Don’t Miss The Wheel Bearings Podcast!

img_20161109_153334_processed-01-1024x1024In case you missed it, Dan Roth and I have launched a new podcast called Wheel Bearings where we talk about the cars we’re driving and the news and topics that we think are important in the world of transportation and mobility. We’ll have guests and interviews with experts and interesting people too. You can find the show at http://wheelbearings.media/

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Most Developed Automated Vehicle Tech Doesn’t Equate to a Best Solution Today

An interesting Twitter thread sprung up recently discussing the merits of Tesla’s AutoPilot partially automated driving system relative to competitors. This came in the wake of a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board that was examining a March 2018 crash that killed an Apple engineer in a Tesla Model X. One of the commenters raised the concept of which automated driving systems are most developed, citing how far back Tesla ranked in Navigant Research’s Automated Driving Leaderboard report.

How to Interpret Leaderboard Rankings

While it is true that Tesla had the lowest score in this year’s ranking, it’s important to understand both what is being ranked and how most developed may relate to best developed for automated driving.

This Navigant Research Leaderboard is intended to provide a snapshot of where analysts believe companies rank in their ability to successfully commercialize automated driving technology. To do that, the Leaderboard goes well beyond just the core automation technology, with individual subscores assigned for 10 different criteria including vision, go-to market strategies, partnerships, manufacturing capability, product quality, and financial strength. While Tesla has always ranked high on vision, it often lags in many other areas, leading to its low overall score.

Scoring for Vision

The vision score is based in part on where a company sees its business going in the coming decade as well as what it hopes to achieve. In Tesla’s case, its score was boosted by its belief that automated driving technology should be deployed as far and wide as possible as soon as possible.

That is a fantastic idea. In an ideal world, it would save many of the tens of thousands of lives lost annually in American traffic accidents and the more than one million lost globally. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. Putting insufficiently developed technology in the hands of untrained consumers on public roads can be a recipe for disaster.

The Gap between Most and Best

AutoPilot may indeed be the most developed system on the market today in terms of the manufacturer’s willingness to stretch its capabilities and extract all it can from the available sensor suite. That does not necessarily make it the best developed system in terms of what should be in production based on safety requirements and consumers’ current abilities and understanding of the technology.

Humans Like Consistency

Early in my engineering career, working on anti-lock braking systems, I learned the value of ensuring that the technology performed with as much consistency and predictability as possible. For all our flaws, humans are remarkably adaptable if we understand the conditions. Most people tend to drive the same vehicle every day for years. Even if a vehicle has limitations or quirks, as long as they are consistent, drivers will adjust how they use the vehicle. If a vehicle has a longer stopping distance, drivers will brake sooner. If the steering response is slower, a larger angle will be used.

The problem comes when the system responds differently every time you use it, as many voice control systems have done. That’s when people stop using it or get caught unawares when they do. That likely contributed to Walter Huang ignoring warnings to hold the steering wheel in his Tesla. There are other systems on the market, that while not as capable as they could be in certain conditions, are indeed better developed for the real world.

Acknowledging Room for Improvement

As we move to higher levels of automated driving in the next several years, we need to encourage manufacturers to acknowledge what their products can’t do yet, while working to make available functions the best they can be.


2019 Honda Insight

First drive impressions of the 2019 Honda Insight hybrid come in a few days, but in the meantime, here’s some photos



My 2008 Interview With Elon Musk

2008 Tesla Roadster Validation Prototype

It’s coming up on 10 years since I first interviewed Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Inc. and SpaceX. At the time he was still chairman of the board, not yet having ditched his third CEO in a year. This interview was originally published on AutoblogGreen in June 2008 when I was a writer there. Musk contacted me after I wrote a story questioning his involvement in the development of the Roadster following a Fox News story where he was referred to as the company founder. We had a nearly hour-long conversation and I interspersed that transcript with some responses from Martin Eberhard that I had solicited by email.

As I re-read this, I noted the words I wrote in the final paragraph of the epilogue and realized that sadly, little of what I wrote has come to pass.

Having met several members of the Tesla team when I visited there in January to drive the Roadster, it’s clear to me that they have tremendous skills and expertise and they are recruiting more people with those qualities. Hopefully, the management team now in place at Tesla has the strength of character to take the knowledge of the engineers and apply the necessary review process to design decisions going forward. That is an absolute must in order to get cars built right, on time and on budget. Certainly the work of the TEAM at Tesla Motors has lit a fire under many other manufacturers to accelerate their own electric car projects.

