The Truth About Cars » Future The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 15 Jul 2014 10:00:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Future Whither Volvo? Tue, 26 Nov 2013 17:39:33 +0000 2014 Volvo V60 T6

I’ve always had a soft spot for Volvo, that’s probably why I’ve owned two and chose European Delivery on one of them. But Volvo has a problem. It’s not the product. It’s not even the brand positioning. It’s a lack of advertising and visibility. Let’s dive deep into my mind as I pontificate about Volvo’s destiny.

Auto shows are an interesting place to see where a brand thinks they are heading. In Chrysler’s dark days they shrank their auto show floor real estate to a postage stamp sized lot, but it was in the busy central area of the LA Auto Show. Volvo on the other hand has long been squeezed into a minuscule area between Ford and Lincoln. This year something is different. Volvo relocated to the middle of the hall that contains BMW, Audi, Mercedes Lexus and Acura. They have also doubled their square footage. What does this mean for the brand’s direction and faithful? I’m not sure. Why? Because in typical fashion, Volvo had their new-to-America V60 wagon on the floor, but the press conference was on engines we won’t see for ages. [Edit: Volvo tells us we will see the new 4-cylinder engines in January of 2014.] It was also scheduled for the last day of the show when everyone but me had flown home.

The problem was that there was plenty to talk about for the new model year. 2014 brought an unexpected interior refresh across the line with new shifters that are no longer clear (thank God), optional stitched leather dashboards, new front and rear bumpers across the line, a faster 6-speed transmission, LCD disco dashes for the masses and a touchscreen 3G connected system that you can use while wearing gloves. We also get some engine tweaks and more Polestar performance love. Did Volvo mention any of that? Nope. How about that V60? Oh, that? Ja, it’s new. Nej, we are not allowed to talk about new products. (OK, I made that last part up.)

2014 Volvo Leather Dash

What makes Volvo’s situation all the more bizarre is that when most companies wither and die, the product was the harbinger of doom. Saturn had, well, every car they ever made. Isuzu, enough said. Mitsubishi has the Mirage and Outlander and the writing is on the wall. Volvo on the other hand seems to have enough cash to make cars or to market cars, but not both. In typical Swedish fashion they have chosen the former. The result is a leather and natural-stained-oak wrapped S80 T6 that does 0-60 in 5.3 while AWD power-sliding through an intersection. Yes the steering is numb, heavy and slightly vague, but in reality the S80 is “more E350 and 535xi” than a Lexus GS or Acura RLX. Do those shoppers know the S80 exists? Nope. The XC60 T6 R-Design we tested about a year ago was the most powerful mid-sized luxury SUV available being as fast as the BMW X3 and faster than the Audi or Merc. Until the Macan lands, the Volvo is still second, just a hair below the incredibly expensive Audi SQ5. Anyone know that? Not even Volvo knew that. When we reviewed the XC60, I asked Volvo if they could confirm my suspicion it wore the horsepower crown. All I heard were crickets.

Even the ancient XC90 (which is nearly old enough to buy tobacco) is still a fairly competent SUV. By no means is it class leading, but shockingly, it just sailed through the IIHS small offset test to get a Best Pick award. Even after nearly 12 years on the market, I could see someone buying an XC90 instead of a Buick Enclave.

Plenty of people are convinced Volvo’s woes are because the product is too expensive, that the brand is trying to go upmarket and it doesn’t belong. Hogwash. If they want to price out their loyal 240 customers, go right ahead, this is business. BMW moved up market, Audi moved up market. Heck, even Kia is moving up market with the K900. Making more expensive widgets isn’t the issue, selling the widget is the problem. If Geely really wants to make a go out of Volvo, here’s my simple plan.


Step 1: Advertise. I’m not talking about doubling your budget. Dig deep. Find out what Audi is spending and get as close as you can. Mortgage everything if you need to.. Make it edgy. Bring those Volvo wife-swapping commercials from Sweden and play ‘em on prime time TV. Bring back some teary-eyed “my Volvo saved my life” content. Jump some Volvos off a cliff. Jam some Swedish models in the cars.

Step 2. You know that 500+ horsepower S60? Stop toying with us and just build the darn thing. Will it be expensive? Sure. Will it sell? Probably not. Does it matter? Yes. Why do you think Kia wants a K900 flagship that will have an annual sales of 12? Besides, such a project might allow Volvo to design a 400HP drivetrain at a reasonable cost which is essential to compete with the Germans.

