By on July 15, 2014


Please welcome TTAC’s newest contributor, Professor Mike Smitka. Mr. Smitka teaches a course on the Economics of the Auto Industry at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and is regarded as an authority on the automotive world. He also makes time to read and comment on TTAC.

Google’s senior executives are busily touting the wonders of autonomous vehicles. There’s the technological marvel, at least in the eyes of Silicon Valley. There are the economic benefits – no more congestion, no more accidents. Wonder of wonders! – and great for the Google empire, and for its stock price.

The Google PR machine is a marvel to behold, and the gullibility of the audience – well, it’s Google! They have the wherewithal to launch a concept car, or rather 100 copies of one, with footage [er, a few megabytes?] of a blind man and a child in what would normally be the driver’s seat. But is their technical contribution really that big? Will economic benefits be as great as they claim? Indeed, will Google even be a player in future vehicle technologies? Their PR machine is not paid to probe such issues, much less point out that alternative technologies may bring the core benefits more quickly and at a modest cost. Oh, and without generating a penny of revenue for Google…

First, the core innovations necessary for an autonomous vehicle are already on the road, the result of decades-long engineering efforts alongside which Google’s investment and expertise pale in comparison. Go back 20-odd years and Delphi (then still a part of GM) was already mapping the creation of a “cocoon” that would protect the driver. Blindspot detection, lane departure warnings, backup “assist” (shh, don’t call it a safety feature, there might be lawyers around) and adaptive cruise control were all part of their vision. They’d acquired Hughes Aircraft [which eventually morphed into DirectTV] to get the engineers needed to start migrating military radar and control technology into cars. Over time the electromechanical enablers went from dreams to practical (if not always affordable) devices. First came electrically-activated brakes (and eventually electronic stability systems), then E-steer, and all sorts of engine and transmission controls, radar systems on a single circuit board, vision systems. Delphi’s dream is now a reality.

Again, these have been on the road for years, though some in numbers too small to affect overall safety or congestion. All these systems are falling in price. So we don’t have to await an entirely new generation of vehicles to begin reaping the benefits. Crucial to Google’s vision is that these are all partial solutions. But once adaptive cruise control is pervasive, will what Google offers will be more than a marginal improvement, with (Google hopes!) a non-marginal jump in the price tag?

So it is not obvious to me that Google will have any role in vehicles short of full autonomy – after all, their presence has not been needed for these existing tools! Nor will car companies be eager to jump into bed with Google. Quite the opposite – the industry has a long history of breaking up systems into smaller pieces and mandating licensing so as to avoid dependence on any single supplier. It’s not that Google’s role won’t be appreciated; their roadmap has already got regulators thinking in a more integrated way about this panoply of new vehicle technologies. That’s not a trivial contribution, but it’s not going to boost their stock multiple.

Second, Google’s is not the only approach. In particular, connected vehicle technologies promise most of the benefits at a far lower price point and with a faster rollout. Such systems are inexpensive because they can use the copious computing power already in car, while the hardware consists of inexpensive RFID transponders. The pieces of such systems are now being tested on the road, with a large test facility, the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center – an artificial cityscape – under construction in Ann Arbor, adjacent to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Such systems don’t require the manifold sensors of an autonomous vehicle. Indeed the core components could be sold as an aftermarket item, albeit with lower functionality. Such connectivity could be rolled out in the course of years.

In contrast autonomy will require decades. Yes, Nissan is talking about having their first autonomous vehicle on the road as early as 2018, regulators permitting; more realistically, we’ll start seeing “real” vehicles from 2020, given the lead time for vehicle development when new systems are involved. (It’s not just that the hardware and software have to be integrated into existing vehicles, it’s also that test procedures need to be developed for both the hardware and the software.) By 2025 the industry will have enough vehicle-years of experience to address regulatory fears and start the path to consumer acceptance. (In the background, the industry will need to coalesce around how to implement such systems; SAE standard-setting committees will be very busy!) Then production capacity has to be ramped up – global vehicle production by that point will be over 100 million units a years. So that’s another 10 years, bringing us to 2035. And then the fleet must turn over; with the average age of vehicles now over 11 years and rising, that will mean another decade for half of all vehicles to be autonomous. We’re thus looking at 2045 and beyond. In contrast, a combination of aftermarket and designed-in RFID systems could be on every vehicle by 2025, offering varying levels of collision avoidance and traffic flow smoothing.

Third and finally, what will be the benefits? Google likes to trumpet the elimination of accidents and the end of congestion. Perhaps. The trucking industry stands to benefit, though again this will be incremental to what is already on the road (truck trains are already running in Europe). However, if you’re in LA or Beijing, well, the restructuring of where people on average live versus where they work will take decades. Furthermore, to the extent adaptive cruise control speeds traffic, the initial impact will be to make longer commutes along major arteries more attractive, so that these roads will have to carry every more cars. Folks, congestion is here to stay.

In the meantime, a household will still need a vehicle (or two!) for commuting, so we won’t be able to get rid of all those cars. Nor will autonomous vehicles be so inexpensive that suburbanites will have one for the daily drive and another for kids and yardwork, else battery electric vehicles would already be the dominant vehicle on the Beltway around DC.

Yes, accidents will fall. Perhaps in some distant utopia we’ll no longer need airbags or crumple zones. Will connected vehicles deliver all these benefits? No. In particular, aftermarket devices could only offer warnings, not take over steering and braking. But they’ll come close, and at a price point and with a time horizon quite different from the drink Google wants us to imbibe.

Mike Smitka is an economist at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He’s been a judge of the Automotive News PACE supplier innovation awards since they began in 1994. His household’s vehicles are a 2014 Chevy Cruze, a 2013 Honda CR-V and a 1988 Chevy pickup. Find his auto industry course at Econ 244; he also blogs at Autos and Economics


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61 Comments on “Don’t Drink the Google Kool-aid: Autonomy’s Limits in Three Sips...”

  • avatar

    Great opinion piece, Prof. Smitka, thanks for sharing.

    I do believe that consumer acceptance could happen more quickly. Smartphones didn’t exist 7 years ago. Now, how many people do you know over the age of 12 who DON’T have one?

    But I think the real question we as a nation will need to answer is whether we accept non-autonomous cars on the road. On the one hand, if all vehicles are autonomous, then safety features can be downsized, and cars will be a lot more efficient and traffic can move a lot faster.