I’m republishing it here for posterity. Given Musk’s recent tirades against the media, I wanted to have this in more than one place.

(more…)


HD Maps Might Help Teslas Stop Running into Fire Trucks

Recently, a Tesla in Utah ran into the back of a stationary fire truck at high speed. This is the second such incident this year and the National Transportation Safety Board is already investigating the earlier incident. Incidents involving Teslas get news coverage because of the strident safety claims made by Elon Musk for his company’s AutoPilot driver assist system, but such accidents can happen with many vehicle brands. Relying on a single sensor for active safety control is often inadequate, but high definition (HD) maps may actually turn out to be part of the solution.

Teslas, and many millions of other vehicles, are equipped with forward-looking radar sensors that are used for adaptive cruise control (ACC). The radar is used to detect a vehicle moving ahead while ACC is active and measures the gap to that vehicle. If the lead vehicle slows down, the ACC vehicle will automatically slow to maintain a safe gap.

Forward-Looking Sensors Not Seeing Everything

You might think that if ACC detects a stopped vehicle it would automatically slow to a stop, but as the two recent crashes indicate, this isn’t always true. When ACC is used at highway speed, the assumption is that the other vehicles on the road will also be moving. To prevent false positives that would cause the brakes to erroneously engage, these systems are designed to ignore static objects like road signs, light poles, etc.

When another static vehicle that was outside of the radar range comes within view of the sensor while moving at highway speeds (as both vehicles in these crashes were), it is not assumed to be a vehicle and thus it is ignored. Some vehicles also include a combination of automatic emergency braking and/or forward collision warning safety systems to prevent crashes, but these systems are not optimized for identifying stationary vehicles in the roadway when the vehicles are traveling at highway speeds. Refinements in the coordination between these systems will continue.

How Does Mapping Fit into This?

Today, increasingly detailed maps are being used not just for routing but also as inputs to hybrid propulsion systems and long-range sensors in partially automated vehicles from GM and Mercedes-Benz. In the coming years, HD maps with detailed locations of static objects will be used for precision localization. If a vehicle has HD maps with the locations of fixed roadside objects, it may be possible to fuse this with the real-time radar data to better understand which objects can safely be ignored. The addition of image data from the camera used for lane keeping assist and it should be possible to recognize legitimately stopped vehicles and respond accordingly.

Companies such as San Francisco startup Mapper and incumbent map providers like HERE and TomTom have begun building HD maps. Mapper has developed a low cost, multi-camera-based data collection system that can be installed in vehicles used for ride-hailing providers or in other fleets. By the end of 2018, up to 2 million vehicles from Volkswagen, BMW, and Nissan are expected to be on the road globally with Mobileye’s latest EyeQ4 image processor. These vehicles will also be collecting data that feeds into Mobileye’s Road Experience Management system and then into maps from providers including HERE.

The sooner we start augmenting existing driver assist systems with new data sources such as HD maps or fusion of other sensors in the vehicle, the sooner object classification should improve to help prevent more crashes. The Tesla crashes are getting the attention, but these are problems that afflict virtually every manufacturer and the technology needs to be improved in order to save more lives.


Ford Takes the Exit Ramp from the Car Business

In many respects, the company that Henry Ford built more than a century ago moved America from the cart to the car (this October will mark the 110 anniversary of the Model T). Today, Ford is undergoing another transformation as the transportation market continues to morph. During its 1Q 2018 financial results, Ford confirmed that its North American vehicle lineup will include only two cars from 2020, the iconic Mustang and the new Focus Active—and even the Focus is morphing into a crossover-style vehicle.

More than 90% of Ford sales in the next decade will be pickup trucks, utilities, and commercial vehicles. Despite the change in the shape of the average Ford vehicle, the company is committed to improving energy efficiency in addition to operational efficiency. In part, that means adding electrified propulsion options to just about every vehicle it builds—from the Mustang to the F-150 and every new SUV.

Until now, Ford has just taken token stabs at the battery EV (BEV) market with vehicles like the defunct Transit Connect Electric and slow-selling Focus Electric. Even its hybrid systems, which are second in sales only behind Toyota, are only available on three nameplates: the soon to be discontinued C-Max and the midsize Fusion and Lincoln MKZ sedans.

Changing with the Times

However, that’s all about to change. At the New York International Auto Show in March, Lincoln revealed a concept version of its upcoming Aviator SUV with a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. That vehicle is expected to share its hardware with the next generation of one of Ford’s best-selling vehicles, the Explorer. The upcoming Bronco, Escape, and other models will also be available as hybrids.

