Automotive Electronics

Deep coverage at the system, semiconductor and sensor levels, as well as the broad view of whole value chain. Highly detailed forecasts for automotive electronic system, semiconductor and sensor demand, analyzed by region and vehicle segment.

August 20, 2014 12:24 rlanctot

The U.S. Department of Transportation is seeking to mandate the installation of a device in cars for vehicle-to-vehicle communications. For some reason the agency fails to perceive that there is already a life-saving device in the car. That device is called a wireless phone.

The wireless phone is typically acquired voluntarily by the driver. It is capable of communicating with other drivers as well as with law enforcement and emergency responders. It is also capable of receiving emergency alerts.

Depending on how the phone is configured it can be set to automatically make emergency calls. And in some cars – notably from Chrysler and Ford in the U.S. – the phone can make approved automatic crash notification calls to summon assistance in the event of a collision.

The wireless phone is normally equipped with the latest wireless network technology and is therefore never at risk of being outmoded by a transition to new technology or by the shutoff of a particular network or piece of wireless spectrum. The device is also possessed of extraordinary processing power and a variety of sensors for positioning and location. It is also equipped for voice, data, video, and text communications.

The device itself is usually replaced on a regular basis to take advantage of advances in technology. Software updates for the device are free of charge and accomplished safely whether the device is in use or not.

Applications exist to enable the wireless phone to communicate with infrastructure and with other vehicles. And some apps (Global Mobile Alert) will alert drivers (who may be distracted by wireless phone calls) to dangerous driving circumstances such as the proximity of intersections or railroad crossings.

Wireless phones using applications such as Driveway can evaluate driving behavior and provide suggestions for safer driving behavior. Multiple applications are available for tracking location via the mobile phone for worried family members or friends as well as to alert them based on geo-fencing.

But the very best aspect of the wireless phone is that it is brought into the car voluntarily at no added cost to the car maker or customer. Deployment of the technology is immediate as are the benefits. Best of all it is demand-driven – no coercion is required.

Even better, no prototyping, testing, or assessment of user interfaces is needed. And there is no requirement for dedicated, protected spectrum or protracted comment periods for car makers, consumers or suppliers. No new standards, consortia, testbeds or congressional hearings.

Bottom line: The U.S. Department of Transportation needs to take a closer look at wireless phones as a means for achieving communications between vehicles or between vehicles and their drivers and infrastructure. Mandating a module is a dead end deal.

August 18, 2014 10:02 rlanctot

In the eyes of the car industry the only thing worse than telling car makers what kind of cars to build is telling dealers what kind of cars to sell. Both propositions smack of restraint of trade or even, dare I say it, socialism.

So it was no surprise when a National Automobile Dealers Association economist spoke at the Traverse City Management Briefing Seminar two weeks ago about how the Federal targets for higher fuel efficiency will curb the industry’s ability to sell more cars “after the end of this decade,” according to the report in Automotive News ( - “Fuel regs will stymie industry after 2018, NADA economist says”)

The NADA has long opposed the Federal Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFÉ) fuel efficiency target of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Automotive News quotes Steven Szakaly, chief economist for NADA as saying: “Unless gasoline prices rise significantly, or we see consumers becoming irrational and everyone buying an electric car, it’s tough to think of consumers willing to pay $3,000 to $7,000 more for the exact same car, just because someone in Washington, D.C., or California says they need to buy it.”

There are a few things wrong with Szakaly’s statement.

1) Who’s to say the cost differential will be in the range he claims by 2025?

2) What will the price of gas be at that time?

3) What will the range of fueling alternatives look like at that time?

4) How will cars themselves differ by that time?

5) Is 54.5 MPG really so much to ask?

But the biggest question of all? Who, better than a car dealer, knows how to sell a payment? As the prices of cars have risen the length of financing terms have grown to 60 months and longer along with a rise in leasing. And, by the way, it’s no secret that cars are lasting longer, upwards of 11 years.

But let’s unpack the ecologically unfriendly viewpoint of the NADA and take a closer look at reality and the changing regulatory landscape. Not only are higher fuel efficiency standards coming, they are arriving as a zero-emissions vehicle requirement is taking hold in 10 states.

The 54.5 MPG target for conventional internal combustion engines derives from the Federal government’s effort to harmonize fuel efficiency standards across the country. While politicians may debate the reality of global warming, regulators have accepted that greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change and must be reduced – particularly CO2 emissions from cars.