    On the other hand, personal freedom to drive. I think I know where most of the B&B stand.

    • 0 avatar

      Everyone has smartphones because they give them away to lock you into 2 year contracts.

      • 0 avatar

        Right. The carriers are smart that way. Why couldn’t Google or Ford “give” you a free car and charge you monthly for its use? Kind of like a lease.

        • 0 avatar

          It would be more likely that an oil company would give you a vehicle at a healthy discount in return for a contract for fuel. AT&T doesn’t make any phones. They need Apple, Nokia, etc. to do that.

        • 0 avatar

          I tend to think that most here are thinking about the current model of car ownership. *Why* would I want to own one of these when I can just beckon one with my phone? They aren’t sexy or fun to drive… it is basic transportation.

          As the prof mentions, these will likely be expensive. With high fixed costs and low incremental costs (the google cars are small and electric and cost per mile should be low), it makes sense to keep them on the road as a taxi service. Here in Boston, people would be thrilled to be able to catch a ride that is relatively cheap (I read somewhere that the cost of labor is about 75-80% of a taxi ride) and can reliably show up (which they often don’t do here).

          Frankly, I think that Dr Smitka has set up a straw man. Success isn’t a completely automated future in which the legacy manufacturers partner with Google to sell cars to every family. Instead, it is a disruption of the status quo. All Google needs to do is pick out its niche (e.g., in town taxi service) and find one supplier that can build in volume. Then start the taxi service that undercuts *everyone* by 40%. The cascading effects of this will be profound for everything from car ownership to land use (e.g., no more mandatory minimum parking for new buildings?). I also think that his timelines for adoption will collapse. Just as with smartphones and digital cameras, there will be those who can pick up the pace and join the ranks of the automated (e.g., Samsung, Nikon) and those who can’t (e.g., Nokia, Kodak).

          I’m not sure what Google’s angle is for making money, but I can imagine that when panic hits the industry, all of their standoffish behavior with Google will evaporate. Right now, they think that they are large and in charge, but disruptive technologies have a way of upsetting long-established markets and business practices much faster than we would tend to anticipate.

          PS – I think Bran Ferren does a nice job of talking about how a quantum leap, like autonomous cars, is a convergence of many innovations that dovetail together.

    • 0 avatar

      Comparing a toss-away smartphone to an automobile is, well, dumb.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t own a smartphone. I also wouldn’t want an autonomous car.


      Offering one in exchange for fuel vouchers, though, would probably move a bunch of them. Sadly, a car can be compared to a phone. Cars are often leased for a short while, and then unloaded for another.

      I’m one of the holdouts that still prefers ownership of an older car to a shiny new lease.

  • avatar

    Oh dear….

    Gingerly hands flame retardant suit to Prof Mitka, and tiptoes away from the scene.

  • avatar

    Let’s go Generals!

    Google’s vision seems directly related to 1980s tv shows. Wristwatch radios, autonomous cars, AI systems, terminator vision, killer robots.

    Autonomous valet parking ( get off in a store/restaurant and the car parks in the lot) would be a nice thing, but very anti-urban.

    The bigger problem is that google’s vision seem predicated on laser mapping to a milimeter your driving environment; outside golf courses and campuses I don’t see how that is useful or practical.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Google is taking an “industrial” approach to this, that is, the New Car will emerge fully formed, in a giant leap.

    Probably not. Consider the “Waze” app, which I just installed a few weeks ago after hearing about it on this site. Real time traffic information, about accidents, cops running speed traps, construction delays . . . all from users. In my brief try with the app on a short trip to Gunpowder Falls State Park north of Baltimore, I was impressed.

    I think the concept of assisting the driver, rather than taking him out of the picture, is likely to be a lot more fruitful.

    GPS- based navigation devices have their limits; just try using one in Manhattan, not to mention that my Garmin GPS can’t find my firm’s Seattle office building, which is a major building in downtown Seattle.

    Thanks for the contribution, professor!

    • 0 avatar

      @ Bruce – Excellent comments ESPECIALLY your observation about GPS in Manhattan.

      Frankly I don’t see autonomous vehicles ever becoming the norm. Perhaps public transportation in certain areas. It WOULD be pretty cool to doze off or have a beer while your car drives you home from the office. But to many Americans, their vehicle is a personal statements. Yes, I know we hear the Millennials look at automobiles as a utility. Its as if they think as a monolith and their thinking will never change. Currently, they are burdened with student debt greater than all other generations combined, and many didn’t even finish school. Many still live in their parent’s basement. Their gadgets are their biggest investments so far. This will quite likely change and their vehicle will become much more important.

      We can all sit around and guess at the future. I suspect there will be develops that come to us like a bolt out of the blue. What disappointment! Had we known about it we could have become rich.

      • 0 avatar

        @Ruggles: For all your supposed experience in the automotive industry, I’m quite surprised that you think only “the Millennials look at automobiles as a utility.” I am certainly no Millennial and my own father thought the same thing 50 years ago. The problem is: today’s cars are LESS of an expression of individuality than they were even through the ’80s. For a small example, why should everybody be forced to drive a sedan when all they want or need is a 2-door coupe and don’t want the inconvenience of a “sport coupe” like the Camaro, Mustang and Challenger? Oh sure, if you go small enough you MIGHT find a 2-door econobox; but what if you want a decent mid-sized car and simply want two doors? This fact alone almost completely negates your own argument.

        Because of the recent poor economy, as you say the students getting out of college simply can’t afford both a home AND a car. They either live in their parents’ basements OR they have an apartment hopefully reasonably close to their work–if they have any. These people are much more likely to remain satisfied with public transportation as long as it gets them within easy walking distance of their employer. BUT, this discussion isn’t about them; this discussion is about whether or not autonomous cars are viable and this is where I disagree with you again–at least in part.

        Driving today is not the pleasure it used to be. A car used to be fun to own and fun to drive. Today a car is the second-greatest purchase any individual can make–with a mortgage the highest. Cars today, with a very few exceptions, have become “mere transportation”. The all look too similar to each other and your choices come down to four sizes and three bodies:Sub-compact, compact, mid-size and full sized; sedan, CUV/SUV and pickup truck.