Step 3. Regain the impression of safety leadership. Notice I said impression. This goes back to step one. By not advertising, you have allowed Honda, Subaru, and others to take a leadership role in consumer’s minds about safety. I know safety doesn’t sell by itself, but everyone I know with kids that asks for car advice says one thing first: “I want a safe car that XXX”. Play on those fears.

Step 4. Prey on the weak. Acura and Lexus seem to have trouble finding their calling lately. Use that to your advantage and target four-cylinder FWD cars at those folks. Hint: they love wood trim and don’t care about RWD driving dynamics, so make a trim level just for them.

Step 5. It has been said before, but I’m starting to agree. You need to build a minivan. Make it looks XC60 ish, seat 8, give it AWD and don’t cheap out on the back seats. The Mercedes R didn’t sell, so keep the price reasonable, maybe a $10,000 premium over Chrysler’s Town & Country. Jam more air bags than a mother-in-law convention in there and sell it to minivan mommies who will buy anything to keep their kids in a Swedish cocoon.


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A Vision Of The Future: A Day In The Life Of Bob Jones Fri, 11 Oct 2013 12:23:40 +0000 FutureCars_02_Electric_Highways_Automatic_Cars

The following article is long. Some of you will decry it as fiction outside of the space this website normally reserves for stories and others of you will lament its presence on what is supposed to be an automotive news website. Maybe you are right, but the truth is that I read a lot and my mind is constantly pulling at a million disparate threads of information and tying them together in ways that make unusual patterns. Some of these things have coalesced this week into the following piece and so I have offered it to the editors to see if they think it has a place on our esteemed pages. If you are seeing it, then they have given it the green light and all I can do is ask you to indulge me.

Articles about the future used to show up in the newspapers and the magazines with surprising regularity when I was a kid. They were great reading and were almost always accompanied by large, full color illustrations by noted artists like Syd Mead that fleshed out the words out surprising detail. In virtually every case, despite much of the turmoil going on in our country in the 1970s, those articles painted a picture of a better, brighter future. Now more than a third of the way through the second decade of the 21st century, we all know that things didn’t turn out quite the way those old articles imagined but that doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to predict what is coming. I can’t help but think that a better tomorrow really is right around the corner.

Bob Jones is startled out of his sleep at 8:30 AM by the beeping of his alarm clock and makes his way into the bathroom for a shower and a shave. Monday mornings are the same as they have always been and he knows he has a long four-day work week ahead of him. So much of the America that his grandparents knew is gone. The five day work week has been abolished, the smoke belching factories moved offshore and the din of traffic eliminated by electric motors and a new kind of urban planning that has brought people closer together. Countless millions of jobs were eliminated in the move away from industry, but increased access to information and the efficiencies of automated production have changed the way the economy works. To be sure there is still poverty in places and still work to be done. Children must be educated, customers served, systems maintained and improved and in the case of Government, paper pushed.


After he is showered and dressed, Bob grabs a cup of coffee and a piece of toast and spends a few minutes looking over the news on his countertop before making his way out to the garage. Bob is fortunate, and although much of humanity has gravitated towards larger cities and new, walkable communities Bob lives in an immense century-old house in what was once an affluent suburb. When it was built, the house had a massive four car garage but as cars became more automated and evolved into a public utility, most of these old garages had been converted into living space. In Bob’s house, huge windows stand where two of the three garage doors once stood but, because Bob lives so far outside of the city and owns his own “autocar,” he chose to keep a one part of the old house as an actual, functioning garage.

The concept of a car as a status symbol is all but gone and cars are about as anonymous as a dish washer. For the most part, people rely on automated cars as a part of the public infrastructure in the way that people once relied on taxi cabs. Summoned to the house within minutes at the touch of a button, they are generally used for mid-range trips, places too far to walk but too close for train or air travel. Bob lives far enough off the grid that owning his own car makes sense, but even so it is tied into the network and its operation is outside of his control for everything except emergencies.

The car opens its door as Bob approaches and he slides easily into the little vehicle. Because he has a wife and son, the car is a mid size model that can comfortably seat up to four people. Bob’s seat is firm but its shape conforms under his weight as his body presses against its gel filled surface. In front of him he finds a large touch screen already on and displaying the same page he was viewing on the kitchen table. He takes a glance at the car’s vitals displayed in the upper corner of the screen, ensuring that the vehicle is fully charged, and then slips into his seatbelt.

