Cars are approaching ‘auto’ pilot mode
With humans known to be unreliable sorts, vehicles get helping ‘hands’
By Daniel H. Wilson
updated 8:13 a.m. CT, Fri., Nov . 6, 2009
When it comes to driving, human beings have an appalling safety record. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 2.35 million people were injured in car accidents last year in the United States. That’s a breathtaking statistic until you consider that 37,261 others were killed — and that’s the lowest number since 1961.
But a new breed of prototype automobile can drive without the help of unreliable humans, and major car companies are paying attention.
In 2007, the federal government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsored the Urban Challenge. Corporate-sponsored teams from all over the nation retrofitted regular cars with sensors and artificial intelligence, transforming them into fully autonomous ground vehicles. Eleven finalists unleashed their driverless cars on a peaceful mock city where they proved capable of obeying traffic signals while merging, passing and parking.
After winning the Urban Challenge together, General Motors teamed up with Carnegie Mellon to form a five-year, $5 million dollar Collaborative Research Laboratory. The manager of the group, Bakhtiar Litkouhi, wants GM to leverage university brainpower to accelerate the development of autonomous driving technology. “It’s important for these features to become production viable,” said Litkouhi, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and systems science.
With motor-vehicle accidents claiming more than a million lives worldwide annually, car companies are pushing the development of technology that increasingly borrows control from erratic human beings, allowing the car to drive itself.
Low-level autonomous safety features have been around in various forms for decades.
Antilock brake systems, which automatically sense when a wheel is skidding and reduce brake pressure, were introduced back in 1971.
In 1997, General Motors introduced an Electronic Stability Control system that can sense the difference between the direction a car is going and the angle of the steering wheel, and then pump the brakes to keep the car on course.
These safety features are so commonplace today that federal legislation requires they be installed on all new cars, along with airbags and seatbelts.
And the next generation of autonomy is already here. The 2010 Ford Flex boasts Active Park Assist — just target a spot and the car uses ultrasonic range finders to park itself.
The 2010 Toyota Prius has a Lane Keep Assist system that uses a camera to detect lane markers and automatically steers the car toward the center of the lane. And the Honda Accord comes standard with Adaptive Cruise Control, which uses a radar pulse to scan ahead for other vehicles and then increases or decreases speed to maintain a safe following distance.
Modern cars can steer, brake and accelerate all by themselves, but they still need a human driver behind the wheel.
“The way into a fully autonomous vehicle follows an evolutionary path,” said Litkouhi.
The current set of semi-autonomous safety features can quickly combine into something more. For example, a car could use Lane Keep Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control together to drive itself under highway conditions, sticking to one lane and not hitting the car in front.
The next step is to expand these capabilities. Adaptive Cruise Control currently works only over 25 mph, but the next version (called Full Speed Range ACC) lowers that number to zero so that cars can begin to handle traffic jams in the city.
“As these systems mature, the drivers have to do less and less. There could be a natural tendency for the driver to do other things,” said Litkouhi, which means that autonomous cars must watch their drivers as much as they watch the road, or more.
Even fully autonomous cars will keep their human drivers, however.
“We have aircraft that can be piloted automatically, but that does not mean that the pilot can go back and mingle with the passengers,” said Litkouhi.
“At the end of the day, the driver is the one who gives control to the vehicle. At no time do we want to take the fun of driving away from the driver.”
Daniel H. Wilson (www.danielhwilson.com) is an Oregon-based writer and the author of “Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived.”
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Just because a car has low fuel efficiency doesn’t mean it’s the worst polluter on the road. The Chevrolet Suburban and Dodge Challenger are some of the biggest gas-gulpers available, but they don’t cause quite the environmental harm other cars do.
That title is reserved for vehicles that combine their poor gas mileage with high tailpipe and greenhouse gas emissions. Think along the lines of some of the bulkiest cars on the road, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Trailblazer and Dodge Dakota.
While fuel economy is linked to emissions, it’s not the only factor. Pollution levels also have to do with the type of fuel being used and the age and condition of the engine, among other things.