In addition, Ford is committing to BEVs with a new dedicated platform rather than just conversions like the current Focus. This will enable much improved packaging and performance and a better cost basis. Starting with a performance crossover BEV in 2020 to be built in the Mexican plant that currently builds the Fiesta, Ford plans to launch 15 more BEVs globally in 3 years. While six of the BEVs will be available in North America, many of rest will likely be optimized for the Asian market, where Ford has formed partnerships with Zotye in China and Mahindra Group in India. Some of them may even be cars.

These vehicles will likely represent the bulk of Ford’s business for many years to come. But Ford is also working to build its mobility service business into something that is commercially viable and profitable as soon as possible.

Surviving Today’s Crises

The first three generations of Fords to run their eponymous company, Henry, Edsel, and Henry II, surely wouldn’t recognize this new enterprise as the one they built up over more than 7 decades. But during their tenures, Ford also faced several existential crises and survived—albeit without quite the radical product changes today’s business is facing.

It seems that almost everyone running a car company today is cursed to “live in interesting times.” Today’s company leaders, including the founder’s great grandson Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett, will have their work cut out for them to rebuild Ford for a new generation and move travelers from the car to whatever comes next.

However, there is precedent for a company to make similarly shocking moves while transforming into more of a services company. IBM exited the PC business in 2004 that it helped to found to focus on supercomputers, software, and services. And that paid off: within a few years, the company was generating even higher revenue and profits.


Technology Misuse Endangering Automated Driving

If we’ve learned anything from the era of reality television and user-generated online video, it’s that a surprising number of people will risk great harm by misusing themselves or technology to get some online attention. Whether it’s blowing up a microwave, eating laundry detergent pods, or misusing driver assist features on a car, too many are willing to abandon common sense in search of the dopamine hit that comes with seeing the number of views ratchet higher. I shake my head in bewilderment when I hear of someone swallowing a detergent pod, but at least they are not putting others in harm’s way.

Vehicle Travel Should Be Serious

More concerning is seeing videos of people using today’s vehicle partial automation systems, like Tesla AutoPilot, beyond the scope of its capabilities or trying to figure out how to trick it into functioning as a more highly automated system. I have no issues with hardware hacking of stationary devices, or vehicle systems not related to driving. Repurposing hardware you have purchased to provide added functionality can be fun, educational, and allows you to extract more value from it.

But modifying or tricking a vehicle’s guidance system puts innocent bystanders at risk, with potentially disastrous consequences. People who override driver assistance systems or pay little attention to the vehicle’s operation could negatively affect the adoption of automated vehicles.

Consumers Shouldn’t Overestimate Vehicle Autopilot

Tesla AutoPilot and similar systems from General Motors, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and others are not automated driving systems. Except for GM’s SuperCruise, none of these systems are reliably able to hold a vehicle in lane to the degree of hands-off functionality. All of the driving systems, including GM’s, require the driver to remain engaged with eyes on the road and ready to take over.

Overconfident Users Are Misusing Existing Automated Capabilities

While Tesla CEO Elon Musk often talks about software updates that will give AutoPilot full self-driving capability, that day has not arrived and may never be here with the current generation of hardware. Despite the well-known flaws and limitations of AutoPilot, Tesla owners continue to ignore warnings from the system and the company, using the system in ways or in places where it should be disabled. One owner that has posted dozens of videos to YouTube recently tried to demonstrate that stuffing oranges between the steering wheel rim and spokes could fool the system into thinking the driver’s hands were on the wheel. Had this been done on a closed track, it might have been an interesting stunt. On a public road, with other vehicles around, this was downright reckless.

An Apple engineer recently died when his Tesla was on AutoPilot mode and ran into a highway barrier in California. While the system clearly failed to hold the vehicle in the lane, this driver had previously complained about the car exhibiting the same bad behavior to Tesla service. Since the accident, several other Tesla owners have replicated the situation while recording video with a hand-held phone, risking further injuries.

A pedestrian was killed by an Uber autonomous test vehicle in another instance of a driver not paying attention as instructed and pushing the technology beyond its limits. Automakers need to continue clarifying the vast differences between the driver assist technologies of today and the driver not needed technologies of tomorrow.

Holding out Hope for Progress

A number of studies have already shown that a majority of people don’t trust automated driving systems. Automation has the potential to provide enormous societal benefits by saving lives and damage to property. However, if the actions of those looking for views erode public trust in the technology even as it improves, those benefits may remain off in the horizon.


