate when really, what they should be doing is simply to find more intelligent drivers.
I'm not professing to be a fabulous driver, but as a motoring journalist, I should at least know how to hold a freaking steering wheel by now, just as you would expect a cop to know how to hold and discharge a firearm properly. You wouldn't want to let either one loose on the streets until at least these basic skills were covered.
The problem will really start to kick in as these numbers start to swell – which is inevitable. With emerging markets maturing like untapped goldmines and car companies scrambling for market share and branding, you will see more and more magazines, TV shows, websites and newspapers from these countries sprouting up to cater to this beat and an increasing amount of media personnel covering these events. Now, what do you think the car companies are going to do? Rather than risk life, limb and precious property trying to squeeze blood out of stone, some manufacturers will – as some have already ended up doing – dumb down their driving events so as to meet the expectations and skills of those that cover it. Majority rules.
Which leads me to the part that affects you. If the new breed of journalist seems more concerned about the sightseeing, shopping and lifestyle portions of the trip and places a higher value on the press give-away and lavish buffets than he does on the car or driving experience, wouldn't the wise car-maker's money be better spent entertaining him and keeping him well fed, rather than going through the hassle of producing challenging events that showcase the technology and driving dynamics of their latest models. The benefits of which would be wasted anyway? It would be much safer and it makes better business sense – even if it means stepping back 30-40 years.
Given a choice, I'm sure the bean counters would be far happier if they could consolidate the press into a fixed expense, while also alleviating the biggest headache of their otherwise perfectly controlled businesses – a thorough independent evaluation. With that out of the way, the battle will be fought at the ad agencies and you will end up having to buy whatever you're told to by an overfed, under qualified journalist that has all the motor skills of your left foot as it rests on the dead pedal of your minivan.
My plan is simple. Motoring journalists, like any other professional, should be graded. At least for the driving part. There should be an internationally recognized symbol, gained through standard testing, that determines your skill level and experience. This way, once you arrive at a driving event, groups could be divided depending on your grade, rather than your nation. Less time spent in condescending lectures, more time behind the wheel evaluating the car.. It also helps to reduce prejudice on different markets because, sadly, the unspoken rule here is, if a journalist shows no interest or knowledge, it reflects on the market he represents.
Driving is a basic skill that should be a prerequisite before being given the privilege of publishing an opinion on the second largest investment most people will statistically make in their lifetime. I recall an incident a few years ago where a test car was wrecked after an insanely irresponsible maneuver caused the car to slam into a tire wall. The entry speed was so great that the laws of physics were bastardized and not even the expert hands of Fernando Alonso would have been able to salvage it from doom. Yet once the story was published, the journalist reported to his readers that the car 'under-steered', implying the fault to be with the car.
That would be like saying, “I doused the house in petrol, lit a match, and it just went up in smoke! Who designed these deadly matchsticks!?”