“You can have a really fuel-efficient, dirty vehicle and a really clean, not-so-fuel-efficient vehicle,” says Karl Simon, a director of compliance and innovation for the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. “It really is pretty wide open from a technical perspective.”
Behind the Numbers
To determine the dirtiest cars on America’s roads, we used air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA rates air pollution on a scale of 0 to 10; the score reflects the amount of tailpipe emissions a vehicle releases. Vehicles that score 10 are the cleanest–they don’t emit pollutants like hydrocarbon, nitrous oxides, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Greenhouse gas levels (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane) are based on the vehicle’s fuel economy and are evaluated on the same 0-10 scale. That score represents the “relative global warming potential of each car,” the EPA says.
For our list, we combined air pollution and emissions scores and then chose the vehicles with the smallest results (the greater the score, the more environmentally friendly the car). We broke ties by evaluating the combined fuel efficiency of each vehicle. (Driving a car that gets 25 miles per gallon rather than 20 mpg will prevent 10 tons of carbon dioxide from hitting the air over a vehicle’s lifetime, according to EPA data.) We did not evaluate models that will end production after this year, like the Bentley Arnage and Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster, or vehicles classified as “heavy duty,” like the 3500 series of the Dodge Ram, which are exempt from federal fuel economy requirements.
We also deliberately omitted some vehicles that rated higher on the particulate-emissions scale, including exotics like the Ferrari F430, uber-luxury cars like the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and high-performance variants from Mercedes-Benz’s AMG line. Those cars have marginally worse emissions ratings than some of the entries on our list but are produced in such small quantities and driven so infrequently–on weekends or on racetracks–that they often don’t contribute much to air-pollution problems.
Lonnie Miller, an automotive analyst for R.L. Polk, says it’s OK that performance and design dictate the aim of those vehicles, while others emphasize fuel economy and practicality. There’s a place in the market for each type, he says.
Even had we included those supercars, though, the Jeep Grand Cherokee still would have topped the chart. It scored a paltry three out of 10 for air-pollution ratings and two out of 10 for greenhouse gas emissions. The flex-fuel engine–prized because it uses a renewable resource that reduces dependency on traditional gasoline–on the Cherokee was even worse: three out of 10 and one out of 10 for the air pollution and gas emissions, respectively.
In terms of finger-pointing, however, it’s not just Jeep maker Chrysler that needs to clean up its act. In all, cars and trucks account for almost one-third of the total air pollution in the United States. And while EPA emission standards have gotten increasingly strict since they first were instituted in the early 1970s, there’s still a long way to go, especially at home: 60% of the entries on our list are from domestic automakers. The remainder are German; no Japanese or Korean cars make the list.
Of American automakers, though, Chrysler is the worst offender, with six vehicles on last year’s “dirtiest” list (the Jeep Commander, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Chrysler Aspen, Dodge Ram 1500 and Dodge Dakota), and five this year.
It’s important to note that each of the cars on our list are street legal–and much cleaner than anything on the road years ago.
“We continue to drive our fleet average even lower,” Chrysler spokesman Nick Cappa said in a written response to the rankings. “Chrysler Group products are 99% cleaner than vehicles of 30 years ago and meet or exceed United States federal emission standards, the most stringent in the world.”
Many auto manufacturers are making concerted efforts to produce models that are easier on the environment; most offer hybrid, compact or turbocharged 4-cylinder versions, all of which record low pollutant scores. Next year will see the long-awaited arrival of several low- and emission-free options, like the compact but “ecoboosted” Ford Fiesta and the plug-in electric Chevrolet Volt.
Some high-end carmakers are making considerable emissions efforts as well, but don’t look to them for the latest in high-volume electric technology. It’s prohibitively expensive and technologically difficult to get anywhere near the same performance out of an electric motor as a combustion engine, and aside from notable entries from Tesla and (perhaps) Fisker, it will be years before any meaningful amount of electric motors find their way into high-performance and luxury cars.
Besides, there’s much to be done to improve the combustion engine, engineers from Bentley, BMW and say, either through increasing its efficiency or developing alternative fuels. Bentley developed the flex-fuel-capable, $245,000 Continental Supersports coupe for that very reason.