The shift to CAFÉ was an assertion that only the Federal government could set fuel efficiency standards. The California Air Resources Board’s greenhouse gas emission reduction standards were introduced and challenged in 2004 for being a backdoor means of setting fuel efficiency standards.

California proceeded thereafter to introduce its Zero Emission Vehicles requirements, which were adopted by 10 states including Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York New Jersey, Oregon and Maryland. Eight of those states (ie. excluding Maine and New Jersey) signed a memorandum of understanding in 2013 for an Action Plan released in May of 2014 ( - Maryland’s MultiState ZEV Action Plan brochure). The eight Action Plan states will meet next month to determine next steps.

The combined total of vehicle sales in the Action Plan states represents approximately 30% of total vehicle sales in the U.S. California’s influence, alone, has historically been persuasive enough to influence global vehicle emissions policy, but with the support of nine additional states, the ZEV program is emerging as a model for other countries (and U.S. states) wrestling with the desire to bring more zero emission vehicles into use.

The objective of the ZEV program is to “enhance energy security, diversity and reliability by reducing our dependence on petroleum products for transportation fuel,” in the words of the Action Plan. The member states seek to have 3.3M ZEVs on the road by 2025.

Selling cars in the U.S. will mean current market participants and new players will have to contend with the ZEV requirement. This explains why there are 28 car models currently on the road that fulfill the EV or plug-in hybrid (PHEV) requirements, plus two fuel cell vehicles, the 2014 Honda FCX Clarity and 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.

The Action Plan brochure notes the existence of 17,945 publicly accessible charging stations distributed across 9,330 sites nationally.

NADA’s skeptical stance toward alternative fuels ignores multiple market realities including the rising cost of fuel, a shift in vehicle ownership behavior, the growing longevity of vehicles, an increased emphasis on total cost of ownership, and the importance of ecological responsibility. One of the action plan items is dealer outreach to prepare and educate dealers to take on the selling and marketing of ZEVs.

But NADA has yet to come to grips with selling ZEVs, the organization is more concerned about the 54.5 MPG Federal target for 2025. While 54.5 MPG sounds stiff, the reality is that the 54.5 target translates, in real-world use, to something more in the 36-38 MPG range. The 54.5 figure is the sticker target before adjusting for air conditioning and real use.

The goal of CAFE is a fleet-wide, national standard for fuel efficiency with corresponding emission reductions. The bigger issue for the Federal government is how to fund highway repairs and improvements in the face of declining gas tax revenues – a gap that will only grow with improvements in fuel efficiency. States such as Oregon and California are either pondering or testing odometer-style per-mile road use taxation.

It seems clear that the time has arrived for dealers to embrace the sales and marketing of fuel efficient cars. Szakaly’s quibble that more fuel efficient cars will cost $3,000-$7,000 more 2-3 years from now is not borne out by the facts. The EPA estimates that the added cost for greater fuel efficiency will be $3,000 at the high end.

There are bigger changes impacting the auto industry than just fuel efficiency improvements – pushed by government regulation. The rapid adoption of collision avoidance technologies and inter-vehicle communication will ultimately alter vehicle design, though perhaps not appreciably by 2025. But, longer term, in a world where cars don’t collide weight can be greatly reduced and fuel efficiency greatly enhanced.

I find it hard to believe that car dealers are going to have a tough time selling a product that lasts longer and longer and costs less and less to own and operate. Might these vehicles have higher sticker prices? Sure. But if anyone knows how to sell a payment it’s a dealer. This is no time to be complaining about progress.

Qualifying ZEV Vehicles Currently on U.S. Roads:

2014 Smart fortwo EV Convertible and Coupe

2014 Fiat 500e

2013 Scion iQ EV

2014 Chevy Spark EV

2014 Ford Focus EV

2014 Mitsubishi i-MiEV

2014 Nissan Leaf EV

2014 Tesla Model S EV

2014 Honda Fit EV

2014 Toyota RAV4 EV

2013/14 Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

2014 Honda Accord Plug-in Hybrid

2014 BMW i3 REX

2013/14 Ford C-Max Energi Plug-in Hybrid

2013/14/15 Ford Fusion Energi Plug-in Hybrid

2011/12/13/14 Chevy Volt EREV

2014/15 Cadillac ELR EREV

2014/15 Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid

2015 Porsch 918 Spyder Plug-in Hybrid

2012 Fisker Karma

2014 Honda FCX Clarity

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

August 10, 2014 16:31 rlanctot

J.D. Power waded into the swamp of automotive voice recognition technology last week at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminar in Traverse City.  JDP’s executive director of driver interaction, Kristin Kolodge, presented slides and videos to show JDP’s assessment of the abysmal state of VR today.