        • 0 avatar

          First, I do NOT believe ALL Millennials look at a vehicle as a utility. I believe I said Millennials don’t think the same. You might want to re-read what I wrote. And I certainly NEVER said other demographics don’t look at vehicles as a utility to at least some degree. My father, recently passsed away, and no Millennial, had no use for a vehicle except for its intended purpose.

          OTHERS have said that Millennials look at vehicles more as a utility than other generations. My point is that IF that is true, it might have more to do with the economics of that particular generation than anything else. I predict that as they get their financial legs they will also learn to appreciate a vehicle for reasons other than utility. In fact, many who already have their financial legs have made the jump.

          Cars today are MUCH more of a statement than the pieces of shit built in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’ s cars are MUCH more fun to drive and own than during the 1970s and 1980s. We saw a few reasonable vehicles during that era, but precious few. Datsun 240/280Z. Mazda RX7, 911 Turbo, from the 1970s. Thunderbird Turbo Coupe, MB 300E, 190E-2.3 – 16, BMWs, RX7s, Mustang 302 GT, and some others. The performance sport sedan was born in the 1980s even though the BMW 2002 2 dr sedan from the 70’s might have been the forerunner. Cars in the 1960s were much more fun. Beginning with 1990, cars came back alive again as a statement. Achievements in performance even with 91 octane fuel, cat convertors, etc. have been amazing. The cars of the 1970s were mostly awful.

          I’ll take today’s cars over those of the 70’s and 80s in a heartbeat. I’d take my old 90 Eagle Talon AWD TSI back if I could find a good one. It would be preferable to me even over my 67 Dodge R/T and the host of Hemis and other hot rides we had as demos back in the day. I’m damn proud of today’s vehicles even though I had nothing to do with creating them. Kudos to the engineers who did. STIs? Evos? AMGs. M Series. Caddie V Series. Amazing! The list goes on.

          • 0 avatar

            What you wrote triggered my response. True, you did not say “All Millennials”, but the way you wrote it IMPLIED “all Millennials” and that’s the main point I was disputing.

            I believe what you are missing here is the socio-economic side of the argument; as you did state, they simply cannot afford to get what they want, so they get what they can–if anything. That’s not the same as, “Millennials look at vehicles more as a utility”. In fact, quite the opposite. When somebody can’t get what they want, when they finally do, they want something that better represents themselves. And consider; right now only one brand seems to be giving any attention to the fact that not everyone wants a people hauler when they buy a car or truck.

            Cars today are far less of a statement than they were 30 and 40 years ago; they look so much alike that it’s hard to tell a Ford from a Mazda or a Chevy from a Hyundai. The ones that actually grab your attention are the ones that are VISIBLY different. Granted, in many cases the more extreme-looking ones aren’t all that popular; Nissan is dropping the Juke and the Cube, for example. On the other hand, Jeep seems to be doing quite well with the new Cherokee, despite its rather polarizing fascia. And while today’s cars in general are much more responsive and capable, that doesn’t make them any less generic for the fact that they are roughly equal across all brands and LOOK like family cars. And it wasn’t until ’76 that American cars became so bland. They started recovering in the mid-’80s but by then the auto industry started cheapening down in other ways–dropping coupes simply because they didn’t sell as many as their sedan versions and limiting color choices simply because dealerships didn’t want to get stuck with an off-color lot queen. I personally am a fan of rich, earthy colors like a nice forest green, a deep burgundy red, a handsome foxy russet and yes, walnut, oak and other wood colors that some commenters like to call “excrement” brown. Even different shades of blue would be nice to remind you of the beach or deep ocean water. With the ’00s, cars have essentially lost their individuality UNLESS you go for their more extreme models.

            I owned a ’75 Cutlass Supreme with a “Rocket 350” that was a remarkably good car. I owned an ’86 Buick LeSabre “T-type” that was a lot of fun to drive and yet still didn’t look “generic”. I followed that with an ’85 Toronado that was just as capable with their sport suspension that claimed kinship to the Corvette’s. In ’96 choices were looking much more blasé and ended up with a choice of a purple Firebird or a teal Camaro. The Pontiac dealer didn’t want to sell so I ended up with the Camaro and put over 160,000 miles on it in just under 6 years. Note that all four cars had one thing in common–they were NOT sedans, they were two-door coupes. I have not owned a “car” since as my ’02 Saturn Vue was classed as a truck as is both my current Jeep Wrangler and Ford F-150.

            So, what “cars” interest me? I’d be lying if I didn’t say the Tesla, despite the fact that it’s a sedan. The capabilities of the Tesla pretty much override the sedan aspect and it’s visibly enough different to know it’s not a typical sedan. After that it comes down to cars like the Hyundai Veloster and other 3-door hatchbacks that are otherwise too small to be a ‘people hauler’ and offer some visible individuality. The Jeep Renegade also has my interest, though it doesn’t exactly qualify as a “car” despite its smaller size.

            What does GM have that interests me? Nothing. Even the Sonic comes with four doors and while the Camaro is appealing in some ways, it no longer appeals the way it did. Ford? Same issue. Sure, they have the Fiesta ST, but as I currently understand it a two-door model of that is somewhat unlikely here in the States. Chrysler? Same problem; everything has four doors. I might as well get a “jacked up wagon on steroids” than any “car” model they make. At least then it’s both practical AND fun. In fact, that’s exactly WHY so many people have gone to SUV/CUVs; sedans themselves are boring.

      • 0 avatar

        Why don’t you think that autonomous vehicles will ever become the norm?

        The technology is pretty much there, and it need only be done right once and replicated at a low enough price.

        Our cars today are like horses before the tractor. Farmers couldn’t imagine living without them and the first tractors sucked. But every year they got better and horses became sidelined pretty quickly. The replacement of cars will be even faster.

        That is not to say that there won’t be a place for non-automated cars. Just as it is with horses, we’ll see them around and they will be manufactured, bought, driven and loved by aficionados everywhere – but 95% of humanity won’t care to own one.

  • avatar

    Smitka: “Go back 20-odd years and Delphi (then still a part of GM) was already mapping the creation of a “cocoon” that would protect the driver. Blindspot detection, lane departure warnings, backup “assist” (shh, don’t call it a safety feature, there might be lawyers around) and adaptive cruise control were all part of their vision.”

    20 Years? Why isn’t any of that in my car? Why isn’t *all* of that in my car?

    • 0 avatar

      Did you read the part about Delphi being part of GM?