“We believe bioethanol is a really good alternative to reducing CO2 emissions,” says Brian Gush, Bentley’s director of chassis and powertrain engineering. “This is a renewable source, which will be growing into the future.”
Simon at the EPA says emissions levels have indeed improved significantly over the last 20 years and will continue to do so. But with 40,000 Jeep Grand Cherokees sold this year so far, there’s a long way to go.Read More
Tailgate much? These are the rides you need
Best vehicles for tailgating tend to be tall, spacious and stain-proof
By Hannah Elliott
updated 12:20 p.m. CT, Fri., Oct . 30, 2009
Colin Smith knows exactly what he’ll need when he drives from Norfolk, Va., to watch the Denver Broncos take on the Washington Redskins on Nov. 15: A U-Haul, some dry ice and a BBQ barrel.
The 23-year-old bartender usually takes in a couple of NFL games per season; his dream vehicle for tailgating is simple but functional and large scale — you can’t get much more cargo space than a moving van. Of course, Smith doesn’t expect to actually have that U-Haul full of barbecue, but it sure would be nice.
“I’m going with a buddy of mine; we’re going to get there a few hours early and then set up outside the stadium,” Smith says. “He’s got an SUV, so we should be OK for tailgating. It’ll be awesome.”
Foregoing the U-Haul option, the best vehicles for tailgating this season tend toward the tall, spacious, stain-proof set: the $20,275 Honda Element, $41,175 Ford F-150 King Ranch SuperCrew and $28,495 Ford Flex, to name a few.
They promise more than 75 cubic feet of cargo space, extra power outlets, cupholders galore and a towing capacity that will please any cook planning to bring a grill to the game.
Big cars with purpose
To compile our list of the best vehicles for tailgating, we used quality, dependability and design studies from J.D. Power and Associates to narrow down the field — each car on our list is a segment winner for its quality, dependability and/or design. We combed over each candidate for what it could offer over its competitors in cargo space, passenger capacity, sound systems and extras like fold-flat seats, remote start, multiple cupholders and hidden storage bins. And we consulted several hardcore fans, like Smith, who know the difference between a tailgate-friendly vehicle and one that’s just big.
Joe Cahn, the author of tailgating.com, has traveled 500,000 miles since 1996, having visited all 31 NFL stadiums, 123 college stadiums and nine NASCAR tracks. According to his survey of 5,000 tailgaters nationwide, 46 percent attend roughly 10 games per season, and 42 percent spend more than $500 a season on food and supplies. Most set up three or four hours before the game starts. To that end, we looked for extra measures of durability, as anything that spends more than a few hours in a crowded parking lot several weekends in a row is likely to get scuffed by fender-benders and ebullient fans.
There are some surprising things to watch for when evaluating a vehicle for its tailgate worthiness, says Jay DiEugenio, a Seattle Seahawks fan who has tailgated at every NFL stadium. (He recently converted a 36-foot-long school bus as his game-day mobile.) For instance, extra storage bins are nice, he says, but sometimes they become too much of a good thing.
“Just get something you can put stuff into, drive to the game and use as your service point rather than something where everyone has to go move stuff out of the way,” he says.
And keep an eye on that sound system — some music is good, but overly loud music is a nuisance: “Sound systems are important to have out there, but when you’re too loud it becomes obnoxious.”
DiEugenio likes the Honda Element for its cargo space and the fact that you can wash out the back easily — although the vehicle isn’t quite as big as he’d like. He recommends trucks and large wagons as the top choices for tailgates for one reason: unlimited space.
“It’s usually a group of 10, 12, 20, 40 people,” he says. “You’ve got grills, coolers, generators, tables and chairs out there, plus everybody else’s stuff. The more equipment you can haul, the easier your life becomes out in the parking lot — and the more enjoyable as well.”
But the best cars for eating and drinking before the big game are not just beefed-up trucks and SUVs. The $76,405 Lexus LX570 and $38,530 Toyota Sequoia are SUVs with a finer edge. They come with barbecue-and-beer-necessary amenities like power outlets, up to 18 cupholders in the Sequoia and hidden storage bins — but they also have a plush side, with rear-seat DVD entertainment systems, Bluetooth audio, leather trimmings and a remote-start function for quick getaways on cold days after the game.