The car itself is lightly constructed, made of composite materials and has huge windows. There is a crash cage and numerous air-bags hidden behind the interior panels, but the chances of an accident are virtually nil given the way the car connected to the network. As the seatbelt clicks home, the garage door rises and the little car moves automatically out onto the road. Usually it turns left out of the driveway, but today it goes right to avoid a slowdown that the network has detected and accelerates smoothly up to the speed limit. It makes no stops as it cruises through the neighborhood and the computer ensures that other cars are cleanly avoided as it crosses through the various intersections between Bob’s home and the entrance to the freeway.

When the car reaches the on-ramp, it accelerates smoothly up the incline and merges flawlessly into traffic, tucking itself neatly into the line just inches away from the car ahead of it in order to take advantage of the aerodynamic effects of drafting. As it cruises along effortlessly, Bob enjoys the morning news and entertainment report on his touch screen, barely noticing the outside world as it whizzes past. Fifteen minutes after he leaves home, Bob’s car exits the freeway, makes its way across town and pulls silently up to the curb in front of his office. The car pauses to let him out prior to turning and heading back for home. Now in town, Bob won’t be needing a car until it is time to make the trip home after six hours of work and his wife Susan has plans for the afternoon.

Bob’s office is like the car, bright, light and airy. He works for the county government, working with contractors to help ensure they understand how to navigate the building permit process and ensuring that local codes are taken into consideration as a part of the planning process. He has four appointments on his schedule and before the first man shambles into his office at 10 AM he has already had the opportunity to review the plans with one of the building inspectors. The meeting goes well, the required data has been gathered by the computer system during the application process and the building site checked through the county’s map database and crosschecked through satellite imagery. The builder wants a couple of exceptions to the plan and is prepared to offer a couple of concessions to get them, a taller hedge in place of some setback and a cutout in the sidewalk to facilitate deliveries. In the end the two men negotiate an agreement that serves both the public and the builder, something a strict computer program could never do and both sides leave the process feeling positive about their interaction. A similar meeting follows and the morning is complete.

At lunch, Bob pops down to the local café. The service is personal but much of the actual cooking is automated. The result of increased automation has been less food borne illness and increased freshness but the downside is lack of local flavor. To be sure, Bob knows it isn’t the same as home cooking, but when has eating at a restaurant ever been home cooking? There are plenty of ways for Bob to stay connected while he eats, a television in the corner, displays integrated into the tabletop and Bob’s own telephone means he can effectively do anything he wants. Bob opts for the table display where he reads the latest Hollywood gossip, checks the scores and even orders a refill for his coffee via the tabletop console. When he is done, his bill is displayed on the same screen and he pays it by waving his telephone over the display prior to returning to work.

The afternoon goes smoothly and at 4:00 Bob’s work day is over. Because the car is taking Bob’s son to his afternoon music lessons, Bob decides to hire a car to take him home. Since he is in the city Bob finds a row of cars waiting at the curbside with their doors open. He chooses a small one-person car and climbs in. This car is smaller than Bob’s own four seater, in fact Bob’s grandparents wouldn’t even call it a car.

Technically the car is an enclosed three-wheeled motorcycle. Thanks to computer controls it maintains perfect composure and quickly counters Bob’s weight as he climbs in. Inside it is a little tighter than his own, larger car, but thanks to its full glass canopy still feels light and open. The car pauses there by the curb as Bob belts himself in then, accesses the data in its passenger’s phone to get the specific destination once Bob tells it to take him home. Like all cars, this one doesn’t need to stop for lights or worry about encountering traffic jams. It heads to the freeway without incident and runs right up to speed while Bob checks his email and orders Chinese take-out for dinner.


Because this little car tilts in the curves Bob eventually decides to switch off the screen and spend his time looking out the window. Once, there had been only three lanes of traffic on this same road, but the autocar needs no margin for error and no breakdown lane so now six lanes occupy the same space. Even so, it seems like overkill as most cars run in tight formations in the leftmost lanes, only using the other lanes to run up to speed prior to merging or to slow prior to exiting. Because Bob’s screen is switched off, the car knows he is looking out the window and moves to the front of the formation in order to afford him the best view.

The road rushes towards him as he heads out of the city, past some of the smaller walkable communities built to resemble old world townships complete with public edifices that resemble old Roman Forums or medieval castles and narrow paths more suited to foot traffic than motor vehicles. As an urban planner, Bob knows all about how these spaces evolved and how they are linked to one another through a sophisticated transportation network, but even he is a little dismayed by the odd way that developers have chosen to incorporate ancient architectural styles as a part of their design. Some people, he knows, find them charming but to him the cities seem more like amusement park sets than real functioning communities. Hopefully, their designs age as gracefully as the cities they mimic.