Kristin said JDP’s annual Initial Quality Study of vehicles sold in the U.S. revealed VR tech as the most common type of “malfunction.”  VR was to blame for one-third of infotainment system failures – which is significant since infotainment systems have emerged in the past few years as the single biggest source of failures in new cars.


Kristin’s prescription, according to the report on her talk in Automotive News, was to get back to basics – that automakers should give up trying to add new features.  This recommendation alarmed me because the industry is actually on the verge of a major industrywide upgrade to natural language speech recognition and this is no time to turn back.


Recognizing that it had a problem on its hands with VR technology, most car makers have been turning in the direction of the skid.  Car makers see that they need to do better and that doing better means bringing automotive grade speech recognition systems to cars that adapt to humans rather than forcing humans to adapt to them.


There are several problems with VR today and they include:


Overly specific menus and poorly conceived architectures


Attempts to use voice recognition where it is an inappropriate interface


Multiple on-board speech recognition systems


Voice interfaces that work with some apps and not others


Confusing cues


Speaking to an inanimate object is an unnatural act, so there is no surprise that getting consumers to change their behavior is a big step.  Ford took the biggest step by making speech recognition the focal point of the original SYNC system.  But Ford changed its VR architecture and expanded the vocabulary with SYNC Gen 2 with disastrous results.


The problem is that once consumers have had a bad experience, it is tough to win them back.  And winning consumers back to automotive VR is important because VR is a powerful tool for combatting driver distraction.


Unfortunately, VR systems on the road today - most of which were designed or created three yeras ago - actually create distraction.  So let’s quickly review where we are headed with speech recognition:


NLU is the future of VR in the car


Whether you look to AT&T’s Watson or Nuance’s Dragon Drive or to VoiceBox’s conversational recognizer, VR tech is rapidly becoming a more natural experience in the car thanks to natural language understanding (NLU).  It is true that Apple’s Siri and Google Voice work impressively on mobile devices held close to the mouth, but in the car, automotive grade systems optimized for the automotive environment and automotive use cases are best.


Learning and Personalization


VR suppliers are increasingly integrating abilities into the NLU systems that introduce learning capabilities.  A standout in this area is MeMeMe Mobile which personalizes speech recognition to the speaker for use within and beyond the car.


Application Focus


Drivers want a reliable VR solution for hands-free access to telephony, navigation (destination entry!) and audio.  All other functions in the car – such as HVAC – are best handled with other types of controls.  But appropriate integration of VR technology is key.  You may use voice to look up an audio track, but a manual control to increase the volume.


Reducing Distraction


Luxury cars are already reading text messages and emails and allowing drivers to respond in a hands-free or, preferred, an automated manner.  The influential California legislature has considered banning this type of functionality, but, if implemented properly and without legislative interference, such a capability could be a useful distraction mitigation tool.


JDP’s IQS study is an important bellwether for the automotive industry.  But let’s not forget that the perennially grumpy users responding to JDP’s study are using three-year-old technology.  Advances in automotive VR are closer than they may appear to be when looking at today’s new cars.

August 9, 2014 14:15 rlanctot

The Annual Traverse City Management Briefing Seminar quietly concluded this week without shedding any newsworthy light on the future of alternative powertrains, the realistic prospects for autonomous vehicles or the ongoing impact of China on vehicle design and production.  Also missing was a presentation explaining how the auto industry was going to overcome the worst year on record for vehicle recalls.  And no one mentioned the ongoing carnage on U.S. highways – nearly 100 daily fatalities.


If it weren’t for a stirring, from the heart and straight from the shoulder, speech from Fiat’s Sergio Marchione (who was coincidentally briefing financial analysts away from the event), I am sure the attendees will have spent much of their time sleeping off their cocktails or working on their golf strokes.


Full Automotive News coverage can be found here:


I got to thinking about Traverse City because I am preparing to moderate a panel at an overseas event and the sponsor and operator of the event wants to put its customers on the panel I am moderating.  My thought was that it will be more interesting to put the customers’ customers on the panel – they are more likely to speak freely.


Free speech was in short supply at Traverse City, at least until Marchione stepped to the lectern.  Marchione spoke freely about wanting to claw back the profits his suppliers are bragging about every quarter in their financial reports.  This perspective was in conflict with the more palliative comments of those same suppliers, many of whom spoke at the event of a new age in the automotive industry when auto makers will no longer hammer their suppliers chipping away at those profit margins.


