Saturday, September 14, 2013

VW Electric Car Supremacy, Dogs Out Of Truck Beds, Toyota Car Sharing: What’s New

More formal presentations to an idea more complete
Today at The Car Connection, we learned that Volkswagen wants to become the biggest seller of electric cars, heard that Ford is telling pickup drivers to keep their pets out of their truck beds, and took a look at a new car-sharing program launched by Toyota. That’s just some of what’s new, right here on The Car Connection.
Volkswagen has pledged to become the biggest seller of electric cars by 2018.
Say what you will about Volkswagen, but the company isn't afraid of setting big, bold goals for itself.
Several years ago, VW announced its intention to become the world's largest automaker by 2018. And now, according to Detroit News, it's aiming to be the world's biggest maker of electric cars by 2018, too.
It won't be easy. Volkswagen lags behind many other major automakers when it comes to electric cars. (Remember: the Nissan Leaf arrived in the U.S. nearly three years ago.) Not only that, but the highest-profile electric prototype in the company's arsenal is the Audi e-tron -- which looked great in Iron Man 3, but last we heard, Audi had pulled the plug on the entire e-tron program.
What's the problem? Unlike many other automakers, VW pinned its hopes for fuel efficiency on diesel cars. That perspective might be blamed on geography: Volkswagen is a European automaker, and diesels are big on the Continent.
Unfortunately, while VW was developing efficient diesel engines, the rest of the world realized three things:
1. Fossil fuel's days are numbered. The transition to electricity won't be easy, it won't take place overnight, but it's coming, and ignoring that fact sets businesses up for failure.
2. Electric cars can be comfortable, easy to operate, and fun to drive. (Thanks, Tesla!)
3. Electric car technology -- especially battery tech -- is evolving faster than most people predicted. Initial estimates placed the EV takeover some 50 years down the road, but the actual number could be more like 40, or 30, or maybe even 25.
Of course, it's still early in the electric car game, and Volkswagen has done some work with electrics before now. Though it hasn't garnered nearly the press that the e-tron did, the all-electric VW Golf is coming to dealerships soon, and at this week's Frankfurt Auto Show, Volkswagen showed off the new e-Up!. And lest we forget, the company also presented an electric concept version of the Beetle with the unfortunate name "e-Bugster" back in 2012. Volkswagen has vowed that by next year, 14 models will be available as electric vehicles or hybrids.
So there's no doubt that Volkswagen has some electric cars in the works. The question is: will they arrive in time? And will consumers buy them, or will they veer toward the competition?
Given that VW is one of the few automakers doing business in America that's losing ground this year -- off 1.3 percent as of August 31 -- we're not ready to place any bets.

Mercedes-Benz demonstrates a self-driving S-Class.

Mercedes-Benz’s new S-Class is the first car in history capable of driving itself, though the car’s current autonomous mode is only suited for traffic jams and highway driving. However, Mercedes is committed to being the first to offer a car that works autonomously at all times and recently demonstrated that it already has the technology to realize that goal.
Last month, a fully autonomous S-Class prototype traveled the roughly 60 miles between Mannheim and Pforzheim in Germany, retracing a route taken by motoring pioneer Bertha Benz exactly 125 years ago when she set off on the very first long-distance drive. Bertha was the wife and business partner of Carl Benz, the patriarch of Mercedes-Benz and the first person to be granted a patent for an automobile.
While there was no traffic to deal with when Bertha first took to the roads, the fully autonomous S-Class prototype, the S500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE, had to deal with traffic lights, roundabouts, pedestrians, cyclists and trams--all without any human involvement.
The good news is that Mercedes' intention is not to deprive the driver of the experience and pleasure of driving, but rather to offer the option of unburdening them and providing a new level of freedom for those that couldn't previously drive. There's also a boon for safety by eliminating the main cause of accidents--human error.
The S500 INTELLIGENT DRIVE prototype is equipped with the same camera and radar sensors already found on the production S-Class. However, the engineers ‘taught’ the technology platform to know where it is, what it sees and how to react autonomously.
Based on gathered sensor data and determination of the vehicle's own position with reference to information from a digital map, the prototype then analyzes the available free area for driving and plans its own route based on specific algorithms.
Note, Mercedes has partnered with Nokia to develop its fully autonomous system. The telecommunications giant provided the data to produce the digital maps, including a 3D version. In addition to the road layout, the map includes information on the number and direction of traffic lanes and traffic signs as well as the positions of traffic lights. Digital maps of this kind are a key prerequisite for autonomous driving, Mercedes says.
The automaker concedes the technology is not quite ready for prime time. In fact, during the tests, an engineer seated behind the wheel sometimes had to take control due to incorrect decisions by the system. A record was made each time it became necessary for an engineer to take over control and this will be used to fine tune the system.
Furthermore, before the goal of fully autonomous driving is achieved, the obstacles to be overcome will not be just of a technical nature. Many of the things that are already technically feasible are still not universally permitted by regulation and liability issues. Mercedes hopes to overcome these obstacles and have the system ready for production by 2020, the same year another automaker, Nissan, hopes to have its own fully autonomous technology ready for sale.