Well before Bob’s exit the car shifts right and begins to slow. At his exit it drops off the freeway and leans hard over as it pulls through the intersection at the bottom of the ramp moving right at the speed limit. The gyro brings the car back upright and it moves silently through the neighborhood until it stops at the end of Bob’s own driveway. The screen comes alive and flashes the fare for the ride but Bob ignores it as the paltry sum is already deducted from his account. As he unlocks the door his Chinese food arrives piping hot and ten minutes after that his wife Susan and son make their return as well.


After dinner, Bob and Susan relax on their patio and enjoy drinks while their car drives their son to a friend’s 10 minutes away. Despite the inconvenience of living so far outside of the city, the garden is the real reason they purchased the home and they talk over the day’s event in the golden afternoon light while on the hedgehog size lawn robots roam relentlessly back and forth emitting ultrasonic sounds to drive away moles and other burrowing creatures and ensuring that every blade of grass is perfectly trimmed to the correct length. As the sun goes down, the houselights come slowly on, increasing in brightness so gradually that Bob and Susan hardly notice them.

Eventually, as the sounds of the night begin to rise outside of the bright lighted area of the yard, Bob and Susan head back into the house for an evening of video entertainment. The main screen shows the hottest drama and Susan is engrossed by the action. Bob, meanwhile, watches his own programming on his tablet taking only enough notice of the drama so that he can discuss it with his wife once it is over. At about 8:00, Bob and Susan’s son returns from his friend’s house and begins his own night time routine of bath and bed. By 10:00 both Bob and Susan are tired and, after checking their email one final time, head to bed. The day has been a busy one and Bob looks back across the things he was able to accomplish with some pride. He drifts off to sleep satisfied that he has helped make his own part of the world a little better place. Time will tell if he made the right decisions.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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Question: What Ten-Year Period Was the Auto Industry’s Greatest Leap Forward? Fri, 05 Apr 2013 13:00:09 +0000 Once I get to ranting on the subject, I’ll fulminate that the true modern era of the automobile didn’t start until about 1990, when carburetors and points ignitions finally disappeared from new cars sold in the United States. Before and after that point, however, a lot of progress— and backsliding— has taken place in the automotive industry. Which brings up the question: what ten-year period, starting with Karl Benz’s Patent Motorwagen in 1886, saw the most improvement, innovation, whatever you want to call it, in the automotive world?
You may choose to give most emphasis to advances in engineering and materials, in which case the advances made by GM and its rivals during the 1946-1956 period might be most important. Or maybe Mr. Ford’s greatest hit and resulting huge lowering of the cost of a new car could give the win to 1909-1919. European cars sure looked beautiful from, say, 1958 through 1968, and you can’t write off the bang-per-buck advances in build quality accomplished by Japanese automakers during the 1975-1985 period. But wait— how about electronic fuel injection and engine controls, which became standard equipment on even the lowliest econoboxes during the 1980s? And do we even consider any period containing 1939-45, a period during which the major carmaking countries were too busy blasting one another to crap to do much automotive innovation, but which produced a lot of engineering advances that went into cars later on? Or, what the heck, we’re living in the Golden Age of Ridiculous Horsepower right now— could be that 2003-2013 gets your vote! Your thoughts?

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Obama Chickens Out, Says A Million EVs By 2015 Not Important Thu, 31 Jan 2013 19:45:45 +0000

Today must be International Backpedaling Day. Volkswagen said “Never mind beat Toyota by 2018.”  Obama says: “Never mind a million EVs by 2015.”

Under a new strategy announced today, the Department of Energy promised to support research into new battery technologies and manufacturing methods that would lower the cost of lightweight materials and improve vehicles’ fuel-efficiency, Reuters reports.

But the DOE backpedales furiously from a goal set out in a 2011 State of the Union speech, where President Barack Obama announced what he called “Apollo projects of our times.” One of them was the goal for the United States to be “the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

“Whether we meet that goal in 2015 or 2016, that’s less important than that we’re on the right path to get many millions of these vehicles on the road,” an unnamed Energy Department official told Reuters.

Reuters notes that “demand for hybrids and electric vehicles has been weaker than expected.” Government money was poured into black holes. Says Reuters:

“Poor demand has hurt lithium-ion battery makers, pushing two DOE grant recipients, A123 Systems Inc and EnerDel, to file for bankruptcy protection. Dow Chemical Co took a $1.1 billion charge last year, related in part to a writedown of its lithium-ion battery business, Dow-Kokam LLC.”

