TELL THE FTC: NO MORE CAR DEALER JUNK FEES!

We have until January 8th, 2024 to submit comments to the FTC about proposed rules to BAN CAR DEALER JUNK FEES. Please visit https://www.regulations.gov/document/FTC-2023-0064-0001 to be heard!

Friday, May 31, 2024

Finally, Autonomous Driving is Here

My wife Nancy and I bought our first Tesla over 3 years ago. It’s a top-of-the-line Model S "Plaid" model, and the TSD (Tesla Self-Driving) package option was included. Even though the software for autonomous driving was included, Tesla would not enable it unless the driver demonstrated the ability to drive very safely.

This feature was the primary motivation for our purchase of the Tesla. Ironically, I'm a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, and we have always driven vehicles manufactured by Toyota. However, we’re both in our eighties now, and the sad reality that we may not be able to drive safely for much longer weighs heavily on our minds. How wonderful it would be, we thought, to be able to hop into our own car anytime and say, “Take us to Publix, Walgreens, or Taco Bell,” and be driven safely there and back home by an autonomous vehicle!

For over a year, we struggled to score high enough in safe driving to motivate Tesla to activate our (already paid for) autonomous software. Tesla has eight exterior cameras and one interior camera on our Plaid, and they “watch” how the driver operates the vehicle. After every drive, a score is registered. A 100% score was required over 30 days to activate the autonomous feature. Our scores got better, and Tesla lowered the minimum acceptable score. Once TSD was turned on, it could be turned off again for 30 days if you didn’t keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

We were very disappointed in the TSD when it was first activated. It was “flat scary”! There's an intersection we drive in and out of every day when we leave our home that's tricky. The 2-lane road is quite narrow, and there's an S-curve with two stop signs when we leave or enter. The main road we must drive on has another S-curve from the east and a tall bridge to the west. Cars coming over the bridge aren't visible until they come down from the rise of the bridge, and cars from the east aren't visible until they come around the curve. Our Tesla Plaid simply could not "figure out" how to drive out of our neighborhood. The steering wheel would turn wildly left and right, and the brake and accelerator would be applied “wildly.” After this frightening display, the TSD would suddenly disengage.

We gave up on even trying TSD to leave or re-enter our neighborhood and used it only on simple trips. We also experienced difficulty in different areas based on weather, traffic conditions, and the quality of road lines and traffic signals. For a smooth, safe autonomous ride, everything had to be just right for the TSD.

Happily, Tesla was working very hard to improve their TSD, and there were frequent software updates, sometimes weekly or more. At some point, Tesla began using the millions of videos recorded daily by millions of Tesla drivers to program their software. They select videos from only safe drivers, which contrasted with writing the computer code to teach the Tesla how to drive.

After almost every software update, we would try out the TSD, and even though we saw improvements, they were still not "ready for prime time" and still couldn’t safely let us leave or reenter our neighborhood. About a month ago, it happened! It was a quantum leap in improvement! We can now safely leave and enter our neighborhood or drive anywhere we want.

The TSD is still not perfect. Nancy and I do a weekly live radio talk show every Saturday morning, and we must leave for the radio station shortly after 7 AM, just after sunrise. Two Saturdays ago, on the way to the radio station, our Tesla “ran a red light” and almost made a dangerous lane change on I-95. I think what caused this rare but dangerous glitch was the “sun.” It was shortly after 7 AM EST when our Tesla ran the light. The Tesla was headed south, and the sun was at such an angle that it “blinded” the Tesla’s cameras. The second dangerous mistake the TSD made 5 minutes later was also because the sun did not allow the Tesla’s cameras to see.

I paused writing this column to go with Nancy to see her doctor relating to a test. On the way, our Tesla made another dangerous error in making a U-turn on a heavily trafficked road named Military Trail. In all three dangerous TSD incidents I’ve described, the driver (me this morning) was alert and able to avoid an accident. This rule should remain strictly enforced for a long time, even after the TSD is claimed to be “perfected.”