These auto industry suppliers – nVidia and Delphi notably among them - were surfacing an issue which has crept to the forefront of the automotive industry and which the industry itself is still struggling to manage.  The average car now has more than 100M lines of code on board. The software content is gradually coming to eclipse the hardware content in the car. 


Sourcing software is a far more complex exercise than sourcing hardware.  What are you buying as a car maker?  Bits and bytes?  Software code? Do you own that code or do you rent it?  Does your supplier own that code or is it open source?  How do you maintain and/or replace that code? And where does liability reside?




For years the automotive industry has been pursuing a strategy of segregating hardware from software, while suppliers have been fighting to keep hardware and software firmly stitched together in competitive bids. 


By selling hardware and software as a package, Tier 1 suppliers may feel they have more pricing flexibility.  Now, even Harman has acknowledged the ascendance of software.  Harman CEO Dinesh Paliwal recently told Bloomberg in an interview that his intention is to reduce the companies hardware manufacturing activities and shift its focus to software, which already represents 75% of Harman's revenue. ttp:// - Harman Stakes Future in Software as Autos Become Smarter)




Unfortunately, car makers are increasingly determined to segregate these two pieces.  The net result is that contract manufacturers have emerged to compete with and sometimes partner with Tier 1s while software only integrators have proliferated.  Tier 1s that might have played fast and loose in their bids – offering “integration” for “free” may have painted themselves into a corner. 


All suppliers are putting a price tag on integration these days.  In fact, integration has become a “thing.”


Tier 1 suppliers from Bosch and Continental to Delphi, Magna and Denso are caught up in this battle to either preserve their hardware/software packages or create separate software teams to pursue RFQs with segregated hardware and software requirements.  But it is more complex than that, as auto makers have sought to take ownership of the software code and related intellectual property.


Missing from the Traverse City event was a voice from the software side of the industry.  Stuffy old Traverse City

(50 years running) missed the email once again – nary a word was heard of open source software, Google/Android or Linux.  The most likely source of such a perspective was John Ellis of Ford, who participated on the “Designing for Technology and the Customer” panel.


John is a truth talker, but I’m not sure the Traverse City crowd was ready for two double shots of espresso in one week.  Marchione surely left a few headaches and upset stomachs in his wake.


Just as Google was not represented at the Traverse City event there was also no speaker from a wireless carrier, a Chinese car maker, Tesla Motors, a leading dealer organization (with the possible exception of Joe Carlier, senior vice president of Penske Logistics) or a single car owner – or even a victim of a car crash resulting from a vehicle defect.


The rising influence of software is transforming the automotive industry.  To preserve its relevance, the Traverse City Management Briefing Seminars needs to integrate a powerful voice for the role of software in vehicle design and operation.  How about a panel on the role of GenIVI, AUTOSAR and model-based software?  How about a panel on the challenge in finding enough programmers to fulfill the industry's requirements.  Even powertrains come with engine controls, after all.


It would also be helpful to include a voice from the wireless industry – since vehicle connectivity and software updates are rapidly becoming de rigueur.  Tesla anyone?


We’ll see if the Center for Automotive Research can reverse this Traverse City travesty.  If it continues on its current trajectory, your time on the Upper Peninsula, if you go next year, will be better spent on the golf course.

August 7, 2014 16:22 rlanctot

I thought the Mercedes S Class was the most advanced car on the road, thanks in large part to its safety system portfolio and multiple expert reviews. Dan Carney has a different opinion on this subject.

Consumers are definitely getting mixed messages from the insurance industry and the Intelligent Transportation Systems community (ITS). The ITS folks are telling us that human beings are responsible for 90% of accidents. The insurance industry – judging from Nationwide’s latest auto insurance TV ads in the U.S. – is telling us that “the safest feature in the car is you.” ( - Nationwide Insurance ad.)

The ITS community wants to automate the driving task – as much as possible – with intelligent highways that will force the driver to relinquish control of the car. But until that day arrives, we are all going to have to do a whole lot of our own driving – so the Nationwide message, though contradictory, is a powerful one.

The Nationwide message is made even more powerful in the context of the limitations of current semi-automated driving systems such as automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control. This was brought home to me today as I sat in a local Starbucks with autowriter (and Euroswift racer) Dan Carney who took umbrage with my suggestion that he should look at the Mercedes S Class as the safest car on the road.