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BMW Trick Computer Helps You With The Road Less Travelled Mon, 04 Apr 2011 17:19:34 +0000

As a rally driver, you have a navigator in the other seat. What do you need him for? He knows the road ahead and tells you how to drive in the fastest and most efficient manner. As in “you want to take that turn at around 80. When you come out of the turn, stay in low, there’s another sharp right turn right behind that.” Or fewer words to that effect.

When I met Jutta Kleinschmidt, Volkswagen’s Touareg Dakar Rallye driver, she had this lithe Italian woman as a Navigator. “She’s a skinny little thing,” said Frau Kleinschmidt in her usual don’t-mess-with-me style, “but at least she doesn’t weigh much.”

BMW will do one better. Soon, BMW will give you a navigator that weighs just about nothing. As for the skinny little thing – let’s just say that you won’t be interested in the navigator of someone who lists her homepage here. But let’s not get sidetracked.

BMW has its Innovation Days today and tomorrow at the FIZ. That’s the Forschungs- und Innvoationszentrum in München for you. At today’s conference, BMW showed (amongst other things that shall receive coverage at TTAC) an eight-speed automatic transmission with an “anticipatory transmission control system.” When asked, they admitted that the name needs a little work. In German, it’s a “vorausschauende Getriebesteuerung,” which sounds a little better.

In the „how did they do that“ dept. BMW’s new gearbox received two additional gears over the previous 6, “whilst the number of gear sets has been increased by just one to a total of four,” marvels BMW’s press release. “Thanks to the low number of additional components, the system’s internal efficiency is optimized.”

Now for the good stuff.

BMW has “in advanced development” a system that looks ahead and will consider “road surface conditions, road topology as well as the traffic situation when selecting the ideal gear.”

ATCS 1.0 will get its inputs from the DSC (Dynamics Stability Control) module and from the GPS. That should be plenty of information to decide whether to accelerate with the advance knowledge that there is a nice straightaway coming, or whether to stay in the lower gear, because around that corner lurks just another, even sharper turn. Slippery when wet? The ATCS will take that into consideration.

Like a JSTARS on wheels, ATCS 2.0 will get even finer grained information from cameras, RADAR and additional sensors.

According to BMW, “the automatic transmission selects the appropriate gear similarly as foresighted as an experienced driver using a manual gearbox.” The Tail of the Dragon is waiting for ya, ATCS.

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Obama’s Moonshot: A Million EVs By 2015 Sun, 30 Jan 2011 11:19:46 +0000

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said in a speech to a joint session of Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” On 21 July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. The Apollo 11 crew returned safely to Earth on 24 July. Three years later, the Moon had its last visitors. The Sea of  Tranquility lives up to its name.

In last week’s State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama’s set an even more audacious goal. Amongst the “Apollo projects of our times” is the goal for the United States to be “the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

Why is that more audacious? JFK only had to convince Congress to shake loose $7 billion. In the end, the project did cost $25 billion, the overrun surprised nobody. Obama has a tougher sell. He needs to convince a million Americans to buy an electric car.

Coincidentally, the U.S. again has more than $25 billion invested in advanced-technology vehicle development. With overruns, it will likely be more.

Michael Omotoso, director of global powertrain forecasting at J.D. Power and Associates thinks that Obama’s new Apollo project is “a stretch goal. We don’t think we’re going to reach that number by 2015,” he said to Automotive News [sub]. The high cost of batteries and the limited market for short-range compact cars will be obstacles that make a million EVs by 2015 a lot more difficult than a moon shot.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration also thinks the plan is ambitious. They see automakers selling about 281,000 electric cars and light trucks from 2011 through 2015.  That figure includes fuel-cell vehicles and excludes electric-gasoline hybrids. So far, a total of 326 Volts (which do not count as a pure electric vehicle) and 19 Leafs have been sold, according to company sales data compiled by Bloomberg.

Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Oregon, sees “a substantial gap between what the price is and what people are willing to spend.” He has a way to bridge that gap. Spinella thinks the president’s goal is “not only doable but probable” if the government backs it with at least $6.9 billion in federal and state tax credits. Again coincidentally, that is what JFK had asked for. And we all know how it ended. It did cost more than three times as much, and the moon remained unvisited for nearly 40 years.

Also coincidentally, while JFK threw down the gauntlet to the Soviets, Barack Obama finds himself in an EV race against the Chinese. They also want a million EVs by 2015. You think their job is easier, because they just order it, and it will be done?

Ask BYD how they are doing.