Ford’s Flex offers a happy medium between subtlety and brawn. Its refrigerated center console will hold seven cans of beer or soda, its panoramic roof and ambient lighting make for a wide-angle view of any stadium scoreboard, and the active park assist will come in handy for some creative parking, should the need arise.
As expected for autos situated on a truck chassis, the vehicles on our tailgating list don’t get the best gas mileage on the road — the Cadillac Escalade gets only 12 miles to the gallon in city driving; the GMC Yukon, 14 miles — but that’s not a concern for most tailgaters, even in the down economy.
On Sundays, it’s all about the party.
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October 28, 2009 http://detnews.com/article/20091028/AUTO01/910280377
Ford lauded for ‘world-class’ reliability
Consumer Reports says carmaker has achieved ‘world-class’ quality status
The Detroit News
Detroit — Ford Motor Co. is the most reliable domestic automaker, and continued quality improvements have brought its vehicles almost bumper to bumper with its Japanese competitors, Consumer Reports magazine said Tuesday.
“Ford has secured its position as the only Detroit automaker with world-class reliability,” Consumer Reports said in releasing its 2009 Annual Car Reliability Survey to the Automotive Press Association here.
The endorsement for Ford comes as Detroit’s Big Three fight to retain market share against strong foreign competitors and as General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC strive to show the government and American taxpayers that a strong domestic auto industry is worth saving and can lead the field. GM and Chrysler, however, didn’t fare as well as Ford and still have work to do, Consumer Reports said.
“This is just one more proof point, but it’s a great testament because that’s not a statement (Consumer Reports) has always made about us,” said Bennie Fowler, Ford’s global quality chief.
And it’s the result of dedicated work to get there.
When Ford first closed the quality gap with Honda and Toyota a few years ago, “we didn’t know if it was a fluke or if they could maintain it,” said Rik Paul, automotive editor for Consumer Reports. But Ford continued to produce well-made vehicles that testers and readers appreciate.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally spoke repeatedly about reliability when he took over the company, and he visited the magazine to better understand and address lackluster findings that the company’s vehicles had previously suffered.
Efforts at Ford today include a system that sends information about a problem to team members on the assembly line within 24 hours of a vehicle being brought into a dealership so changes can be made to correct the issue and prevent a recurrence.
Toyota, which consistently does well in the survey, also takes any slips seriously — such as the Lexus GS that was rated below average.
“Historically, when a car’s quality has slipped, the problem is rectified the following year,” said Toyota Motor Corp. spokesman Curt McAllister. “We’re not sure what the problem was with the GS, but we will go through the data with Consumer Reports.”
About 1.4 million readers submitted data on vehicles from 2000 to 2009 model years, and the reliability results augment staff road tests of current vehicles to determine whether a vehicle is recommended to buyers.
Toyota and Honda Motor Co. still dominate the industry for long-term reliability, and the Honda Insight topped the list as the single most reliable vehicle. The Volkswagen Touareg was last in the survey. Of the 48 models with top reliability scores, 36 were Asian brands. Toyota had 18; Honda had eight; Nissan Motor Co., four; and Hyundai Motor Co./Kia Motors Corp. and Subaru each had three.
GM had some “bright spots” and appears to be on the right track if new vehicles such as the Chevrolet Malibu are any indication, but Chrysler “still struggles” and has a long way to go with only a single vehicle recommended by the testers and readers of the magazine. Last year, the Auburn Hills automaker had none recommended.
Bankruptcy filings by GM and Chrysler did not affect results — the survey was taken in the spring before the companies completed their stints under Chapter 11 protection, Paul said. And bankruptcy should not affect next year’s results if readers are objectively noting things that break on their cars, Paul said.
Of 48 GM models, 20 were average. The all-wheel-drive Chevrolet Traverse/Buick Enclave crossovers did well, and the magazine now recommends the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra light-duty pickups.
“Consumer Reports is one of several third-party inputs GM takes seriously because we realize the influence it has on purchase decisions,” said Jamie Hresko, GM vice president of global quality.