Dan’s own experience with the S Class highlighted for him the enduring role played by the driver. In his experience driving the S Class he identified at least three scenarios where driver intervention will deliver a superior and safer driving experience:

Scenario 1 – Moving smoothly in traffic, Dan says he could see an approaching wave of stop lights in the cars up ahead. Unfortunately, the S Class is not equipped to see that same wave and, as a result, the automatic emergency brake did not kick in until the system perceived a stopped vehicle immediate in front of the car.

Instead of a smooth, gliding stop managed by a driver anticipating the slowdown, each incident produced a more urgent, near-tire-screeching braking experience. The automated system was unable to apprehend the braking of the cars up ahead. (This could conceivably be remedied by vehicle-to-vehicle communication – at some future date.)

Scenario 2 – Using adaptive cruise control to maintain a steady following distance worked well for Dan, until he passed highway entrance ramps. The car showed no awareness of these ramps and definitely did not seek any means to accommodate merging vehicles. Dan was left to gesture wordlessly to the angry but unsuccessful mergers: “It’s not me. It’s my car.” That’s right, at that point your car has turned you into an @#$hole. NOTE: Dan said he intervened to allow the mergers in.

Scenario 3 – Dan was stopped in a line of cars, but could see cars ahead beginning to move and shift out of the stopped lane. The adaptive cruise control, however, was not able to anticipate this activity until the car immediately in front finally moved. This meant that the car wanted to charge forward at the very same moment that opportunists to the right and left wanted to surge into the now-open space – a recipe for an accident. (Again, vehicle-to-vehicle communications will help in the future.)

Thanks for sharing, Dan.

So, it looks like Nationwide is right. For now, you, the driver, are still the safest thing in the car. Automated systems are helpful, but even the most advanced systems have not yet found a way to replace the advantages of the old-fashioned analog on-board visual system – the human being.

The Mercedes requires the driver’s hands to be on the wheel for the automated systems to function. If the driver has his or her hands on the wheel, this might prevent the very scenarios as described from unfolding without driver intervention. But, on a lighter note, a Jalopnik report notes a means to defeat this element of the automated safety package: - This Simple Hack Lets Your Mercedes Become Semi-Autonomous. This is definitely in the category of an off-label use of the safety systems.

August 6, 2014 13:11 rlanctot

Last December two hackers, Charlie Miller, security engineer for Twitter, and Chris Valasek, (left, bottom) director of security intelligence at IOActive, tried their hand at standup comedy with the unlikely topic of automotive security. Like Comedy Central’s Key & Peele (left, top) they sought to mine the process of vehicle hacking for yuks and I can honestly say, they were pretty successful. The proof:

This week the Miller and Valasek comedy team have released their roster of “the world’s most hackable cars” as reported in InformationWeek: And they will present today at Blackhat 2014 in Las Vegas (“A Survey of Remote Automotive Attack Surfaces - where, at the conclusion of their talk, they are expected to demonstrate a device, created from $150 in parts, to detect and prevent hacking in a car. The device plugs into the OBDII port and monitors vehicle network traffic.

There are two kinds of security presentations: The ones that scare you half to death and send you running to cancel your credit cards, and the ones that clearly delineate the extent of the problem and the known solutions.

But Miller and Valasek have taken a third path morphing from comedians and fear-mongers into pitchmen. Key & Peele cum Ron Popeil. Their vision of vehicle security apparently boils down to an aftermarket device. No marketing or sales plans have been announced.

There are a few things wrong with the Miller and Valasek message:

#1 They attempted to show how easy it was to “hack” into a vehicle network to access vehicle controls such as brakes and steering. For the purpose, they chose a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape equipped with parking assist technologies.

The reality is that their “hack” – much of which could have been achieved with off-the-shelf diagnostic tools – required months to achieve as was made clear in the video. In retrospect this is oddly reassuring rather than terrifying. There was nothing simple nor was there anything remote about their vehicle “security breach.”

#2 Their roster of most hackable cars appears to be based entirely on whether or not the car has integrated controllers for safety and connectivity. In their estimation, the more segregated the vehicle systems are from each other and from connectivity, the better.

The reality is that vehicle systems are becoming increasingly integrated for the purpose of enabling autonomous driving and other safety-related applications including diagnostics. Commensurate with this integration has been a much greater focus from car makers on the security of on-board systems.

#3 They offer a device for monitoring for vehicle intrusions. But vehicle security is not an aftermarket product. If anything, the attachment of an aftermarket device is more likely to increase rather than decrease system vulnerability.

Vehicle security is a multi-layered proposition encompassing everything from the semiconductors to the wireless connections to the on-board networks all the way down to individual ECUs. Vehicle security is a philosophy that takes into account hardware and software and even leverages wireless connectivity for authentication and access (soon) to public key infrastructure and software updates.