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World’s Auto Execs Don’t Buy Their Electric Cars Hype Fri, 07 Jan 2011 10:49:50 +0000

The majority of car makers the world over think that for the next five years, electric cars will remain too expensive to stand a chance in the mass market. Their saving grace must be government subsidies. Without government money, EVs are priced out of the market.

Nevertheless, most automakers think that research and investment in this category is important, almost 90 percent are planning to invest in hybrid systems, battery electric power or hydrogen fuel-cell technologies over the next five years.

These are, in a nutshell, the sobering results of the KPMG 2011 Global Automotive Executive Survey, which asked over 200 global automakers, suppliers and dealers where they think their business will be going over the coming five to 10 years.

Here are the main insights:

  • Fuel-efficiency remains the biggest consideration when purchasing a car.
  • The growth (but not the volume) will be in hybrid and electric vehicles over the next five years.
  • A two-tier global market evolves: Mature countries struggle to cope with changing mobility behavior. Up-and-coming regions push to deliver a variety of cars to populations eager for greater mobility.
  • Population growth and urbanization is driving a significant change across the entire automotive landscape.
  • While the world waits for affordable electric vehicles, ‘mobility service solutions’ (short-term rental of a car, or various modes of transport) are what some respondents believe may be game-changing. Only nine percent of respondents believe that mobility solutions will represent a significant part of their strategy. However, some automakers like Daimler, Peugeot, BMW and others are already investing in this area. Says KPMG: “Those who own the mobility grid could well be the same as those who own the market.”
  • Development of alternative fuels and powertrain technologies is risky and costly. 68 percent of major players are opting to enter into strategic alliances or joint ventures with suppliers rather than seek capital and go it alone.
  • Overcapacity continues to be a chief concern in both mature and emerging markets. Almost two-thirds of respondents believe the US is the most overbuilt, with Japan and Germany following. China and India are expected to reach overcapacity within five years.

Two hundred automotive executives participated in the survey. Over half were business unit heads or higher.

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GM China’s November Numbers, And A Deep Look In The Crystal Ball Thu, 02 Dec 2010 08:19:39 +0000

GM China, our recently no longer so reliable oracle for the Chinese market, raised its November sales by 11 percent, compared to an absolutely batty November 2009. 11 percent are not the same growth as the 109.5 percent GM China had recorded in last year’s November, but how much battier do you expect them to get? The more meaningful number is that for the first 11 months of 2010:  From January through November, GM’s China sales jumped 33 percent to a mind-blowing 2.17 million units. GM China will most likely close out the year in the 2.35 to 2.4m area – this is higher than the total sales of some of Europe’s larger countries, and definitely a whole lot more than GM sells back  home. Better get used to it.

In November, GM’s Chinese joint ventures moved 196,990 units. Not much change compared to the 199,641 units they sold last month. Back home, GM sold 168,670 units in a very good November.

GM’s passenger-car JV with SAIC, which keeps China supplied with Buicks and Chevrolets, brought in more impressive numbers. Sales are up 33 percent here, setting the stage for news of a very strong overall November market in the Middle Kingdom.

What rained on GM’s parade was Wuling. The econobox maker that helped inflate GM’s Chinese numbers by about a million a year continues to disappoint. Wuling reported only 84,879 mini vehicles in China for November, “without providing a comparison,” as Bloomberg complains.

Lazy, lazy Bloomberg. TTAC can provide the missing comparison. SAIC-GM-Wuling had sold 89,636 mini-vehicles in China in November 2009. We call that a 5 percent decrease. Woolly Wuling hasn’t kept up with the pace of the market lately. They deliver volume and bragging rights to GM, but no growth, and most likely very little profit. And they ruin the percentages everybody is so in love with.

Lazy journos will kvetch that (duh) 11 percent in November is less than 19.6 percent in October. Compared to what, gentlemen? Keep in mind that November 2009 was absolutely nutty in China.  Buick sales had risen 118 percent, Chevrolet sales had exploded by 281 percent. Honestly, I had expected overall Chinese sales to fall compared to that absolutely outrageous November 2009 sales orgy. That they did not fall and that they keep on climbing attests to the vigor of this still largely untapped market.

Did I say “largely untapped?” There are a paltry 63 cars per thousand people on China’s roads. In the U.S., there are 800 per thousand. The G7 average stands at around 600 per thousand. China passed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, with a still largely unmotorized population. They all want what we want: A car.

Looking ahead, growth in 2011 will most likely be more subdued in percentages, especially in the first quarter. The government will most likely do away with the tax incentives (who needs incentives  in that kind of a market?)  People lock them in in November and December. There will be pull-forward.