Could Google end up buying Tesla?
Speculating on what will happen to Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] can be endlessly entertaining, and the discussions have taken up terabytes of server space already.
But last week, a Forbes contributor suggested an intriguing notion: Should search giant Google buy Tesla?
The conventional wisdom has been that ultimately, Tesla's backers and board will sell the company to a large global automaker.
Such an acquirer could provide the parts-volume efficiencies and enormous capital resources required to grow production into the hundreds of thousands a year--ultimately perhaps millions.
Of course, Tesla has several times proven the conventional wisdom wrong--which is to say, the company built an astoundingly good car that has been snapped up by many thousand buyers already.
In fact, at its current production rate, the company will have more than 26,000 cars on global roads by December 31.
And Tesla has already surpassed four other fabled automotive startups: Delorean (9,000 cars), Bricklin (2,850 cars), Fisker (2,000 or more cars), and Tucker (a mere 51 cars).
So perhaps the company can remain independent, though the odds are still against it.
But where does Google come in?
It all started with an article last month on TechCrunch that reported carsharing service Uber would buy 2,500 driverless cars from Google.
Rather too many people failed to notice the date--July 25, 2023--and re-reported it as fact. TechCrunch subsequently added "Dispatch From The Future" to the title.
But Forbes writer Chunka Mui suggests that Uber would be dumb to invest huge amounts of capital in its own fleet.
Instead, it should become the centralized dispatch point for driverless taxis of the future.
And who might provide those taxis? Why not Google, with its ground-breaking research into self-driving cars based on its extensive maps of most of the world's roads?
Connecting the dots, a May article by Bloomberg noted that Tesla CEO Elon Musk has spoken with Google about driverless technology for Tesla vehicles in the future.
Cofounder Sergey Brin has already said Google will make self-driving cars available, perhaps within four years, and only in states like Nevada and California that have laws in place that permit them.
Assuming that there's consumer demand for the cars--and more limited semi-autonomy features likeCadillac's SuperCruise and Nissan's various autonomous systems find a market as well--Mui suggests that Google would launch a pilot for a driverless taxi service sometime early in the 2020s.
And assuming that's a success--based on our experience riding in thousands of cabs, we're all for it--the company will eventually roll it out on a larger scale.
That would require tens of thousands of cars. And battery-electric vehicles of the next decade will make excellent taxis.
They have very few moving parts, their per-mile energy cost is far lower than the most efficient hybrids, and they're smooth, quiet, and emit nothing--meaning that they can operate even in central cities that ban emitting vehicles.
Mui suggests that Google will issue a tender for not just tens of thousands, but perhaps 250,000 driverless cars. Tesla, Nissan, and General Motors might all compete.
But rather than buy cars from one vendor, he posits, Google simply decides to use some of its cash hoard to buy Tesla outright (making Elon Musk its third largest shareholder in the process).
As Mui writes, "If you’re writing a dispatch from 2023, why think small?"
Such a scenario might fit neatly into Musk's goal of transforming the very nature of transportation.
Tesla has already started the process by making and selling remarkably good electric cars. Is taking the driver out of the equation the next big leap?

Ford is encouraging pickup owners to keep their dogs inside the truck 
Here's a startling statistic: according to the American Humane Association, 100,000 dogs die each year while traveling in truck beds. Some are ejected during accidents. Some jump out while the vehicle is moving. Others die from debris, low-hanging limbs, and exposure.
Now, Ford has partnered with the Humane Association (not to be confused with the Humane Society) to encourage pickup owners to keep their dogs inside the truck cabin. According to Ford's Doug Scott, "We’re not asking that people go to onerous lengths while driving with pets, but even the smallest steps can make a difference in keeping all passengers in our vehicles safe."
Among the steps that Ford recommends:
Keep animals inside the truck cab, not in the truck bed.
If your truck has a back seat, keep your pet there, rather than in the front seat, where she can more easily be hurt and cause a distraction.
Whenever possible, crate your dog while in the car, or use a pet seatbelt like the one displayed on Jinx, above. (NB: We're supposed to ignore the fact that the pup is riding in the front seat, right?)
Don't let dogs travel with their heads out the window. Yes, they love it, but they can be struck by debris or even fall out.
Make sure that your dog is properly collared and tagged, and if possible chipped, so you can find her if you get separated.
And the #1 rule: never, ever leave a pet in a vehicle unattended.
To drive this message home, Ford is working with Fido Friendly magazine to underwrite a monthlong campaign called "Get Your Licks on Route 66", which promotes pet adoption and safety.