The industry is rapidly moving toward a more robust gateway-ed and firewalled approach to security, but one that will enable off-board to on-board communications. Is remote control possible – sure – but it is not easily achieved, as Miller and Valasek have shown - chafed knuckles and all.

Miller and Valasek have helped to raise awareness of the security problem. Where they have failed is raising the understanding of the solutions to the problem which exist and are being implemented from suppliers as varied as Harman International and Covisint to Intel, NXP, Freescale, AMV Networks, QNX, and Cisco. Maybe, like Key & Peele, they need a little dose of Liam Neeson.

July 24, 2014 16:08 rlanctot

Ford’s Mark Fields started 2014 with the announcement of aluminum-bodied F-150s and, following his appointment as CEO, has doubled down on the fuel efficiency message with the announcement of the hiring of Dr. Ken Washington, a top researcher out of Lockheed Martin’s space program.  Washington will head Ford’s advanced research and engineering efforts bringing experience in “light-weighting, (powertrain) control, autonomy and energy storage” to Ford, as highlighted in a brief interview with Strategy Analytics earlier this week.


The move coincided with a shift of Kumar Gulhotra, current vice president of engineering for Ford and Lincoln, to global president of Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand.


Washington was most recently vice president of the Space Technology Advanced Research & Development Laboratories, or STARLabs, at Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems company.  He is expected to accelerate innovation at Ford and will report to Raj Nair, group vice president, global product development.  Washington’s background spans nuclear engineering, information systems, supercomputing, information privacy and R&D regarding space-related technologies.


All indications suggest that the announcement revolves around Ford’s ability to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set by the U.S. government.  Washington’s boss, Nair, was quoted at the North American International Auto Show saying that Ford intends to double its global hybrid offerings by the end of the decade and expand auto start/stop to 70% of its cars.


Start/stop is already part of the plan for the 2015 F-150, shown earlier this week.  While Ford did not release its MPG estimates for the new F-150s, it did show a 732-lb. weight reduction from the use of aluminum, a surprisingly high figure.


The F-150 has always dragged down Ford’s corporate average fuel economy.  However, in January it claimed that the improved fuel economy of the new model will mean that for the first time the truck will help raise Ford’s overall fuel economy figure.  Ford has also had to restate the MPG of its hybrid models, as consumers complained of not being able to attain the originally claimed fuel economy levels.  So far, only the C-MAX, Focus and Fusion/MKZ have HEV/PHEV/EV versions.

It remains to be seen whether Lincoln will move toward a luxury HEV offering to take on Lexus or a more ambitious full EV to compete with Tesla.  The shift of Gulhotra and the hiring of Washington suggest that Ford is focused on fuel economy, electrification and autonomous driving, precisely in that order – even as it prepares to embed modems in its non-electric vehicles.

July 21, 2014 17:07 rlanctot

There is a spooky statistical confluence in the U.S. between highway fatalities and deaths resulting from gun violence (homicides and suicides, combined). Both figures hover around 30,000, or about 100/day.

And just as the world is treated to the U.S.’s perennial debate over the merits and nature of gun control, the auto industry is now grappling with the question of surrendering vehicle control to a computer. In fact, those socialist-leaning Europeans have even broached the subject of governmental remote control of cars (Telegraph report: which actually aligns with Brazil’s delayed anti-theft mandate for vehicle immobilization.

It all reminds me of the late Charlton Heston (pictured, from "Omega Man"), five-term president of the National Rifle Association (1998-2003), who made famous the bumper sticker slogan “from my cold dead hands” as in "I'll give you my gun when you pry (or take) it from my cold, dead hands."

It appears that cars are second only to guns as a symbol of freedom and control - at least in the U.S. When surveyed by Strategy Analytics, only a minority of respondents express interest in owning or paying for self-driving cars. In fact, the paying for part will probably be the greatest obstacle as the price tag for autonomous driving is likely to remain in the thousands of dollars for the foreseeable future.

Pair the high cost with the inclination of consumers to preserve their access to freedom and control and you have two solid nearly impenetrable barriers to autonomous vehicle adoption. The U.S. consumer is essentially saying a la Charlton Heston – “you’ll get the steering wheel when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”

And now Google wants to take away the steering wheel and the brake pedals (New York Times report:

So whether it’s the government (and not just the U.S. government) or Google, more and more organizations are interested in wresting control of the car away from the driver. This is aside from the plans being laid for “intelligent” highways that will take control of cars and the wave of interest growing in pay-per-use vehicle taxation.