Still, market observers expect even more growth for 2011. J.D. Power thinks China’s auto market “will grow at a somewhat lower rate than in 2009 and 2010.” GM China’s Kevin Wale prognosticates growth of 10-15 percent more next year.  Don’t let those percentages fool you. 10 to 15 percent of 18 million will be 1.8 to 2.7 million more. Or the total sales of a good sized European country.

Bubble? There is none in sight. In the past ten years, China had years close to 5 percent growth and years close to 50 percent growth. On average, China’s car market grew 24 percent per year, and it still has only 63 cars per thousand.  Sure, there will be ups and downs, but the general direction of this market is due north. Like any other market, China will start slowing down when it reaches 500 cars per thousand, which I believe to happen some time after 2030. That needs around 750 million cars on the road, or about three times the U.S. number. Scary? Yes. Inevitable? Unless the sky falls, yes.

You think I’m crazy? You thought I was crazy when I started writing for TTAC two years ago, and I haven’t changed.

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The Future of Robotic Self-Driving Cars Thu, 11 Nov 2010 18:44:18 +0000

Science fiction author Charlie Stross recently penned a blog piece on the future impact of autonomously computer-driven cars. Let’s call them “robocars.” I’ve pondered this before and Stross’s post is the perfect jumping-off point for a discussion of the many issues standing between science fiction and the robocar future. Let’s take a look.

Firstly, based on the progress from DARPA’s Grand Challenge and now Google’s fleet of robocars, it’s eminently clear that computers are getting very good at driving. Robocars rely on a variety of different ways of sensing the road (stereo video cameras, laser range-finders, sonar, radar, GPS — you name it and somebody’s tried it). One of the ways that robots gain increased accuracy is by fusing data from multiple distinct sensors, and that means that the cost and reliability of those sensors will be one of the limiting factors before robocars hit the mainstream, never mind the pesky problem of all those sensors looking decidedly ugly.

Stross posits that once robocars become affordable, insurance companies and government regulations will immediately favor them over traditional cars, and it’s easy to see why. Take away the human driver and you take away driving while drunk, distracted, or drowsy. Long-distance trucking companies would immediately jump on the chance to have their rigs running all day and night without drivers who require food and sleep. Stross suggests that we won’t even bother owning cars any more, except for the occasional nut-job / TTAC aficionado who likes to race. In a congested big city where taxis are everywhere (New York, London, etc.), plenty of people already don’t bother to own cars, and new business models like ZipCar fill in where taxis don’t really cut it. Still, while I’ve only spent occasional time in New York, I have attempted to get a taxi there while it’s raining, and let’s just say that supply didn’t meet demand. With robocars, we can easily imagine ZipCar-like services where you pay more for higher priority when demand grows. Maybe we’ll see instant auctions: I’ll pay $100 for the first car that shows up right here, right now! Or reverse auctions: I need to go from here to there, who’s willing to take me for the least money? My kingdom for a ride downtown in a Mercedes! Make it so, number one.

I see a completely different impact on suburbia. With my own house, I made the tradeoff to live close to work versus having a glorious suburban starter castle and a one hour drive-time commute from hell. What if all that pain went away and I could rig up my car to be more like a rolling office? Now living in the distant suburbs wouldn’t be nearly as bad. Robocars could drive faster, with less separation between cars, and would be far less likely to get into wrecks. And when wrecks do happen, robocars wouldn’t slow down just to rubberneck. Expensive parking lots at work or the airport? Why bother? Send the car home and it will pick you up when you need it again, or send it a few miles away to a robocar-only parking lot that can really pack the cars in for a cheaper price.

Since I’m a computer security guy, I should probably spend some time on how things could go horribly wrong. Some of Stross’s commenters got into the dystopian aspects of robocars. Much like all the robots in the inexplicably lame I, Robot movie all going evil at the same time (poor Isaac Asimov, spinning like a hidden Iranian centrifuge in his grave), it’s easy to imagine that robocars would be required to have “back door” access for the government, both in terms of reporting your whereabouts (see, for example, attempts to tax cars based on miles driven rather than gas consumed) and in terms of being able to hijack your car for any of a variety of purposes ranging from instructing a bank robber’s car to go straight to the police station to various spy-vs-spy applications, up to and including murdering undesirables by driving them at high speed into any convenient brick wall.