      • 0 avatar

        Isn’t that common knowledge?

        • 0 avatar

          Sorry, Ruggles, my point, admittedly sarcastic, was that Delphi’s corporate ownership was responsible for the slow product development.

          • 0 avatar

            Delphi’s legal department probably had something to do with it. Even if a privately owned company were to have come up with these ideas, the OEM legal departments would have to grapple with them anyway. Many of these features have been available for a while, brought to market by other OEMs.

          • 0 avatar

            And my point was, between Delphi and GM, it hadn’t happened. At least not in a meaningfully big way.

            I am 100% fully in favor of being driven around while I look out the window or read a magazine. We’re never going to have mass transit here that does this for me, so it’s a concept like The Google Car that’s going to do it.

            If Detroit (or Japan) won’t bring it forward, who will? Right now, it’s looking like maybe Google can and maybe they’ll be getting my business.

    • 0 avatar

      What kind of car do you have? Buy one that has it. Its all available now. These things have taken some years to develop and roll out.

      • 0 avatar

        I have a 2012 Prius and these aids weren’t standard on the base car. So far as I can tell, they still aren’t standard on base midsizers.

        And mere aids to driving aren’t what I want…

    • 0 avatar
      Mike Smitka

      $$$$ – radar used to be really expensive. Being able to do something for a one-off prototype working demonstration [where 100% performance is not expected] is a lot different than having something in mass production. Even “cheap” radar however adds up if you need a unit in each corner of the car and another for adaptive cruise control. Then add vision systems front and rear.

      Then there’s consumer acceptance. Remember when seatbelts were an option, and no one would pay for them? So how do you get the costs down for an electronic system, where the per-part manufacturing costs are low but the up-front development costs staggering, if you can’t get uptake? Lobbying to get them mandated as safety items is one way, a coalition of the insurance industry and parts makers and regulators can sometimes accomplish what the market will not, to everyone’s betterment.

      • 0 avatar

        Mike, I have a question for you: Why do you think radar in a car would be so expensive? Don’t you have a radar unit inside your home right now?

        For whatever reason, you seem to think that an automotive radar is equivalent to an aircraft’s targeting radar–long range and MegaWatt-powerful. With a car such power simply isn’t necessary; the working part of the system now costs only about $50 US and operates at around 1,000W or less. In fact, an automotive version is probably weaker than the radar transmitter in your home’s microwave oven. The only costly part then becomes the software that analyzes the return signals and processes them into usable data. Since that radar isn’t attempting to isolate every single ‘target’, even that system is likely to be very inexpensive in the long run. While for a while the price tag will be high, it’s only because it’s a new technology that offers a high profit over actual cost until it becomes more universally installed. I’d expect the whole system costs no more than $75 installed yet the OEMs are charging hundreds (plural) of dollars for it.

        • 0 avatar

          Vulpine, I think the answer to your criticisms lie in this statement that Mike made:

          > So how do you get the costs down for an electronic system, where the per-part manufacturing costs are low but the up-front development costs staggering, if you can’t get uptake?

          Vehicle radar will be expensive and/or only available on high-end models until the designers have recouped their research and development costs.

  • avatar

    The biggest barrier to this happening any time soon is the cost of these vehicles for a large number of Americans. For autonomous vehicles to really improve commuting, the majority of vehicles on the road will have to be autonomous and communicating with each other. Think of all the older cars on the road. It will be decades before autonomous vehicles are truly affordable and poorer Americans are able to upgrade.

  • avatar

    Mr. Smitka offers some very valid points, but his article is launched off of a poor premise. I, for one, don’t care WHO makes the cars autonomous; I’m just looking forward to the day when cars ARE autonomous.

    Mr. Smitka also makes many assumptions that may or may not be valid. I’ve seen one particular argument before, “Furthermore, to the extent adaptive cruise control speeds traffic, the initial impact will be to make longer commutes along major arteries more attractive, so that these roads will have to carry every more cars. Folks, congestion is here to stay.” Personally, I think this viewpoint is too narrow; even Mr. Smitka acknowledges that there are many technologies coming together to make autonomous cars possible but they’re making more than just autonomous cars possible. He says, “congestion is here to stay”, but with all the additional cars on the road, places to park them will be ever more difficult to find and eventually some OTHER mode of transport to reach the workplace will have to handle that overflow. Too far out? By no means. As I’ve said elsewhere, it WILL reach the point where privately-owned vehicles will be banned from operating in the ‘downtown’ parts of the city at which point public transportation in the form of autonomous taxis, busses and light rail will take control. This isn’t a bad thing.

    You simply cannot look at any one thing and say, “This solves everything.” The only thing Google has done is create the first street legal autonomous cars. They’re not the first autonomous cars ever and they’re not the only ones running today; they’re just the first to be STREET LEGAL. The Google car is not perfect, but it does work as advertised–within its own limits.

    • 0 avatar

      >>> The only thing Google has done is create the first street legal autonomous cars.

      Actually, they really haven’t. Self driving maybe, but they’re still highly dependent on a human being at the ready to take over when things go wrong. It’s a fragile system that only works under highly sanitized conditions. It’ll squish squirrels, ignore traffic cops, and I suspect happily kill you by running right over a washed away bridge or through a flooded underpass.

      • 0 avatar

        “It’ll squish squirrels, ignore traffic cops, and I suspect happily kill you by running right over a washed away bridge or through a flooded underpass.”

        This is textbook FUD. That big shiny thing on top of the Google car is a radar system. Avoiding obvious road hazards is job one. It’s not like it just blindly follows GPS directions without any thought as to what’s on the road (as opposed to some humans). Traffic cops would probably need to begin using electronic devices that allow them to direct both human and computer controlled traffic (hardly earth shattering). And of course, ultimately the idea is that traffic cops would not be needed.

        • 0 avatar

          No redrum, it’s fact. Google’s lead engineer has admitted to the both the squirrel and traffic cop issues in direct response to questions. Those tidits of information weren’t in the PR releases. It’s also not a radar unit on the car, it’s a LaserDyne scanner that doesn’t have the resolution needed for a production vehicle – again admitted by Google.

          When I co-designed an aviation ground/airport collision avoidance system (that is in active use at airports around the world – yes, I have real experience), we were able to use radar. Everything had to have a transponder – airports are obviously a more controlled environment so you can get away with attaching a transponder to every vehicle. We still ran into plenty of issues using radar like false positives during really heavy rain storms.