But the good news is, even with these potentially dangerous anomalies in TSD, being driven by an autonomous car is a pleasure. The TSD software has “eight outside eyes” outside the cabin of the Tesla. It sees everything faster than a human driver and it sees 360 degrees simultaneously and instantaneously. It has a ninth camera inside to be sure the passenger in the driver’s seat is alert with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Think about how many places you have to turn your head to change lanes in heavy traffic on the expressway. Our Tesla gets us there faster and smarter than we do when we’re driving. The Tesla also doesn’t get angry at bad drivers on the road, doesn’t text, or talk on the telephone. It’s a better driver than Nancy or me and it’s getting better faster and faster.

Friday, May 17, 2024

Complain Effectively to Your Car Dealer

As many of my readers know, I’m perhaps the only car dealer that speaks regularly with his customers. My personal cell phone number is available to all my customers as well as my employees. In my other role as a consumer advocate, which is why I write this column, I hear often from my customers…compliments and complaints. I’ve found from this regular communication that it’s much easier for me to answer and resolve complaints when they’re brief and concise. The rest of this column was written by Artificial Intelligence, ChapGPT-4:

Both written and voicemail complaints have their own advantages and likelihood of response, depending on the context and the organization receiving them. However, whether these complaints are acted upon can vary widely based on several factors, including the length and clarity of the complaint:

1. **Brevity and Clarity**: Generally, shorter, clearer complaints are more likely to be responded to and acted upon. This is because they are easier for service representatives to quickly understand and address. A concise complaint that directly states the issue, how it has affected the customer, and what resolution is desired, is more effective. This principle applies to both written and voicemail formats.

2. **Written Complaints**: Written complaints, especially those that are well-organized and concise, often provide a permanent record that can be referred to, which can be advantageous for both the customer and the service provider. They allow the recipient to process the information at their own pace and to forward the complaint to the correct department or personnel.

3. **Voicemail Complaints**: While voicemail allows for the conveyance of tone and urgency, it may be less effective if the message is long and rambling. Important details can be missed or misunderstood. Voicemail complaints might be more likely to be overlooked, especially in high-volume settings, unless they are very concise and articulate clear action points.

In both cases, the likelihood of a response and action often depends on the organization's customer service policies and the specific issues being addressed. Shorter, clearer complaints are typically more successful because they allow the service provider to quickly understand the issue and begin formulating a response or solution.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Auto Manufacturers Don’t Want to Know How Much Their Dealers Charge You for a New Car

As you know, car dealers have sold virtually all their new cars at thousands of dollars above MSRP over the last three years. The prices were so high that car dealers made record profits over that time despite selling relatively few new cars because of manufacturing constraints. Most auto manufacturers also made record profits because, they too, raised their prices to the dealer by stopping dealer incentives and raising their prices to the dealers.

In a recent auto dealer and manufacturer trade journal, Automotive News, an article said that only 18% of new cars being sold in 2024 were above MSRP. While it’s true that new car prices have dropped precipitously since 2022, I assure you that nowhere near 18% of the actual transaction prices this year are below MSRP, (Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price).

Auto News and the manufacturers are making this false assumption because their dealers are discounting prices below MSRP, but their dealers are also hiding thousands of dollars in junk fees and dealer preinstalled accessories that do not show on their financial statements in the price of the car. Their dealers hide this additional car markup and dealer profit under false headings like “miscellaneous income”. By doing this, the dealers also avoid having to pay their salespeople and managers a percentage of this additional new vehicle profit. The salespeople know this and are even more reluctant to remove junk fee from those added to the advertised price of the vehicle because it reduces their sales commission. To reduce price, the dealer does not allow the removal of junk fees. He allows only the reduction of the commissionable price of the car.
 
The true selling prices of new cars are readily available to the manufacturer and almost anybody if they truly want to know. “Transaction Prices” are a matter of public record when every car is sold. The profit/markup on a car is simply the difference between the true cost of the car paid by the dealer to the manufacturer and the delivery price, less government fees. The oft touted “dealer invoice” is a misnomer and contains thousands of dollars in hidden kickbacks to the dealer.
 