Chrysler faces the biggest challenge. Its three brands are among the four worst, and more than a third of Chrysler products are rated much worse than average. Only the Dodge Ram 1500 is recommended, and there are few new cars and trucks on the horizon to boost future scores, Paul said.
As bad as that sounds, it is an improvement over last year when the Chrysler Sebring was the worst single vehicle on the list and no models were recommended.
Chrysler will detail efforts to restore quality in its five-year business and product plan to be unveiled Nov. 4 and is expected to talk openly about the need to correct quality and other errors committed under previous owners. Chrysler’s newest partner, Fiat SpA, has implemented its manufacturing processes and quality controls, and improvement already can be seen, Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said.
Warranty claims have been reduced 30 percent in the last 18 months, she said, adding that “the Ram represents where we are going.”
The problem, said Consumer Reports senior auto engineer Jake Fisher, is that Fiat in Europe is known for its style, not its quality.
“There could be a lot of very pretty cars broken down on the side of the road,” Fisher said.
That should not be the case for Ford products, as about 90 percent had average or better reliability, according to the survey.
The Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan beat out the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry for the second year.
“It’s rare for Consumer Reports to see family sedans from domestic carmakers continue to beat the reliability scores of such highly regarded Japanese models as the Camry and Accord,” said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Automotive Test Center. The last domestic that had better reliability than the Camry and Accord was the Buick Regal in 2004, he said.
GM’s Malibu with a V-6 also did well and “is on par with the most reliable family sedans,” Champion said.
Ford’s upscale Lincoln brand did not fare as well. All-wheel-drive versions of the Lincoln MKS, MKX and MKZ came in below average. But the MKZ was ranked stronger than the Lexus ES or Acura TL.
The Honda Accord dipped in overall ratings, something Honda spokesman Chuck Schifsky said is not uncommon for a new car. “Customers may have problems with new features and technology they are not used to. But I think the study showcases the hallmarks of the Honda brand: durability, quality and reliability.”
The Nissan Armada/Infiniti QX56 large SUVs have brought their reliability up to average, but the magazine expressed concerns with the rear-drive Nissan Titan pickup, Quest minivan and tiny Versa sedan.
Continuing their quality climb are Hyundai and Kia. Scoring well were the Hyundai Elantra and Tucson and the Kia Sportage. Hyundai’s foray into the luxury segment with the Genesis proved above average with the V-6 and average with the new V-8 engine. Not as strong are the Kia Sedona minivan and Sorento SUV.
“The results are not an anomaly,” said Hyundai spokesman Dan Bedore. “They are the dividends of our huge investment to improve quality.”
Small cars fared well. Of 37 in the survey, 20 scored above average, including the Honda Fit, Scion xD and VW Golf.
Half of the 42 family cars tested were above average, including five of eight hybrids in this segment (Prius, Fusion, Milan, Camry and Nissan Altima hybrids).
Among the least reliable vehicles in their class are the all-wheel-drive Lexus GS, Nissan Versa and Subaru Impreza WRX.
European automakers showed some improvement again this year. The reliability of Mercedes-Benz vehicles has improved; most are now average or better, and the new GLK proved a strong new entry in its first year.
Results are more mixed for BMW AG, as the 535i sedan and X3 SUV fell and the new 135i scored below average. The only model Consumer Reports recommends is the BMW 328i.
The VW Rabbit/Golf and new CC were above average, and the Jetta TDI is the only diesel the magazine recommended. The Passat and Audi A3 have improved to average, along with the Tiguan SUV.
Porsche saw its Boxster fall below average and the magazine no longer recommends it.
The reliability report is in the December issue of Consumer Reports, which goes on sale Nov. 3.
Bryce Hoffman and Scott Burgess contributed.
© Copyright 2009 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.
Lower fuel prices give surprising boost to big pickup trucks, SUVs
By Hannah Elliott – Forbes
This month, gas prices are almost a dollar lower per gallon than they were a year ago. But experts say they will climb significantly the moment any sort of economic recovery occurs.
