Michael Karesh’s uncommon blending of sociology, statistics and car ownership has produced a unique tool for auto journalists and consumers to quickly and easily compare features and costs, repair experiences and real-world gas mileage of competing vehicles. It is called True Delta and began when Michael’s enthusiasm for cars and companies that make them was sparked by a preview photo of the 1983 Ford Thunderbird on the cover of a car magazine. “Those were bleak times for both cars and the auto industry. Jack Telnack’s revolutionary aero design and the turbo under the hood were signs that cars were about to become exciting again. I’ve been avidly following the industry ever since.”
In the mid-1990s, Michael was pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and needed a topic for his thesis. While other sociologists performed fieldwork within urban communities, he opted to move to Detroit and essentially live inside GM’s product development organization for a year-and-a-half. “To really know what goes on inside these companies, you’ve got to get deep inside them yourself,” he said. While completing a thesis that focused on the role of interpersonal trust in creating great cars, he taught marketing at Oakland University and wrote car reviews.
While at Chicago, Michael received extensive training in survey research and statistical analysis. After earning the degree, he deployed these skills to gather car information he personally wanted to have but couldn’t find anywhere. “In my car reviews, I tried to include thorough price comparisons that accounted for feature differences, but with existing sources this took forever and it was too easy to miss some of the differences.” So he developed a tool that produces thorough car price comparisons–in seconds. This tool, launched in September 2004, formed the basis for TrueDelta.com.
Site visitors were invited to join TrueDelta’s survey panel. “With dots and blobs, how much one car differs from another in reliability has not been clear. As a result, many car buyers think these differences are much larger than they actually are, and this has distorted purchase decisions.” To provide actual repair rates, TrueDelta surveys members monthly on any repairs that occurred the previous month. “Why monthly? Because we’ve learned that memories fade quickly.” Actual repair rates are promptly updated four times a year to include new models sooner and closely track cars as they age. “When buying a new car, do you want to know how reliable it was a year ago, or how it’s been doing recently?”
Later, TrueDelta added a real-world Gas Mileage Survey that includes data on how and where the cars are driven. The most recent addition: a “Why (Not) This Car?” review survey where car owners explain why they bought the car they did buy and why they didn’t buy their second choice.
While TrueDelta.com focuses on the needs of car owners, it can be a very useful resource for automotive journalists (who are invited to visit the site and apply for media access). As Karesh notes in one of the blogs on his site: Why is it important that TrueDelta’s car reliability information is, on average, over nine months ahead of the information provided by other sources? The plight of the domestic auto industry provides the most significant answer yet. These companies are fighting for their lives. They continue to have trouble selling cars because of lingering perceptions, sometimes well founded, more often not, that domestic cars are unreliable. If these companies are making improvements in the reliability of their products, getting awareness of this improvement to the public up to fourteen months earlier could make the difference between surviving, and not surviving.