Perhaps less ominously, it’s easy to imagine hacking your robocar to post bogus traffic announcements that cause other cars to reroute themselves away from you, giving you a clean shot at your destination. You might also send fake messages to a car from its tire-pressure sensors causing the target robocar to slow down and pull over because it thinks there may be a flat tire (the fake message part is already feasible). Computer security researchers have already determined that in-car electronics aren’t particularly well-engineered from a security perspective, which seems unlikely to change any time soon, so there may not need to be any sort of government-mandated backdoor. It will probably be there as a consequence of poor engineering.

Malicious behavior aside, teenagers will have great fun hacking their friends’ cars to take them to incorrect destinations and hacking their own cars to ignore speed limits or take them to the party while the electronic logs say they went to the library. Tinkers will still mod their robocars in a variety of ways, such as increasing the g-limit for acceleration, braking, and turning in non-emergency situations. Why? A robocar would make for a hell of a hoontastic experience! J-turn your way into every parallel parking space. Safely and accurately.

It’s equally easy to imagine the liability lawyers getting involved in all kinds of ways. If a software bug caused my car to misbehave and I got hurt, or if a car thief told my car that it wasn’t mine any more and it left me, whose fault is that? Can I sue the manufacturer for negligence? That kind of fear, alone, will slow down the rise of the robocars. It’s a safe prediction that robocars will first come to us as an evolution of taxis and ZipCar-like services, particularly when the technology is still expensive and immature. Another easy prediction: the big consumer demand will start when the Baby Boomers, now in their 60′s, hit the age where their kids agitate for the keys to get taken away. The Baby Boomers will proudly get up, shake their canes at us, and lead us into our inevitable robocar future. Let’s just hope all the security issues have been worked out beforehand.

Linguistic note: I’m using the term “robocar”, while ABC News, in the clip below, uses “self-driving cars.” If you think about the word “automobile” — “automatic” plus “mobile” — robocars are really a step toward realizing the original purpose of the car, namely to get you where you want to be, automatically.


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Europe’s Future According To J.D. Power Wed, 05 May 2010 14:18:35 +0000

One by one, European countries will scrap their scrappage incentives this year (if they haven’t already.) With predictable results: Without the governmental amphetamine, the market will be down.  How much?

All in all, Europeans will buy around 10 percent fewer cars in 2010 than in 2009, predicted J.D. Power at their spring conference in Cologne. Automobilwoche [sub] was there and took notes.

In the pictures-speak-louder-than words dept., J.D. Power’s prediction for 2010 can be seen above. That’s a fairly easy call.

Now on to the trickier prognosis: How will 2011 fare in comparison with 2010? We don’t know what brand of tea-leaves J.D. Power is using, but here is what they think will happen next year:

The European market won’t be back to its former 2008 glory before 2015, reckons J.D. Power.

In case you are curious: REN-NIS is not a new Chinese player, it stands for Renault and Nissan. Anyway: J.D. Power predicts a great future for their long-time clients Ford and Toyota.

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What’s Wrong With This Picture: Yesterday’s Future Today Edition Tue, 30 Mar 2010 20:25:28 +0000

Well, Lear’s vapor turbine never ended up being built in the millions by 1975… but the prediction that electric cars would be best for taxis, delivery vehicles, or a family’s second car for commuting and shopping seems to be coming true. Oh, and we all know how the lead or no-lead fuel debate worked out. But with mass-market electric cars getting closer to reality every day, it’s fun to look back at where we once thought technology might be going. This copy of “Cars of the Future” certainly doesn’t fail to entertain on that count.

carsoffuture3 Yesterday's drama is today's belly laugh (courtesy: Flickr user zealtime) carsoffuture1 carsoffuture2 carsoffuture5 ]]> 28
Jaguar Land Rover Snags $458m EIB Loan Fri, 26 Feb 2010 18:44:01 +0000

Every good turn deserves another, and in response to America’s bailout of its most vulnerable automakers, the EU is investing in its least viable automakers. Having invested $547m in Saab, the European Investment Bank is announcing a $458m loan to Jaguar Land Rover, the troubled luxury divisions of Tata Motors. Automotive News [sub] reports that JLR will use the cash to develop micro- and full-hybrid drivetrains and generally improve fuel efficiency. Does this include a rumored Jaguar gas turbine hybrid? Officials won’t give details, but Tata’s Ravi Kant does go on the record to say

This will support the progress of turnaround in Jaguar Land Rover’s business in challenging market conditions, alongside cost cutting measures, increase of volumes and the improved margins strategy currently being implemented by Jaguar Land Rover

Which leads us to believe that this won’t do anything to prevent the planned shutdown of at least one of JLR’s UK plants.

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