And thanks to that prolonged dip in fuel costs (oil prices have remained between $65 and $80 a barrel for 10 straight weeks), sales of compact and subcompact cars have plunged. Yet limited-edition cars like the $105,000, 470-horsepower Jaguar XJL Supercharged Neiman Marcus Edition, which gets a combined 17 miles per gallon, are selling out in a matter of minutes in special online sales.
Fans of the Ford F-Series trucks and Chevrolet Suburban are taking advantage of the reprieve as well, especially as the end-of-2009 sales season draws to a close. Each of those vehicles reported sales increases of more than 3 percent over September of last year — some big SUVs even saw bumps as high as 23 percent.
Attractive as those vehicles may be at the moment, they’re likely to lose their appeal as soon as the economy shows signs of improvement — they’re some of the most fuel-thirsty on the market today.
Behind the numbers
To determine this year’s cars with the worst fuel economy, we evaluated data provided by Vincentric, a Michigan-based automotive data and analysis firm, as well as information provided by the U.S. Department of Energy. We broke our list into vehicle segments to provide a more accurate picture of which cars don’t compete, efficiency-wise, with their peers. Otherwise, our list would be limited to low-volume, high-end performance cars and luxury SUVs.
President Obama’s administration has taken two tacks in encouraging fuel efficiency despite the current low gas prices, Stephan Gallon wrote recently in a R.L. Polk & Co. report: grants, like the $2.4 billion given to develop electric and hybrid batteries; and legislation, like the CAFÉ standards requiring vehicles to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
Automakers are working toward efficiency in different ways. Nissan and Tesla have developed electric technology: Tesla with its $102,000 Roadster, and Nissan with the LEAF, expected to cost $30,000 next year. Others have developed hybrids and microcars.
But none of those is the silver bullet to gasoline independence, says Brian Gush, Bentley’s director of chassis and powertrain engineering. “They are all part of the answer.”
In the meantime, there’s still plenty of room on the road — and in the hearts of consumers — for big, gas-guzzling vehicles. Last month, sales of all SUVs and trucks were down 29 percent, about even with sales of cars. But the $79,275 Land Rover Range Rover, which gets a combined 15.5 miles to the gallon, and the $56,050 Infiniti QX56, which gets a combined 14.5 miles to the gallon, both beat sales results of September 2008.
The fact that consumers have seemingly forgotten the all-time high of $4.11 a gallon in July 2008 is to be expected, experts say.
“I’m kind of embarrassed for the American buying public because once the fuel prices started to settle out a little bit, many of us go back to our old kind of ‘flaunting it’ ways,” says James Bell, an auto market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, an Irvine, Calif.-based auto valuation company. “The SUV market hasn’t really dried up and disappeared the way we thought it might after the first fuel-price scare.”
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Trade-ins from the Cash for Clunkers program are piling up and auto recyclers are seeking more time to meet the deadline for disposing of all those vehicles.
At some places, Ford Explorers, Chevy Blazers, Chrysler Town & Country minivans and other popular clunkers are parked bumper to bumper on several acres, many marked “C4C” on their windows, waiting to be drained of fluids, stripped of valuable parts and eventually flattened for scrap.
“I’ve got a parking lot of almost 4,000 vehicles right now,” said Harry Haluptzok, chief executive of John’s Auto Parts in Blaine, Minn., near Minneapolis. His business typically dismantles 100 vehicles per week, but the workload has now more than doubled, and Haluptzok hired 10 more workers to keep up with all the extra vehicles.
Under the program, the cars are required to be crushed or shredded within six months of the date the vehicle is transferred from the dealership. Recyclers say the deadline, even a few months away, will be hard as they try to remove spare parts such as transmissions, front and rear axles, starters and alternators.
“True recycling is using something to its fullest potential and then recycling it over again by making it into steel and sending it out to become another engine or transmission or car,” said Jeff Cantor, an auto recycler in Candia, N.H. “We’re breaking that circle here by crushing good quality parts. We can’t process them quick enough in six months.”
Consumers bought nearly 700,000 new vehicles in late July and August through the program, taking advantage of rebates of up to $4,500 on new cars in return for trading in their older vehicles. Congress tripled the size of its original $1 billion price tag because of the program’s popularity.