          There will always be hazards that require traffic cops (autonomous vehicles won’t prevent trees from coming down across a road in storms). While some sort of mechanism for alerts could be created, unfortunately the real world intervenes and maybe in an emergency the officer doesn’t have time to program in the alert. What if the communication mechanism isn’t working.

          The “driving through an underpass” scenario is real. I’ve gone through exercises trying to code a solution for that one. Measure the height between the bridge and roadway – but how? Radar can be fooled in heavy rain when the rain drops start bouncing off the roadway, the laser scanner won’t work either (although with multipulse technology, it might not be a big of an issue).

          Are all of these problems insurmountable and will we be stuck driving ourselves around forever? No, I think we’ll develop the technology that will solve these problems.

          There is ongoing research to understand how the brain processes information. Specifically researchers are taking model organisms, tracing the neuron paths for a response to specific stimuli, then altering the paths and seeing what happens. In fact, my eldest is one of those researchers and I get regular first hand updates. So, it’s possible to learn how the brain processes problems related to driving. Using this knowledge, we can build systems that will allow us to create true autonomous machine driven vehicles.

          The reason I use the term “autonomous machine driven” is that I believe the best solution is something that can climb into a lightly modified (or unmodified) vehicke and perform errands rather than require you to go for a drive. This idea came from the latest DARPA challenge (I’m listed as a participant, but bailed due to the fact we just didn’t have the technology we wanted to use) that required a robot to climb into an unmodified vehicle and drive it. Brilliant idea! The automotive industry is myopic and really doesn’t have a full grasp of the real problem that needs to be solved. A car that drives itself is good, but a robot that can drive (or at first walk) to the store for a case of beer and bring it back is even better. I think that rather than autonomous cars, we’ll actually have robotic personal assistants. Starting with RPAs that run errands by walking:

          Fewer liability issues at lower velocities! Walk before we run or drive.

          What about cars that can drive themselves with a human in the drivers seat that can take over if there’s an issue? No problem, and the various state legislation so far allows that. I have no problem with that particular technology. Cars roaming with no human to intervene and no steering wheel – that I have an issue with – especially when it comes to Google’s technology.

          Look, it’s not FUD. It’s actual experience building systems like this – except mine is in use every day around the world.

      • 0 avatar

        “Self driving maybe, but they’re still highly dependent on a human being at the ready to take over when things go wrong.” I’ll grant that, only as the laws themselves currently require it for added safety. However, that doesn’t mean they’re correct. Allow me to offer a real-world example:

        Way back when the F-111 was a new bird in the Air Force inventory, it included a brand new system concept–Terrain Following Radar. The purpose of this system was to allow the plane to fly at VERY low altitudes while taking workload off the pilots. The obvious advantage of flying so low is that the plane could fly below enemy radars and penetrate more deeply into enemy airspace. This information is so old now that nearly every air force with their own design capability has a similar system. BUT… Many of those early models crashed while flying under TFR, killing the crew. It took a while before the Air Force understood the cause and the reason it relates to these autonomous cars. You see, the plane would be flying towards a mountain or other obstacle that was clearly higher than the plane was flying and getting ever-so-quickly closer. The pilot would panic and grab for the stick to pull up and in his grabbing the stick, the system would let go, but the pilot’s reactions weren’t quick enough to pull the stick back in time. In other words, the pilot was actually the weakest link in piloting that aircraft and a backup driver would be the same in any autonomous car emergency situation *as long as the system itself is working properly.* The process of grabbing the wheel would make the crash almost inevitable.

        So far as I know, only one of Google’s self-driving cars has ever been in a collision of any type and that was a low-speed fender-bender caused by the other driver. Odds are that if all cars were self-driven in the same manner, such collisions would be almost totally eliminated and highway injuries and fatalities would be massively reduced. In highway driving, the human element is the weakest link in the process.

    • 0 avatar

      Regarding: “Furthermore, to the extent adaptive cruise control speeds traffic, the initial impact will be to make longer commutes along major arteries more attractive, so that these roads will have to carry every more cars. Folks, congestion is here to stay.”

      This would be an example of Jevons Paradox: In economics, the Jevons paradox, sometimes called the Jevons effect, is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

  • avatar

    As much as I wish for an autonomous vehicle, I readily see a couple of not-so-minor issues standing in the way.

    First, I’ve yet to hear any mention of these systems will handle a sudden change in road conditions (and traction) due to weather…not that human drivers are totally successfully with the same issue. Second, given the number of kamikaze deer roaming the U.S., I’d be interested as to if – or how – such crashes could be avoided.

    I’m hardly what one would call a Luddite, but simply interested in how technology could work effectively and safely.

  • avatar

    There is a large (and growing) retiree population (many of them with plenty of money) who would be eager customers for a small, autonomous city car like the Google prototype. Check out the video:

    Google seems to be targeting a new automobile market (cars for people who are unable to drive) as a first step, it seems like a pretty reasonable strategy.

  • avatar

    One thing I have learned in my brief time on this planet is never underestimate Americans’ need of more convenience. Autonomous cars are the ULTIMATE convenience consumer product, letting you get wherever you go and do whatever you want on the way there, without resorting to public transportation.

    Autonomous cars are going to be a HUGE market one day, though when that day comes is anybody’s guess. Unfortunately, TTAC is part of the automotive enthusiast bubble, where we can hardly imagine somebody not enjoying their time behind the wheel.

    In the real world, most people detest driving the same way they detest a visit to the dentist. They only do it because they have to, and if there was a better option, they’d be all over it.

    • 0 avatar


      Atypically, for this site, I can imagine somebody not enjoying their time behind the wheel because I just recently didn’t enjoy several days’ worth of it.

      Although, several particularly ugly parts would have been less ugly if certain other people had been in Google-mobiles.

      • 0 avatar
        Mike Smitka

        @ KixStart, indeed!

        I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who enjoys commuting in stop-and-go traffic. As you also observe, long drives get to be … long. I know there are talking books, but I have enough trouble paying attention to the road with at most innocuous music in the background. Even in the best of times, my mind and eyes will stray from the road, or I may watch the road and not other cars. So driver assists would be great – adaptive cruise control, lane departure, collision avoidance.

        We don’t however need autonomous cars to accomplish this, just (for now) deep pockets.