But drivers can be expected to fight for their rights.

Call it an aphrodisiac. Call it a hallucinogen. Whatever you call it, the driving experience is intoxicating and drivers can be expected to fight to preserve their freedom from control. (Just imagine Germany surrendering its Autobahn network, nein!) Getting drivers to change their behavior and attitudes will require some sophisticated combination of coercion and temptation – even after the technology becomes sufficiently inexpensive. One thing is clear, we won’t surrender meekly.

July 18, 2014 12:09 rlanctot

The time has finally arrived to privatize the safety testing activities of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and to shift the funding model of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety away from the insurance industry. Here’s why.

Thatcham Research in the UK and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are nearly identical organizations founded with nearly identical missions:

“The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses — deaths, injuries and property damage — from crashes on the nation's roads.” - IIHS Website

“Thatcham Research is the motor insurers’ automotive research centre. Established by the motor insurance industry in 1969, the centre’s main aim is to contain or reduce the cost of motor insurance claims whilst maintaining safety standards.” - Thatcham Website

Both organizations help to set safety standards and can ostensibly be held accountable to one degree or another for the rate of highway fatalities in the respective countries. This is a vast oversimplification, but it is intended to call attention to the fact that in the U.S. we are slaughtering approximately 100 people a day on our highways while in the U.K., as of 2010 and according to World Health Organization estimates, about 7 people are dying per day.

To be sure, every fatality is a tragedy and the United Nations is in the midst of its “Decade of Action for Road Safety” while Sweden has adopted “Vision Zero.” Even the newly-elected Mayor of New York has set a goal of zero pedestrian fatalities for the city.

But the shocking truth is that the U.S. is failing badly in preventing highway fatalities. The U.S. has long been a “leader” in killing people with cars, only recently surpassed by Brazil (as a result of a booming auto market and lax safety standards). The difference between the U.S. and the U.K. is just as stark as the difference between the U.S. and Brazil, where the fatality rate is 22 deaths per 100,000 population annually as of 2010.

Of course, the difference between the U.S. and Brazil is more obvious from the standpoint of the quality of the cars and the roads. But an even bigger difference is that the U.S. has a significant safety testing and certification infrastructure that Brazil lacks.

But the safety testing infrastructure in the U.S. is failing. While Thatcham in the U.K. is a powerful advocate for vehicle safety systems – currently pushing for a government subsidy to support the purchase of new cars equipped with automatic emergency braking technology – IIHS offers nothing more than brochures and Website resources. And IIHS executives insist they have nothing to do with lobbying legislators.

The difference between Thatcham and IIHS is that Thatcham goes so far as to quantify the societal benefits of safety system adoption based on its own testing. In fact, Thatcham has taken up the banner of vehicle safety and carried it to international forums to promote its cause of collision avoidance globally.

Says Thatcham on its Website: “Around 23 per cent of new cars on sale today have AEB available as optional or standard fit. Insurers recognise the benefits, with AEB-fitted cars given a rating of as much as five groups lower than their counterparts, and potentially saving up to 10 per cent on insurance premiums.”

Thatcham goes further, stating on its Website:

  • 90 per cent of road crashes are due to human error or distraction
  • £90,000 - total cost of the average injury crash
  • 18% reduction in third party injury claims for AEB-fitted cars
  • 550,000 whiplash claims annually in the UK cost £2B, adding £90 to the average car insurance premium
  • 23% of new cars on sale today have AEB as optional or standard fit
  • Less than 10% cars sold have AEB specified
  • Regulation or Government incentive of £500 needed to accelerate take up

So Thatcham tells the safety story in terms of both societal and consumer financial benefits. IIHS steers clear of suggesting or promoting insurance discounts for safety systems. In fact, more often than not, IIHS either avoids the insurance premium savings conversation entirely or seems to go out of its way to avoid endorsing new technologies as potential life savers – based on the ambiguous findings of its own safety tests – ie. the test outcomes were unclear therefore we cannot endorse technology X.

A typical example comes from IIHS's testing of Volvo safety systems: "This initial analysis of the effect on insurance claims of 4 crash avoidance features, 2 of which are combinations of multiple features, suggests that they are helping drivers avoid some crashes reported to insurers. However, except in the case of Volvo’s steering-responsive headlights, the estimated benefits are not statistically significant. Volvo’s Active Bending Lights reduce PDL claim frequency as well as BI claim frequency, but there was not a corresponding reduction in collision claim frequency."