Volvo’s 2014 V60 wagon will be its first model to feature its new Drive-E four-cylinder engine.
The 2014 Volvo V60 wagon that goes on sale in January will offer one of the automaker’s new Drive-E four-cylinder engines. Drive-E is the name for Volvo’s next generation of engines, which consist of gasoline and diesel units and include power-boosting technologies such as direct fuel injection and turbocharging.
The Drive-E engine that will debut in the 2014 V60 will be a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder good for 240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It will feature in the base V60 with front-wheel drive.
Should you want your V60 to power all four wheels, you’ll have to opt for Volvo’s existing turbocharged 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine or turbocharged 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. The five-cylinder delivers 250 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, while the six-cylinder is good for 325 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque.
Volvo hasn’t mentioned how much its 2014 V60 will cost, though prices shouldn’t start much higher than the 2014 S60 sedan’s $32,400 starting figure.
“The V60 signifies our first step in a gradual move toward powerful, highly efficient, four-cylinder engines across the entire portfolio of our vehicles,” Volvo’s U.S. chief John Maloney said in a statement. “This is an exciting time of transformation for Volvo and shows our Swedish heart is beating strongly.”
Maloney is referring to Volvo’s strategy to introduce four-cylinder engines across its lineup, from the smallest hatch right up to its XC90 seven-seat SUV. Conventional technologies such as direct fuel injection and turbocharging allow the four-cylinder engines to deliver V-6-like performance, but Volvo will eventually add hybrid technology to enable the engines to match or even exceed the performance of some V-8s.

Driving electric cars used electricity generated from burning coal is still cleaner than burning gasoline, a new study claims.
Every so often, electric-car skeptics will attack the idea of using grid electricity to power a car by bringing up coal.
"Yeah," the argument goes, "but you're just burning coal instead of gasoline in your electric car--so how's that any better?"
There is, of course, a fair amount of science that shows it actually is better when measured by wells-to-wheels carbon emissions.
The most recent study came from the Union of Concerned Scientists last year, complete with a neat little map looking at each state's electric grid.
The conclusion: Even in the few states with the very dirtiest grids, driving a mile on grid electricity is barely worse than the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid car (roughly 34 mpg).
And in states with the cleanest grids, there's no combustion-engine vehicle that can match an electric car for low carbon emissions.
A landmark 2007 study jointly produced by the Electric Power Research Institute (the research arm of the electric utility industry) and the Natural Resources Defense Council comes to broadly similar conclusions.
It's also worth noting that the majority of electric cars operate in states with very low-coal grids: California, Washington, and New York among them.
And most state grids are slowly getting cleaner.
Natural gas is cheap and readily available, more wind and solar are being added, and some of the most antiquated coal plants will be shut down or converted to natural gas in the years to come.
But what really sparked this article was an article in Mother Jones magazine, entitled "How Green is A Tesla, Really?"
It's conceptually quite similar to one we published in May by David Noland, who extensively analyzed whether his 2013 Tesla Model S pollutes as much as a sport-utility vehicle.
Hint: It doesn't.
But the Mother Jones piece contained this wonderful concluding paragraph:
To use the nation's reliance on dirty coal as an argument against electric cars is to get things backward. Rather, the prospect of making cars far greener than they are today should count as yet another argument against the nation's continued reliance on dirty coal.
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
We should note, however, that for certain non-carbon smokestack emissions--including nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2)--that mile driven in an electric car is worse than one in a modern gasoline car.