  • avatar

    A quick glance at the front of the Google Driverless Car will tell you that even the vehicle itself is not sold on this technology.

  • avatar

    Slightly related question. They’ve taken away driver control, so where does it know to park. At home this would be easy, but if I’m at work, or shopping, does it take the space closest to the door? If so, which door? I live in Florida, many of us are willing to fight for a spot under a tree.

    • 0 avatar

      Your car would drop you off where you wanted to be then go find a spot wherever. It would then return to pick you up when summoned. In short it wouldn’t matter to you where it was and you would likely never know unless for whatever reason you checked on it with your cell phone. If no place was available or if you were making a quick stop it may just circle the block a few times.

  • avatar

    Wonder how the Google car makes value judgments when the only options are the best of perfectly awful ones. Do I hit the gravel truck head on, the old lady on the right, or the child on the left?

    • 0 avatar
      Mike Smitka

      Well, if a human was driving, reaction times are slower and thinking no faster so I don’t see value judgments as happening. More important, even with RFID connected cars, you should be able to spot the impending head-on in time to slow [helped because the truck is doing the same thing]. Now at least in Europe, when you do hit one of them, the sensor in the bumper pops the hood [at the windshield side] so the old lady might actually roll with the situation and survive. (This tech is on the latest Volvo…)

      PS Ruggles and I jointly blog at – lots of stuff on the distribution side and on industry structure, very few pictures though and almost no mention of actual cars, so it’s a complement rather than a substitute for TTAC.

    • 0 avatar

      How often does this happen in reality? This isn’t Kobayashi Maru, and your middle name isn’t Tiberius.

  • avatar

    RE: “Millennials look at vehicles more as a utility”.

    As I said, I think that has more to do with their monetary situation. However, it might be the result of them being “greener” than the general population OR that’s their “reason” because of their financial situation. There was a time when my generation couldn’t find a job…. 1974 – 1975 was hell. I ran a restaurant and the average education level of my waiters was a masters degree.

    RE: “And it wasn’t until ’76 that American cars became so bland.”

    I was there. The blandness set in in 1971 when the HP dropped sharply due to unleaded gas and low compression ratios. It got worse with the advent of cat convertors. Performance sucked compared to similar vehicles from the 1960s. By the time of the next oil crisis FWD had arrived. There is nothing worse than driving a FWD vehicle. I know there are people who love their SUVs but they don’t drive well. They sit too high. They aren’t balanced. Frankly, I am aghast at the CLA. MB should never have built a FWD vehicle, but their tearing it up with them.

    I know this will probably hurt your feelings but the Camaros and Firebirds were remarkably awful cars. So was my 67 R/T. There is only one way to make a proper car. It needs to be balanced, be RWD or AWD, And it absolutely has to have IRS. It will probably have 4 valves per cylinder, a turbo, DOHC, variable valve timing, and other nifty technology.

    Having said this, I just bought a 97 Town Car. I didn’t buy it because it is high tech. I rather prefer to check my oil with a dip stick rather than have to push a bunch of buttons in the right order. I didn’t buy it because of its IRS. It doesn’t have it. It wallows. It doesn’t corner. BUT IT HAS A SPLIT BENCH SEAT. :) I’ll dress my wife up in a black suit, white shirt, and a little hat, she’ll drive and I’ll sit in the back. Black TC with dark tint windows. A trunk big enough for 4 bodies. Low tech nostalgia. I bought because it was a one owner 80K ride for $500. I don’t drive the latest technology. I DO admire it, however. The technology on my 03 E320 makes me cuss daily as it is.

    • 0 avatar

      RE: “Millennials look at vehicles more as a utility” — I will agree with you there. That’s when I chose to join the USAF as I got laid off from my Union job because my company was losing business to Japanese manufacturing.

      RE: “And it wasn’t until ’76 that American cars became so bland.” — Here we’re going to disagree. About the time that I purchased my ’75 Cutlass, my father purchased a 68 Cutlass Supreme and their power was almost identical; they both had the “Rocket 350” under the hood. You want weak, then I’d accept that Ford’s 302 Windsor was a wimp–durable, mostly, but a wimp. 20 years later when I took over a ’73 Gran Torino that engine couldn’t even pull itself up a 10% slope without a head start. I dropped in a 351W and that car finally had some life.

      As for your “Camaros and Firebirds were remarkably awful cars”, I have to question your reasoning and the generation. I’ll state that most of them were reasonably good looking through the generations, but the only one I’ve ever owned was a ’96 with the 3.8l V6 under the hood and that was a surprising performer. Sure, it couldn’t outrun the V8 version, but at 200 hp it fairly well matched the base V8 of the early versions. And achieving 32mpg on the highway was a very pleasant surprise.

      My current vehicles are a 1990 F-150 that is effectively impossible for me to do more than change oil and spark plugs due to how that EFI rig fits on top of the engine and an ’08 Jeep Wrangler. Neither of those is exactly a high-tech vehicle either. Then again, I hate the truck simply because it is a Ford and too big for my purposes but was the cheapest thing available to meet the need when I purchased it. It’s too new to be restorable despite the fact that with this coming September it becomes an “antique”. It is, for me, strictly a hauler and I’ve only put 3,000 miles on it since I purchased it 2.5 years ago. In many ways the Jeep is easier to work on and gives me better gas mileage, so it’s my primary driver.

      As you can see, I don’t exactly drive the latest technology, but I do recognize where technology is headed and can put two and two together to make 22–years that is. Things have changed a lot in the last 22 years and they’ll change even more over the next 22 years. You simply can’t say certain things “can’t happen” or “won’t happen”, you can only guess at the probability that they will happen. Part of that is due to technological progress, part of it’s due to social standards. We just can’t KNOW–today–what the future really holds. Everything’s a guess and some people are better at “guessing” than others because they are able to take facts that appear unrelated and put them together. They’re also the ones who are better at analyzing the past–for the same reason.