If the Federal Trade Commission wanted to make a simple rule that would solve almost all dealer deception, it would be that the out-the-door selling price, aka transaction price, must match the advertised or quoted price plus government fees only.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Help a Friend Buy a Car

www.EarlsVigilantes.com

You're reading this column now, and that tells me that you're probably an educated consumer. You hope to pick up a tip or two on how to buy or lease a car without getting ripped off by a car dealer. This is what educated consumers do. They read, listen to podcasts, watch videos, and communicate with others who share information.

As the old expression goes, "I'm preaching to the choir." Those who need this information the most are consumers who don't read columns like this or avail themselves of other sources of consumer information. I'll bet that the percentage of those who subscribe to Consumer Reports who are victimized by car dealers is very, very low.

This is why I'm asking you to share your expertise with others less fortunate than you. Those who are taken advantage of by unscrupulous car dealers are those who are very young, very old, or lacking in education, and those whose first language is not English. It also includes people who are simply too trusting, and not sophisticated in legalities or the art of negotiation. We all know people like this because they comprise most consumers and are all "fish in a barrel" for car dealers.

To thank you for joining Earl's Vigilantes, I'll send you a vigilante cap with the logo when you fill out the application at www.EarlsVigilantes.com.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Autonomous Cars Shouldn't Require a Driver's License

Seventeen years ago, I wrote a blog entitled "Grandma and Grandpa's Freedom Machine." I was 66 years old then and first began thinking of myself as a "senior citizen" aka "old guy." The gist of this article was inspired by my late "Uncle Charlie," who refused to give up his old Cadillac. He'd retired from operating his gas station in West Palm Beach, and his 20-year-old Cadillac sat in his driveway for 10 years after he could no longer drive it. He and Aunt Marion could see it from their living room rocking chairs, sitting on its flat tires. It made Uncle Charlie happy to think about driving it in past years on Sundays to "visit" friends and family, including my mother, father, sister, and me. They'd go to church first, all dressed up (Uncle Charlie always wore a Fedora hat).

As a car dealer, I sometimes must talk to my elder customers' children who intervene when their parents want to buy another car or drive it in for service. This is one of the most difficult times for a family to face. One could say, "One of the happiest moments in my life was when I got my driver's license and first car; one of the saddest was when they took them away from me."

This year U.S. Representatives Brian Mast from Florida and Greg Stanton from Arizona introduced a bipartisan Autonomous Vehicle Accessibility Act to help people with disabilities better access the mobility and independence benefits of autonomous vehicles. The elderly, of course, represent a high percentage of those with disabilities because this is part of aging.

We seniors think a lot about losing our driver's licenses when our sight, hearing, and other senses begin to fail us. Contemplating taking written tests and driving tests is scary. What if we don't pass? Doctors tell us that many of their elderly patients don't have current drivers' licenses. They continue to drive with expired licenses because they're afraid to take the driving tests. This is not just dangerous for them, but for everybody else on the road.

Call me a "cockeyed optimist," but I believe if we seniors can hang on a little while longer, we'll never have to give up our "freedom machines." We can buy an autonomous vehicle or buy a timeshare in one. We'll be able to summon our vehicle to pick us up in front of our residence and tell it to take us to Walgreens or Taco Bell. The big bonus to "time share" is we pay only for the time we use the vehicle. Today, our vehicle sits in the garage or out front of our homes 80% of the time... but we still must pay for all that idle time.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The Most Important Part of Your Car For Maintenance, Expense & Safety

Automotive technology has been advancing at warp speed for the past 20 years. Today’s new automobile is far superior in safety, comfort, ease of operation, maintenance, mechanical repair cost, and longevity. It seems like yesterday that we were all driving combustion engine cars that got 12 mpg and were well worn out at 50,000 to 100,000 miles. By today’s standards, they were “death traps” in an auto accident. Today, we’ve evolved to hybrid cars and are on the way to all-electric. Maintenance is almost non-existent, and we’re not that far away from fully autonomous cars.

Sadly, our cars’ tires got stuck in a time warp about twenty years ago and are pretty much the same tires you’ve always had on your car…just a lot more expensive. I’m not sure why this is because there’s nothing more dangerous than a tire blowing out at high speed, and there’s no other part of a car that has to be regularly replaced, repaired, and maintained like tires.

