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October 24, 2016

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Home » Business » Autotalk Special

Slow down, exit ahead. A swan song on wheels

FOUR years ago, when I took on the job of Shanghai Daily’s automotive journalist, I didn’t even have a driver’s license. How crazy was that!

“You will be fine; you can do this,” my editor Leo assured me. “No one is a born expert on anything.”

Now, as I am set to bid farewell to my journalism career, I feel somewhat proud of my accomplishments. In a sense, my turning from rank amateur into a respected (I hope) auto journalist might be compared with the can-do spirit that built China’s automotive industry from tatters into a global powerhouse.

In 1988, the year of my birth, Audi teamed up FAW to churn out China’s first joint-venture premium cars. At a breathtaking speed, this former nation of bicyclists catapulted into the world’s biggest car market by sales and also an exciting testing ground for transport innovation.

As a country eager to make up for lost years, China has had a hard time accepting the fact that cars sales growth is slowing. High single-digit percentage growth figures that would cheer the auto industries of Europe and the US evoke long faces in China.

When we journalists did test drives in Shanghai, we were encouraged to drive at full throttle. After Tesla was reported to have caused the world’s first fatal accident involving an autopilot function in the US, China was anxious to investigate a similar case here to keep itself at the forefront. Chinese Internet start-ups that aspire to build eco-friendly and intelligent cars from scratch in just a few years have dared to set a new record for China.

We journalists can never write enough about an industry so full of surprise and passion. As a capstone of consumer-driven industrial development, the auto industry came as a latecomer with a steep learning curve. But now, there no longer seems to be a right way, wrong way or single way. There is only one way: the Chinese daring way.

Here, success could come from years of progression or shameless overnight copycats. It could come with the spirit of down-to-earth hard work or amid the hustle and bustle of wild pitches for fundraising and expert hiring.

On my own way up the learning curve, I grew increasingly wary of the “fake it until we make it” attitude I learned from China’s auto industry.

It works whenever I feel unsure about myself as a girl in this pretty macho world. Sometimes, it just adds to my worries about not being professional enough. Did I really understand what I was writing, or was I just repeating the jargon delivered on a plate to all reporters?

“Don’t worry, sweetheart, if you didn’t get all the points of today’s deep-dive into the newly opened plant. I didn’t either,” a public relation officer at Volkswagen once confided to me, apparently trying to put me at ease. “Come on, we are not mechanics.”

After all those years of being given tech briefings and plant tours, I feel I still have so much to learn about cars. One thing I did learn is to stay humble when faced with a true expert.

“It’s a quite inspiring lecture,” I assured the Volkswagen PR person. “Even if I forget the details years later, I will always remember how complicated and obscure it sounded and how much it deserved my awe and respect.”

I can still recall the admiration I felt for what auto manufacturing could deliver on a grand scale, with subtle nuances. It was the first time that I was conducted through a plant that ran as deep as a forest of humming robots.

A seasoned technician talked about how the temperature and timing of thermal treatment could affect the rigidity of the steel materials for panel stamping, as if sharing with us his grandma’s secret recipe for baking a perfect cake.

The secret is never in written-down. It is in experience. And carmaking is no small dish. Even today, when a carmaker can buy all the critical parts, it still needs the know-how to assembly them. And China, with no grandma’s recipe at hand, has to either figure out the secret itself, take a peek at the secrets of others or just buy what’s already for sale.

Over these years, domestic carmakers have certainly learned a thing or two from their foreign partners, who in most cases are also their competitors. Above all, no more trash talk that building cars is as simple as putting a sofa on four wheels.

Still, the zealous development of electric cars sometimes fast-backwards me into China’s Great Leap Forward campaign of the 1950s, when this nation held a romanticized, albeit uninformed, notion of surpassing ourselves and overtaking others. That was an era when we lived by the can-do spirit, only to find it was soul-sucking.

There is one thing I still can’t do after all these years — write a car review without an actual test drive. As ridiculous as it seems, it happens a lot to auto journalists in China when they have too many deadlines to meet and too little time to accept all the test drive invitations. They wind up borrowing a page or two from public relations speech craft.

The “can-do” spirit

“If telling a lie is a crime, then most of the car critics in China are guilty as charged,” said one of my auto journalist peers, who once wrote a satirical piece mocking patched-up reviews.

If there is still a piece of soul left in my car review, it certainly contains the tyranny of the youth. I was once told by my foreign peers that it takes at least 500 test drives to make a good auto journalist. In China, where its young auto industry is covered by a group of equally young journalists, the threshold drops.

I have done only about a hundred test drives, and yet I am considered as a senior reporter. I have never fixed a car myself — in China, a family garage is a luxury — and yet I have been encouraged to write colorful comments about cars built by real engineers.

“Don’t be shy about that,” said my PR friend Jackie. “You have been on this beat for four years. That’s long enough to qualify you as an expert.”

Every year, she and her peers greet the new faces that show up the list of auto journalist contacts. Probably some of them don’t even have driver’s licenses yet, much less their own cars. That’s how it was when I started.

I do feel like a self-acknowledged expert when I tell my friends that a car’s safety should be validated by its crash-test results, rather than judged by the thudding sound of its doors. Or when I suggest that autonomous driving is a new life partner that we need to gradually accept, not fall blindly in love with.

Or when I note that electric cars that promise a thrilling driving experience can hardly salve our environmental consciences because most of their power emanates from coal-burning plants.

As a journalist, I probably have seen it all, and done it all. But that’s not enough to make me an auto industry insider.

Before starting my new job next month at an American auto company, which is where I plan to bury my head deeper under the hood, I sent myself on a road trip starting in Los Angeles. Besides the California sunshine, I wanted to feel the can-do spirit that makes America what it is today. I hope the same spirit will empower my new leg of life journey.

I tried to emulate the car life of the locals, spending hours at the wheel alone every day, filling up my own tank at gas stations, while in China there’s always someone to do that for you. I watched the vibrant US car culture. The craze of car modification, in particular, can be traced back to the 1950s, when returned veterans from World War II felt an urge to apply their mechanical know-how somewhere and when “Detroit was the center of the world.”

I learned that and a lot more at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. I know how the story picked up from there. The Italians, the Germans and the Japanese became leading carmakers. Now come the Chinese.

From the Pacific coastal highway to the deserts of California, I sped on, trying to visit as many places as I could.

I was not alarmed about the speed of my trip until nightfall, when I found myself running out of gas and phone battery, aka navigation.

I was lucky to have not ended up getting lost. In the darkness, where my terror lurked, I pictured myself on one of those “blindfold runs” into carmaking made by Chinese Internet start-ups.

For me, who wanted to make it home safe and sound, the decision was clear: slow down.


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