  • avatar

    While I love the looks of the Tesla Model S I wouldn’t buy one new under any circumstances. I’ve been in the auto business WAY too long. The book I’m writing and will probably never finish is entitled, “everybody Drives a Used Car.” If I had money to burn I still wouldn’t buy one unless I could steal it. That’s the car dealer in me coming out. I don’t do depreciation well. The software I helped develop was called “Arbitrage.” It identified pre-owned vehicles that leased particularly well. If one could find vehicles that one could buy today, but some lender would guarantee for a value higher than I paid today 36 months from now, it makes for a rather compelling lease. You don’t make money by overpaying for stuff. I prefer to find stuff I can buy for less than its worth, which is why I’m constantly shopping. One has to know values. If you don’t know a good deal when you encounter it, you lose that opportunity. In the per-owned business you make your money when you make your purchase, not when you sell. Its the amateurs who buy with their ego at the auction that have to over charge for stuff to get their money back. I’d rather buy something back of market, turn it quick for a good margin that is probably still back of retail, and turn the money over and over quickly. Yes, I’m a bottom feeder. Its a lot of work to be constantly watching values.

    Why go to the hospital when you can wait for the funeral? That’s how you make money buying dealerships during tough economic times. That’s what guys do when they buy a company for less than its break up value. They make their money when they make their purchase.

    • 0 avatar

      And this is another reason why I’ll disagree with you, Ruggles, and why the working title of your book is essentially a lie. True, I’m fully aware of the rapid depreciation on most cars AND I’m aware that once the car is registered it is considered “used”, so in the literal sense it is the truth; but I refuse to buy other people’s problems, having been stung by them far too often. Only once in 40+ years of driving have I ever owned a GOOD “used car”. Only once in 40+ years of driving have I NOT had to spend excessive amounts of extra money to repair issues the previous owner left behind. That one “used car” died in a crash almost exactly one year after I purchased it when somebody tried to make a blind left turn at an intersection in front of me. So even there, I ended up having to spend thousands of dollars to replace it even after insurance paid it off. With the Camaro, I went years before needing a repair. With the Vue, I went years before needing a repair. With the Wrangler, I went years without needing a repair. In no case did I need an expensive repair before 50,000 miles and with the Vue the one repair it did need was covered under warranty. I simply cannot make that claim on ANY used car I’ve owned.

      Conversely, my father was a lot like you; he said that “cars are merely transportation, let somebody else take the depreciation.” But then, as an insurance salesman with a debit route, he tended to trade cars multiple times a year because he wore them out so quickly. He only bought a brand-new car three times in his life and they were always the “family car”. One of them was that ’73 Gran Torino I mentioned above. In fact, that Gran Torino was his first ever brand-new car and 20 years later it finally achieved 90,000 miles with me behind the wheel. I put almost double the mileage on my Camaro in 1/3rd the time.

      So to me, buying new is buying peace of mind. Buying new guarantees I get a car in NEW, not “like new” condition. The few extra thousands paid up front pays for itself by giving me a car that lasts and doesn’t need to run to the shop every month. I’ve managed to hold onto my NEW cars usually a minimum of 5 years and with the last few my average is 8 years and counting. I’ve never put less than 70,000 miles on any of my cars purchased new while I’ve almost never managed to reach 30,000 miles on any vehicle purchased used. (I’ll grant I haven’t reached that 70,000 miles on the Wrangler yet, but I’m still driving it at 7 years and have just shy of 60K on it now. And as I said above, it is my primary driver.)

      So for me, saving up front ends up costing me out the rear. It may balance out money-wise, but it doesn’t balance out when you have to fight the stress of owning Somebody Else’s Problem.

      • 0 avatar

        RE: “What you wrote triggered my response. True, you did not say “All Millennials”, but the way you wrote it IMPLIED “all Millennials” and that’s the main point I was disputing.”

        Implied? ONly if you’re paranoid.

        RE: ”

        And this is another reason why I’ll disagree with you, Ruggles, and why the working title of your book is essentially a lie. True, I’m fully aware of the rapid depreciation on most cars AND I’m aware that once the car is registered it is considered “used”, so in the literal sense it is the truth;”

        WTF? Its the truth but its a lie? REALLY?

        RE: “So for me, saving up front ends up costing me out the rear. It may balance out money-wise, but it doesn’t balance out when you have to fight the stress of owning Somebody Else’s Problem.”

        That’s why we have choice. If you can say your singular personal experience are broadly indicative of the market that might be one thing. But they’re not. As a new car dealer I’m happy for people to buy new cars. I get to take the trades. That’s what a new car is to a dealer. An F&I turn and a means to acquire pre-owned inventory without having to buy everything at auction. Dealers need to do both. When you need 3 year old SUVs, you just can’t wait for customers to roll in with them. You CAN go to the auction and buy a couple of truck loads.

        BTW, have you ever heard of service contracts?

  • avatar

    White with tan? BRG with tan? Dk Blue with tan? Burgundy with tan? Black with tan? Those are my choices in a best case scenario. What do I drive? Black with gray and anthracite with tan. But the used car factory wasn’t building my first choices when I was buying.

    • 0 avatar

      You’d like my F-150. Dark blue with tan.

      • 0 avatar

        RE: “As for your “Camaros and Firebirds were remarkably awful cars”, I have to question your reasoning and the generation. I’ll state that most of them were reasonably good looking through the generations, but the only one I’ve ever owned was a ’96 with the 3.8l V6 under the hood and that was a surprising performer. Sure, it couldn’t outrun the V8 version, but at 200 hp it fairly well matched the base V8 of the early versions. And achieving 32mpg on the highway was a very pleasant surprise.”

        Well, some of them looked good in a particularly American way. But it depends on what you compare them with. Nose heavy with a solid rear axle doesn’t make for good driving dynamics… at least what I consider good driving dynamics. The doors were heavy and tended to sag. If you compare them to an Eagle Talon or an MR2 Turbo, they were pretty crude. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them for what they were. A 69 Camaro 396/375 with headers, slicks, traction bars, etc. would go straight quickly. Not a good street car, but good for cruising the Sonic. Like I say, it depends on what you standard is. The original Mustang was also awful, as cars go but I love the fastback 271 horse version and the Shelby GT 350 is over the top for me. That doesn’t mean I hold them in high regard to cars designed to be great cars without compromise. But in the real world, most of us compromise. Again, solid rear axle and nose heavy.

        RE: “My current vehicles are a 1990 F-150 that is effectively impossible for me to do more than change oil and spark plugs due to how that EFI rig fits on top of the engine and an ’08 Jeep Wrangler. In many ways the Jeep is easier to work on and gives me better gas mileage, so it’s my primary driver.”