We used to have to have our oil changed, transmission-radiator-battery fluid levels checked and replaced regularly…no more. Now you can change your oil just once a year. The only good thing about all the other necessary maintenance back in the day was that your tires could also be checked, but checking your tires only once a year is very dangerous and can be very expensive.

Here are a few guidelines to keep you safe and save you money with your tires:
  • Inspect your tires at least monthly for inflation psi and uneven wear or road hazard debris like screws and nails.
  • Inflate your tires higher than the auto manufacturer’s recommendation but below the tire manufacturer’s recommendation (smoothest ride). The car manufacturer has the psi on the door jamb and/or owner’s manual, and the tire manufacturer has it stamped on the sidewall (maximum inflation) of your tire.
  • Have your tires rotated and balanced based on the manufacturer’s recommendation or anytime you experience a vibration or pull while driving.
  • Have all four wheels alignment checked whenever you have them otherwise checked. Almost all service departments will check your alignment free and provide you with a computer printout of the results.
  • Also, have your alignment checked whenever you notice a pull on your steering wheel, to the left or right.
  • Buy the best tire for your driving and environment based on Consumer Reports testing reports (See the February issue of CR or go online to www.CR.org). Do not buy tires because of the brand name. Some well-known tires are very good, but some aren’t. You’ll be surprised to find the best tires recommended by Consumer Reports are brands you haven’t heard about.
  • Finally, shop the price when buying tires and not what Consumer Reports says is fair. Be careful when buying tires to get the full price including mounting and balancing and “junk fees”. If you’re near a Costco warehouse, there’s no better place to buy new tires. Do not waste money adding “nitrogen” to our tires, but Costco inflates them with nitrogen at no charge. I think that this is because so many people are fooled into believing nitrogen is good to have in tires. It’s not unless you’re a NASCAR driver or an airline pilot.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Insider Car Buying Tips for the “Hardcore” Negotiator

Disclaimer: I advise 99% of car buyers not to negotiate for the lowest price when buying or leasing a car.

This column is for that 1% who are skilled at and enjoy the game and art of negotiation. Lawyers are often excellent negotiators, having been trained in law school to deal with judges, opposing lawyers, district attorneys, and the police. A few non-lawyers are good negotiators; it’s something they were born with and enjoy. My wife and partner, Nancy Stewart, loves to negotiate and is very good at it. Therefore, 99% of those reading this column should not attempt to negotiate with a car dealer. If you try, you're "playing his game" and are like someone who sits down at a poker table in Las Vegas. If you find yourself looking at each person around the table, wondering if there's a “sucker” playing in that game… YOU ARE THE SUCKER. Never play the other person's game; you will lose control. Follow my advice in my hundreds of other columns and use the Internet to buy online, using aids like Costco, Consumer Reports, and TrueCar.

FOR HARDCORE NEGOTIATORS ONLY:

1. Decide exactly what year, make, model, and MSRP car you want and never deviate from that choice.

2. Bring a friend along with you. Never car shop alone. Your friend can take notes for you, remind you about details, and there’s strength in numbers, both psychologically and legally.

3. Do not tell the dealer that you will trade in your old car, even if you plan to. You remove the dealer's ability to increase profit on the car you're buying and force him to negotiate on the price of the specific car you're buying. It's easier to sell your old car today at a higher price than ever before.

4. Tell the dealer that you're financing your car through him, even if you aren't, and probably shouldn't. Why? Historically, car dealers make more money on financing than on the markup of the car they sell. When they believe a profit opportunity exists, they're more likely to lower the car price because they can make up for it (and then some) on finance profit.

5. When you believe you've reached the lowest price you sought, ensure to get it in writing and ensure it includes all charges except government fees, namely sales tax and registration paid to the state government. To be perfectly safe, verify the “fees” listed do not have sales tax calculated on them. Government fees are non-taxable.

6. Make it clear that, even if they meet your price, you'll shop it with their competition. If they tell you the price is good only for today, tell them that’s too bad because you're going to compare it anyway. Don’t worry; if they would have sold you the car today for that price, they will tomorrow too.

7. If you get bogged down in negotiations, stand up, walk out the door, get in your car, and begin to drive away. Most of the time, the salesman and even his manager will intercept you before you get on the highway with a lower price than you have.