Used engines from the vehicles were required to be destroyed to promote improved fuel efficiency.
The American Recyclers Association, a trade group representing auto recyclers, said the six-month deadline to crush the vehicles was developed in line with the initial $1 billion program, but never took into account the additional vehicles sold when the program was expanded. The association met with the Transportation Department in late September seeking an additional six months to recycle the cars.
“We do have a lot of facilities that have two or three times the number of vehicles they could ever have imagined getting. They’re trying to process these in addition to their regular business,” said Michael Wilson, the trade group’s executive director.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Sasha Johnson said the department was aware of the request and noted that under the regulations, “most trade-ins through the CARS program do not need to be crushed until at least early next year.”
In metropolitan Los Angeles, Aadlen Bros. Auto Wrecking in Sun Valley brought in about 6,000 vehicles through the Clunkers program since early September. “At times, we were having to stack cars on top of cars — it got unruly there for a little bit,” auto recycle Nathan Adlen said.
Most of the vehicles on their 26-acre lot go into a self-service yard, letting customers find the used parts they need for their vehicles. A car typically stays there for a month, but many vehicles have gone to the crusher earlier than normal because of the influx.
In Minnesota, Haluptzok expected to receive more than 1,000 cars through the program but saw his load grow to nearly 5,000. Each vehicle needs to be drained of oil, antifreeze and other fluids and then properly recycled.
“If it’s about recycling, the thing to do is to give us another six months and let us do them the correct way each time,” he said.Read More
Ford testers try to balance in-car safety, technology
BRYCE G. HOFFMAN
The Detroit News
Dearborn –In a laboratory beneath Ford Motor Co.’s Product Development Center, a team of scientists and technicians is using driving simulators to study how motorists interact with new, onboard technology and ensure that systems like Sync do not become too distracting.
The ubiquity of cellular telephones and the proliferation of in-car technologies such as navigation systems and voice-activated music players mean today’s car trip involves a lot more than just getting from Point A to Point B. But all of this technology has made driver distraction a concern.
Ford has created the Human Machine Interface Verification Laboratory — informally known as the “Distraction Lab” — to make sure new features make driving safer, not less safe.
“This is where we make the determination about what can or can’t go into a product,” said Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader of vehicle design research and advanced engineering at Ford.
The lab includes a full-sized vehicle simulator that technicians can configure to match the interior layout of any Ford vehicle. They can then use the simulator to study how driving performance is affected by various actions.
Another system uses special goggles to measure how much time a driver looks away from the road when using things such as the navigation system. The same system can track how much information a driver can read off a screen in a single glance.
Using the results of these tests, Ford has made significant changes to systems such as Sync, the onboard computer connectivity and entertainment system it developed with Microsoft Corp. For example, drivers cannot manually scroll through their cell phone’s address book while driving.
Ford engineers also have modified the interface of some systems to make them more rapidly readable.
“This kind of research is going to become very important,” said safety expert Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies Inc. of Rehoboth, Mass. “Distracted driving is the hot issue in motor vehicle safety today.”
In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distracted driving contributes to 80 percent of all road accidents.
Kane said much of that distraction comes from the technology drivers bring into the vehicle with them — like cell phones and music players. He said finding ways for motorists to control these technologies without taking their eyes off the road is one way to address the problem.
Ford says the average driver looks away from the road for two seconds while selecting a song using its Sync system, compared to 25 seconds using a handheld MP3 player.
But Greenberg says the biggest surprise he and his researchers have discovered is that younger drivers are more distracted by such technologies than older motorists. He said most experts assumed that teens, who have been surrounded by high-tech devices since infancy, would be better able to use them while driving.
“We found absolutely, positively, unambiguously that is bunk,” he said. The distraction level of adult drivers increased by a factor of four when they tried to dial a cell phone while driving. But the distraction level of teen drivers increased by a factor of 13.
“It’s very hard to get an experienced adult driver to pull their eyes away from the road,” he said.
© Copyright 2009 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.
