Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Progress of Self Driving Cars

It was the crash the auto industry knew was coming but still feared.

The death of a driver who was using Tesla Motors’ semi-autonomous mode could add to the public’s apprehension of driverless cars even before they reach the road in big numbers. Most major automakers and technology companies, including Google and Uber, are working on fully autonomous cars, and have worried that a highly publicized crash could hurt those efforts.

Joshua D. Brown, 40, of Canton, Ohio, died in the accident May 7 in Williston, Florida. According to a Tesla statement issued Thursday, the cameras on Brown’s Tesla Model S failed to distinguish the white side of a turning tractor-trailer from a brightly lit sky and didn’t automatically activate its brakes. Brown didn’t take control and activate the brakes either, Tesla said.

Brown was an enthusiastic booster of his 2015 Tesla Model S and in an April video he posted online he credited its sophisticated Autopilot system for avoiding a crash when a commercial truck swerved into his lane on an interstate.

Automakers and analysts have said they need to be careful as they introduce more and more semi-autonomous features, from automatic braking to adaptive cruise control. People can quickly learn to rely on them, or assume they work better than they actually do. The possibility of a fatal accident was always a concern.

“For years people have been saying the technology is ready, and it’s one of my pet peeves, because no it’s not,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert on autonomous driving issues.

Tesla stressed that its Autopilot system is new, noting that drivers must manually enable it and that they “must maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using the system.

“Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert,” the Palo Alto, California-based company said in a statement.

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said the accident is a huge hit to Tesla’s reputation.

“They have been touting their safety and they have been touting their advanced technology,” he said. “This situation flies in the face of both.”

Tesla’s shares dropped 3 percent in after-hours trading to $206.25 after the government said it would investigate how Tesla’s Autopilot system performed at the time of the crash.

But beyond Tesla, the accident could increase public skepticism about semi-autonomous and autonomous driving. In a survey released last month by the University of Michigan, two-thirds of drivers said they are moderately or very concerned about riding in a self-driving vehicle. Just 16 percent of the 618 drivers surveyed said they would rather ride in a self-driving car.

Walker Smith said it was inevitable that a semi-autonomous or autonomous car would crash. The Brown crash can help focus the discussion of regulators and others on driverless technology and its limitations, he said. It could also remind drivers that the technology isn’t perfect and they need to stay alert.

Vehicles globally for defective air bags

Toyota announced Wednesday it is recalling 1.43 million vehicles for defective air bags and another 2.87 million vehicles for faulty fuel emissions controls.

Toyota Motor Corp. said it has not received any reports of injuries or fatalities related to either recall. Some 932,000 vehicles are involved in both recalls, so the total number of affected vehicles is 3.37 million.

The first recall for defective air bags affects Prius hybrids, Prius plug-ins and Lexus CT200h vehicles produced between October 2008 and April 2012 — 743,000 vehicles in Japan, 495,000 in North America, 141,000 in Europe, 9,000 in China and 46,000 in other regions.

The faulty air bags are not related to recent massive recalls of Takata air bags that have ballooned to millions of vehicles and affected nearly all major automakers. In Wednesday’s recall, Toyota said a small crack in some inflators in the air bags on the driver and passenger sides may expand, causing the air bags to partially inflate.

The air bag manufacturer, Autoliv Inc. based in Stockholm, Sweden, said it is cooperating fully with the recall. It said in seven incidents, side curtain air bags in Prius cars partially inflated without a deployment signal. All of the cars were parked at the time with no one in them and there were no reported injuries, Autoliv said.

The cause of the defect is still under investigation. Autoliv estimated the cost of the recall to it at $10 million to $40 million.

The second recall affects various Prius models, the Auris, Corolla, Zelas, Lucas and Lexus HS250h and CT200h produced from April 2006 through August 2015 — 1.55 million vehicles in Japan, 713,000 in Europe, 35,000 in China and 568,000 elsewhere, but none in North America.

Toyota said cracks can develop in the coating of emissions control parts called the canister, possibly leading to fuel leaks.

Promises Cars With No Steering Wheel

We’ve known for a while that Ford plans to change how it sells cars. It announced a little while back that it now sees itself as a mobility company, and it’s been slowly rolling out parts of a plan it calls Smart Mobility. Today, Ford advanced its Smart Mobility plan even further, announcing that it plans to offer fully autonomous cars within the next five years.

At a press conference today, Ford CEO Mark Fields said that by 2021, it will offer autonomous cars that have no steering wheel or brake pedals. And the focus of this project isn’t on personal car ownership. It’s on ride-sharing.

Other companies like Google, Nissan, and Toyota have previously set 2020 as their goal for full autonomy, while Tesla has a more accelerated plan. It’s hoping to get there by 2018. But the focus on ride sharing appears to be pretty standard across the industry. General Motors has invested heavily in Lyft, and part of Tesla’s new master plan involves a fleet of Teslas for owners to share.

The shift from privately owned cars to shared cars will certainly change the auto industry, and it has plenty of insiders scared. But according to Fields, adapting its business model is what’s going to help it survive.

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile,” said Fields. “We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago.”

A bold statement for sure, but then again, so are Ford’s goals.

Badass Raptor Truck to China

Sometime soon, at a port near Beijing, a cargo ship will arrive and drop off a small fleet of Ford Raptors, the first F-Series trucks ever to make landfall in China. There, they’ll spend their time soaring over majestic dunes in the Gobi desert and blazing across the steppe. (OK, they’ll probably end up sitting in traffic in Shanghai, but at least their owners will have a commanding view over the sea of black Buicks.)

No matter: the point is, there will soon be Raptors roaming China, each of them painted painted red, white and blue, with the Declaration of Independence airbrushed across the rear window. OK, again, not really. But that may as well be the case, because these are Raptors—a badass, all-American off-road machine.

Ford isn’t saying exactly how many trucks it is exporting or exactly what they’ll cost, which make us wonder: Why make this announcement, anyway? Well, perhaps Ford wants to make a point that it sells cars in China—not just the Raptor, but also other goodwill ambassadors like the GT and Focus RS. That’s really the gist of the story: People in Dearborn, Michigan, manufactured a bad-ass luxury item, people in China are going to buy it, and global macroeconomics are complicated. We may have our differences with China, but an appreciation for twin turbos and 13 inches of suspension travel is universal.