Toyota has launched a new car-sharing program called Dash.
When Zipcar launched its car-sharing service nearly 14 years ago, many people shrugged. "Okay," they said, "that's an interesting alternative to rental cars, but it won't have any effect on the auto industry."
Oh, how times change. Today, car-sharing is becoming big business. General Motors saw the writing on the wall back in 2011, when it partnered with RelayRides. Now, Toyota's getting onboard with a slightly different program called Dash.
Dash is a project of City CarShare that's being supported by Toyota. While RelayRides provides a network for private car owners to loan out their vehicles, City CarShare is more like Zipcar, maintaining its own rentable fleet. To separate itself from the competition, though, City CarShare is a nonprofit, "with a mission to improve the environment and quality of life in our communities by promoting innovative mobility options. We provide convenient, affordable access to carsharing so that, together, we can reduce car dependency – and have a measurable impact in the way our communities live, breathe, work, and play."
Dash is based in Pleasanton, California at Hacienda, a mixed-use development that's home to hundreds of business. According to a press release, the pilot program "will offer short distance transportation options for both employer’s business needs and for their carpool, vanpool and public transportation commuters once they arrive to the park for work". In this way, Dash is a little like the GFleet that Google built for use on its Mountain View, California campus.
The difference is, Dash's fleet consists entirely of electric cars -- specifically, 30 Scion iQ EV electric vehicles. That's nearly one-third of the 100 iQ EVs made to date. The vehicles will be rented for low, hourly rates to Hacienda employees who join City CarShare.
With that fleet will come a number of charging stations -- which is good, because the iQ EV's battery only has a range of 40 miles. Thankfully, it recharges in three hours.
What's in all this for Toyota? The project is managed by City CarShare, so it's unclear whether Toyota will see any financial gain. However, according to Toyota's Craig Scott, "Toyota is exploring new business models like the City CarShare Dash fleet to meet the future mobility needs of our customers. The Scion iQ EV fleet will help us understand how electric vehicles are used in an active car sharing program and the viability of this type of program for future technologies."
In other words, while City CarShare has eco-friendly goals like taking cars off the road and reducing CO2 emissions, Toyota aims to learn more about how electric-car drivers use their vehicles -- presumably so that the company can tailor future rides to meet consumer needs. 

Rolls-Royce’s CEO has admitted the company is considering launching an SUV.
Despite the fact that Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös explicitly ruled out the possibility of an SUV back in April, strong demand for luxury SUVs around the globe has managed to sway his decision to the point that he is actually considering launching one.
“We are intensively thinking about entering the SUV segment,” Müller-Ötvös confirmed to Bloomberg.
He also said the company’s designers are working on conceptual sketches that will be used to judge if an SUV fits the brand.
Launching an SUV would provide Rolls-Royce with a rival to a high-riding Bentley due in 2016. It may also pave the way for the development of a large SUV platform that BMW could utilize for its oft-rumored X7. BMW currently has no direct rival for full-size luxury SUVs like the Audi Q7, Mercedes-Benz GL-Class and Land Rover Range Rover.
As previously reported, even if Rolls-Royce does move forward with plans for an ultra-luxurious SUV, it won’t reach the market before 2017.

Struggling electric car brand Fisker has received its first formal offer from a potential buyer.
The fate of Fisker Automotive has been hanging for months, but now an offer for the company has been "signed" and is "on the table."
At least that's the word from Ingo Voigt, who with Fritz Nol is one of a pair of German investors who want to buy the company.
"I am proud to tell you that we just sent our detailed offer including a signed LOI and short presentation of our restructing plan to the DoE on fax and mail," says a post by Voight yesterday on Facebook.
"Now it's time to pray!" he concludes.
"LOI" refers to "letter of intent," the official document offering to buy the company.
The purchase goes to the U.S. Department of Energy because the government agency loaned roughly $193 million to Fisker that the company has not paid back.
Disbursements on the loan were suspended early in 2011, but the DoE's loan terms give it a say in the ultimate disposition of the company.
As reported last month in the German AutoBild, the Fritz Nol group was said to be interested in acquiring Fisker for a mere $25 million.
The German group reportedly planned to relocate production of the Karma range-extended electric luxury sedan from independent Finnish manufacturer Valmet to the U.S.
One likely site might be the factory in Wilmington, Delaware, that Fisker bought to build its so-far stillborn second model, the Atlantic.
There may be other bidders for the remains of Fisker as well.
Bob Lutz, whose VL Automotive concern previewed a V-8-powered Karma called the Destino, put in a bid back in May.
Original cofounder Henrik Fisker also discussed making an offer, backed by a Hong Kong-based investor group.
In March of this year, Fisker had left the company in a disagreement over strategic direction with CEO Tony Posawatz.
Fisker stopped assembling its Karma range-extended electric luxury sport sedan in July 2012, after more than 2,000 had been built.