        I bought one of those new (1990 F150), one of only two vehicles I’ve ever bought with my own money new. Other than millions of dollars of new vehicle inventory floor planned with the bank, that is. I was building a house at the time and needed a truck. At the time I was in the collector car business in AL. 300 CID 6 cyl, 5 speed. GREAT vehicle but I hated it. Not because it was a bad vehicle but because it didn’t fit my needs after the house was completed. I kept it 5 months and got most of my money back, if not all, in trade. AND because I traded, I only had to pay tax on the “difference” on the new car, a 1990 Eagle Talon TSI. The “difference price” is going to haunt Tesla as it bids to move into the mainstream. When you sell your car to CarMax, and buy outright, you lose a chunk of sales tax credit.

  • avatar

    RE: “Our cars today are like horses before the tractor. Farmers couldn’t imagine living without them and the first tractors sucked. But every year they got better and horses became sidelined pretty quickly. The replacement of cars will be even faster.”

    And my grandmother is in orbit around Mars, and you can’t prove she isn’t. If you want to bet the farm on autonomous vehicles, knock yourself out. There might me times and places but This won’t take over the world. City cars? Perhaps.

    • 0 avatar

      Again, upon what are you basing your assertion that automated cars will never be mainstream?

      I’ve studied technology adoption for many years. My first published article was on it, and nothing in the succeeding sixteen years has changed my view that transition to a new technology is primarily based on the expected net value of using something new combined with the expected frequency of use.

      If it is relatively easy, inexpensive and reliable, what could possibly be standing in the way of a major shift in the way people get around?

      I understand that this is a forum filled with people who really love cars, but generally people would prefer to be chauffeured around most of the time. Personally, I learned to drive at ten and couldn’t wait to get my license. There is, however, a growing trend of people (my wife for example) who have absolutely zero desire to drive and actively avoid it.

      As for city cars, I think that will be the first niche, but one doesn’t have to fill very many niches before automated is simply easier, cheaper and reliable enough across the board to completely change our world.

  • avatar

    Easier, cheaper, and reliable? Easy to predict. Anyone who wants to bet the farm is free to. Who knows, by the time any of this comes to pass we might be able to transport ala Star Trak. We might just jump over autonomous vehicles altogether.

    To return to my previous analogy – This is like one person claiming his grandmother is in orbit around Mars and others arguing for or against.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, your unwillingness to give me any reasons behind your pessimism (or optimism depending on your fear of change) says a lot.

      As I said before, adoption will be based primarily upon net value and frequency of anticipated use. Most people need to get somewhere multiple times per day. So, I think the frequency of use is a slam dunk. That leaves net value – cost vs benefit.

      Digital technologies tend to fall in price exponentially. An iPad 2 would top a supercomputer list from 1984, the year I graduated from high school. The iPad 2 would *still be on the list of the top 500 supercomputers* up through 1994.(1) There are myriad examples – phones, cameras, CPUs, disk drives, etc – that demonstrate that the cost with respect to capability of these things tends to drop very quickly, if not exponentially once demand is established. (I had a friend whose father owned a laser pointer company manufacturing and selling them for $500 a pop. He went bankrupt a few years later as the rug was yanked from underneath his pricing model.)

      So, if the cost comes down, the other major factors that go into choosing to not buy a car and to rely on an automated taxi or car service would revolve around reliability (both, does it show up and does it get me there safely), comfort, and actual desire to drive. As of last year, Google was showing a driver intervention (where the driver grabbed the wheel, not an accident) every 36k miles,(2) and they’ve done over 700k miles accident free. So, they seem to be taking on the reliability/safety side. As for comfort, building a decent cabin is not rocket science. That leaves desire to drive. As I stated previously, this forum is not a cross-section of society, it is filled with people who want to drive for its own sake. Most people I know would happily give up car ownership if they could summon a ride in a few minutes and the financial cost were comparable or lower to what they pay now for transportation. I’d guess that there are even a few who would pay a premium for such a service.

      I guess I should add that regulatory issues are problematic, but there are a lot of states/countries around the world where one can go to establish an initial market.

      You can say this is comparable to people orbiting Mars, but I see this as not a matter of “if”, but of “when”. History has not been kind to those who bet against the rapid march of digital technologies.



  • avatar

    We all realize the enormity of the challenges, technically as well as legally. Nonetheless, if Google pulls it off, it may well work towards hitting a hole in one. Not only the automobile industry may be targeted, yes or no allying itself with a big (car) brand, but also car ownership itself and… public transportation. People may well tend to ‘differentiate’ car use in the future. Take, rent, borrow the big V8 gas-guzzler when it’s time to enjoy or pose. A lightweight robocar for routine purposes, such as commuting, running errands, etc.

    That’s because the car, that four-wheeled metal box, as it is known today…
    – sits idle 90-95% of the time, taking up precious space
    – when used the car’s monthly energy bill easily exceeds that of most households’
    – weighs 15-25 times as much as the often times single occupant (the driver) – ergo: most of the stuff people ‘feed’ the car (fuel) is used to move around the car… not the occupant(s)
    – single occupancy of a car is most frequent during rush hour, contributing to gridlock
    – represents the biggest consumer purchase most people do
    – depreciates at a rate that would drive people insane if that happens to housing prices.

    • 0 avatar

      Turning an idle depreciating asset into a potential revenue generator is the real disruption. I have two cars sitting in my driveway that together amount to some 50,000 in otherwise wasted capital. Even before tallying repairs, insurance, and fuel costs the financial burden those cars impose (as necessary as they are to American life) is pushing our eventual retirement back many years. What if those cars could actually MAKE money in the 95% of the time they sit idle? What if my 90 year old neighbors could forgo driving their own cars (danger!) and just have ours drive them to church on Sunday? What if I could snap my fingers and have a van arrive to bring my whole family and its belongings somewhere, instead of owning a van 100% of the time? These are massive benefits that can have an impact for the cars owner and their entire community. Those benefits and savings will be what drive this innovation.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s what Google stated about the car: that it saps away all sorts of resources people can use more beneficially. Resources meaning: financially, make materials, fossil fuels, clean air, roads, living environment. It may take a generation, but my guess is that things WILL change. Some argue that it sounds socialist or at least hostile to keeping the old V8 car. It isn’t. It makes common sense. Free up budget you spend on routinely going from A to B, and you get the chance to savor that old classic that now has a place in your garage.

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