In other words, you, Mr. Consumer, may as well not bother with these safety systems because they won't save you a nickel on your premium.

It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that better discounts for safety systems can be found in Europe than in the U.S. And it should also come as no surprise that annual highway fatality rates are almost universally and substantially lower in Europe, with a few exceptions.

Some insurers in the U.S. will offer discounts for some safety systems. But the dominant rating scheme in the U.S. is to focus almost exclusively on the driver and such rating factors as driving history and education, including driver education.

It is true that the roads and the cars and the rules are different in Europe, but the vastly lower fatality rates are hard to ignore. As with so many areas where the U.S. lags – education, healthcare, etc. – we spend more on road safety and get less benefit.

There are two problems with the automotive safety testing regime in the U.S. The pre-eminent safety authority for setting standards and issuing mandates is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA is led by political appointees hamstrung by limited funding options and staffed with engineers buffeted by changing regulatory priorities.

Currently NHTSA is more than five years into a shift in its mission from surviving accidents to preventing them altogether. This shift in focus ought to have produced a complete revamp and re-staffing of the organization to address the modified technical demands of the new mission. Needless to say, the limitations of NHTSA being a government agency prevented any such sea change.

IIHS, too, is hamstrung by its funding model and its own perception of its role. The institute is a non-profit funded by the insurance industry. This puts IIHS in the awkward position of conducting safety research and assigning safety scores for the automotive industry, while its fundamental objective is seeing to the priorities and concerns of the insurance industry – which may conflict with the concerns of both car makers and consumers.

(It is worth noting that apart from IIHS’s research activities, individual insurers in the U.S. do conduct outreach directly with car makers to advise on the construction of cars to enhance safety and reduce the costs of repairs. These activities, which directly relate to Thatcham’s vehicle repair research and protocol development efforts in the U.K., are worthy and ought to continue.)

The government and the insurance industry need to be removed from the safety testing and standards setting activity, which ought to be funded by the industry. Government oversight may be an appropriate role, but not direct government management. The recent spate of recalls including the very public Toyota and GM recall controversies have demonstrated clearly that NHTSA lacks the necessary expertise or the funding necessary to acquire it.

With 100 Americans dying on the highways every day it is clear that we, as a country, can no longer depend on the government or the insurance industry to solve this problem. Vehicle safety should be put into the hands of independent commercial interests charged and evaluated on the basis of protecting consumers and saving lives. We are fighting a war and the body count is rising.

June 14, 2014 23:00 rlanctot

At an International Motor Press Association luncheon in New York City today GlobalAutomakers President and CEO John Bozzella noted that questions were being raised as to how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) might raise the additional $18M budgeted for FY2015 vehicle safety research.  Bozzella said that options on the table included a per-vehicle tax or fee to be paid by consumers or a similar tax or fee to be paid by car makers.  When asked, by this analyst, Bozzella said that he was not aware of any discussion of privatizing NHTSA or any of its functions.

I had asked the question because I believe it is time to consider the privatization option.

NHTSA's FY 2015 budget request totals $851M and includes $152M for vehicle safety research (an $18M increase), $122M for behavioral safety and $577M for state grants and high visibility enforcement support. In light of the rash of recalls blanketing the auto industry, there will be calls for additional funding for safety research. Given the embarrassing revelations implicating NHTSA's inadequate review, research and enforcement of its own safety standards vis-a-vis General Motors in the recent and still unfolding ignition switch recall, now looks like a good time to remove the government from the business of setting and enforcing safety standards.

Further oversight, research and testimony will be required before NHTSA is fully and formally exonerated of any wrong-doing as part of the ignition switch recall, but the fact that the agency is implicated at all in failing to identify the problem and initiate action suggests it is time for a change.  It also recalls the agency's admission of its inability to diagnose the Toyota sudden acceleration case of two years ago.

All indications are that the functional demands of safety research have transcended the agency's ability to keep up and adequately protect the public.  It is time for the government to recognize this fact and rather than throwing good money after bad - shift the safety research functions of the agency to the private sector where the expertise already resides.

This is a particularly important step to take as the automotive safety segment shifts to active from passive safety - requiring an entirely new analytical skill set for divining whether new technologies have prevented accidents - ie. proving a negative.  New skills require new strategies for studying and promoting the adoption of life-saving technologies.  NHTSA is not ever likely to have sufficient resources to keep pace with automotive industry innovation.

Of course, this is a radical concept - so I throw it open to you, the reader.  Is there any good reason for NHTSA to retain its safety investigative, standards-setting and enforcement responsibilities?  What do you think?