Car Culture: Auto industry trends need new terminology

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

When Wall Street wants to describe a current trend, it comes up with cool terms like “dead cat bounce,” which it has used since 1985 to describe a temporary recovery in the price of a declining stock.

At this year’s Detroit auto show, we heard “technology disruptor” from nearly every analyst and automaker honcho. It is used to describe the massive shift of the motor industry from making expensive, expressive devices for individual transport to sustainable, clean contrivances that coddle us and keep us attached to our support groups and tell us where to eat.

I can’t dispute that cars have necessarily changed from their roles as cowboy’s horses to their new roles as mothers, but we need a better term than “technology disruptor.”

To find our new terms, let’s see what cool terms our auto industry has already come up with:

1. Dead cat space: This term predated the famous Wall Street term. It’s what engineers and designers call the area above the tire and below the fender. In the old days, General Motors had a requirement that cars had to have space beneath the fenders to use tire chains during snowy winters. I just spoke to a young Toyota Prius designer, who told me he had never heard of the term. It got its name because the top of a car’s tire is often a warm place where cats seek to nap.

2. Axle tramp: It rolls off the tongue and makes a great garage-band name, but doesn’t reflect current motoring trends. This old-guy term is left over from the days when leaf springs located the drive wheels of cars — they still do this for most trucks — and it means simply uncontrolled wheel hop, a design flaw we used to tolerate.

3. Hatch creak: Sounds like something you hear at Halloween. One of the frustrating things that wouldn’t leave the Corvette for 20 years from the 1984 model year was the haunting squeaking/groaning noise made by the opening rear window hatch, which was finally fixed by 2005. A lot of hatchbacks also fell prey to this annoying malady, maybe it’s one of the reasons that American new car buyers have traditionally viewed hatchbacks — which are beloved in Europe — as lower-class.

4. Frit: It sounds like a dance rather than a trend, but it describes the little enamel dots on the edges of a car’s windshield that help keep the sun from blinding a driver in places the visor doesn’t cover. Possibly it could be used to describe causes of blindness for Detroit execs who can’t see future trends due to small blind spots created by conflicting info from analyst reports and flawed focus-group studies. Nah, that’s a stretch.

5. Dead pedal: Again a phrase that predates the Wall Street term, but to me it sounds too static to describe an active trend. Actually, the dead pedal serves an active purpose: derived from racing, drivers press their left foot on the dead pedal to hold themselves into the seat when dynamic forces try to move them out.

6. Clutch chatter: This could be mistaken for “bedroom talk” in, say, Washington, D.C., gossip circles more than in car-centric Detroit. Besides, since manual transmissions are relics of an era of driver control that has nearly passed, it won’t mean much in the future. It actually means a vicious driveline vibration created when a clutch plate doesn’t engage a flywheel smoothly.

7. Bone line (or swage line): When I hear this, I envision a group of Depression-era unemployed dogs lining up for a free meal. In that sense, it could refer to an automotive business trend, especially the fear that Google, Apple, Uber and Tesla will take over the car industry. What it’s really used for is to describe the styling line on the side of a car body that is beneath the “shoulder line” where the bottom of the windows meet the car body.

I like using car terms, but none describe the dramatic changes the industry is experiencing, except this new one: share natives. I like this term, which blends a lot from Silicon Valley lingo with current Detroit marketing professional cocktail hour talk. It actually describes a generation of people who are constantly communicating with friends and family whether they are physically with them or not. Coined by Nissan’s Hidemi Sasaki at last fall’s Tokyo Motor Show, the term describes the next generation of car buyers. Although they may be termed “co-owners” if they share the car, or simply “riders” if the car is autonomous.

One term can’t represent how society has rapidly evolved away from driving (2004 was the peak for miles driven in the U.S.), and how the car’s role has to change, dead cats or not.