After Clunkers tax rush, states come down hard
Car buyback program gave quick boost to finances, but usually not enough
The Associated Press
updated 12:32 p.m. CT, Sun., Oct . 11, 2009
WASHINGTON – Struggling states and towns got a dose of badly needed money this summer from a Cash for Clunkers program that poured hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue into their budgets.
Now, like the auto industry, recession-ravaged governments are seeing revenue fall off as car buyers take a breather from the frenzied sales of July and August. That means less money for schools, roads, public safety and other projects that get much of their funding from sales tax collections.
And while officials welcomed the shot in the arm, the extra clunkers money won’t come close to filling the gaping holes in their budgets or do much to solve the worst revenue downturn in decades.
“It is chump change,” said David Zin, an economist with the Michigan state senate’s fiscal agency.
State and city officials say their budget problems are too severe for one government program to fix.
“Fifty-thousand is not to be sneezed at,” Dean Rich, finance director of O’Fallon, Ill., said of the city’s expected tax gain from its 16 car dealerships. But it’s not enough to prevent a job freeze and cuts to capital projects for the town of 29,000 people.
“It’s not the windfall that is going to fix the $1 million shortage we have this year,” he said.
Like most governments, O’Fallon suffered during the recession as people facing job losses, reduced pay, lost homes and general unease over the economy snapped their wallets shut. That means big drops in sales tax, which makes up around half of many state budgets. Sales of cars and trucks, big-ticket items with high price tags, are a big component of sales tax collections.
Cash for Clunkers held some promise — customers bought nearly 700,000 new vehicles during late July and August, taking advantage of rebates of up to $4,500 on new cars in return for trading in their older vehicles. The program ended up tripling the size of its original $1 billion price tag due to its broad popularity. For government budget offices, that represented some rare good news.
The auto forecaster Edmunds.com estimated that the average clunker sales price was $26,321, meaning roughly $18 billion worth of new vehicles were sold under the program. Multiplied by the average combined state and local sales tax of 7.5 percent, the total tax bill amounts to a loose estimate of $1.36 billion.
But here’s some perspective — the budget shortfall of Michigan alone, the symbolic heartland of the U.S. auto industry, amounts to $2.8 billion. And it pales in comparison to the $240 billion that states collected in total general sales taxes in 2008.
“That’s more than a drop in the bucket … but not much more for state budgets,” said Robert Ward, director of fiscal studies for the Rockefeller Institute of Government in New York.
The taxes brought in by clunkers offered a summer shot of adrenaline for most states. The funds — often earmarked for school aid, highway repairs and law enforcement — came at a time when they were struggling with big shortfalls.
Kentucky reported that clunkers’ taxes propped up its Road Fund, which supports the state’s network of roadways. Motor vehicle usage taxes grew 11.4 percent to $36 million in August, helping keep the fund flat for the month. The state estimates it can now afford to see receipts fall more than 4 percent for the rest of fiscal year and still meet its budget forecasts.
Legislative estimates in Michigan show the state may have taken in $39 million from Cash for Clunkers. About a third of that money is devoted to education.
Massachusetts reported that motor vehicle sales tax revenue rose nearly 36 percent in August from a year earlier, higher than the state’s monthly target. That gain, combined with a rise in the overall sales tax that month, pushed vehicle tax collections above the monthly goal.
The extra money may be a help, but state budget officials say it’s minor compared with their huge problems.
Kentucky officials have warned that until unemployment improves — about 11 percent of state residents are now jobless — tax revenues will remain in the doldrums.
In Michigan, where the state sales tax is the major source of aid for schools, lawmakers proposed cutting $218 per pupil from the aid the state government gives to local school districts. That’s despite the clunkers money and extra vehicle sales tax revenue from laid-off auto workers who got vouchers for new cars as part of their severance. Sales tax collections are still down 9 percent.
Auto sales nationally fell 41 percent from August to September, a drop caused largely by people who would have normally waited a few months to buy a new vehicle rushing in to take advantage of the federal program’s big rebates.
That hangover showed up in Massachusetts’ sales tax collections last month, which were 5 percent below forecasts. That worries Robert Bliss, a spokesman for the state revenue department.
“Has the pool been drained as a result of this program for the next couple of months? That is the question,” he said.
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