2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio – The Preferred Italian For Winter Driving

2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvio ti Lusso AWD

Ever since Fiat Chrysler reintroduced Alfa Romeo to America a few years back, each successive model has become more practical and usable. The tiny 4C is a brilliant little carbon-fiber roadster, but best considered a toy. The Giulia is a gorgeous midsize sports sedan that’s available with a twin-turbocharged V6 that sounds like it came straight out of a mid-1980s Ferrari F1 car. But as much as I adored the Giulia Quadrifoglio, it’s pricey and as discussed previously it’s too low to the ground to deal with a major snow storm. But Alfa has us covered there as well with its first-ever utility vehicle, the Stelvio which I drove the week before the big storm.

Read the rest of the review here


Sharing Companies Shouldn’t Get Free Rides

One of the big themes of recent years has been the emergence of the so-called “sharing” economy. Unless we were raised by hardcore Ayn Rand acolytes, chances are that as children we were taught that sharing is good, and I certainly subscribe to that philosophy. However, the kind of sharing I learned was about splitting cookies or letting other kids play with my toys. It wasn’t about business, it was for free in an altruistic manner. What we increasingly experience today is a freelance gig economy that has little to do with that kind of sharing, and has everything to do with commerce.

The Capitalism of Sharing

Why is this relevant? Many of the shared economy startups claim to be enablers of sharing when in fact they are independent business enablers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we need to recognize these companies and their products for what they are and treat them accordingly from a policy standpoint.

Instagram is, or at least was before it was taken over by “paid influencers,” a place for users to share photos with friends. Uber and Lyft are platforms that enable freelance taxi drivers to give rides to strangers for pay. AirBnB is a platform to let people rent rooms, apartments, or houses to strangers for pay. Turo is a platform that lets individuals try to become Hertz by making their cars available to rent.

Dictionary definitions of sharing don’t rule out commerce since we buy fractions of companies and other products and call them shares. But the messaging from these companies always seems to focus on sharing in the altruistic context. This framing of the message is often used as part of the argument for circumventing regulations that govern the traditional form of the industries these new businesses are trying to compete with.

Safety in Sharing?

While there are undoubtedly plenty of rules in the taxi, hospitality, and rental businesses that are outdated and in many cases simply protectionist for incumbents, there are others that provide a public good. Background checks for taxi and livery drivers aren’t a terrible idea when it comes to public safety. Ensuring that homes being rented out to travelers meet building safety codes is ultimately a good thing. Managing where people pick up rental cars or hail rides at airports or in cities is crucial to safe and efficient operation for everyone. Yet some upstarts seem to think they get a free ride from regulations by playing the sharing card.

In late January 2018, Turo was in a dispute with the City of San Francisco about permitting at the San Francisco International Airport. The rules are meant to help pay for upkeep of the airport and manage traffic congestion. Turo claims it is not a rental company on the basis of it not owning or renting the physical assets, similar to the arguments made by Uber, Airbnb, and others. While the operational details differ from incumbent to incumbent, the end result to the customer is effectively the same as with those established players. They make reservations and payments using the startups portal, pick up their rental, and drive.

Compliance with reasonable business rules will be increasingly important as we transition to automated mobility services. Navigant Research’s report, Market Data: Automated Driving Vehicles, anticipates nearly 5 million such vehicles being deployed by 2025. If cities cannot manage where they go, congestion is likely to get worse rather than improve. We need to find a cooperative balance between overregulation and being completely laissez faire if we are to solve our transportation problems.


Detroit Auto Show Stars Fund Future Promised at CES

For many of us that keep tabs on the automotive industry for a living, the first 2 weeks of January are among the most grueling of the year. The North American International Auto Show in Detroit has kicked off the year for several decades. And in the past 10 years, International CES in Las Vegas has become an increasingly important addition to our schedule as the two events run back to back. The announcements at 2018’s shows illustrated some of the crucial interconnections between the growth of technology and the transportation business.

For automakers, CES has largely been a place where they talk about future technologies and try to shift the media’s perception of them from being old-fashioned metal benders to forward-thinking visionaries. They rarely show actual new products, instead focusing on automated and connected concept vehicles. The Detroit show, like most other auto shows, targets consumers that are buying vehicles in the coming year.

For an industry that is facing the biggest transformation in more than 100 years, this is a crucial time. While many recent auto shows have highlighted new plug-in and hybrid vehicles, there were almost none in Detroit this year. Instead, the biggest announcements came from the Detroit-area manufacturers, and they were all pickup trucks—mostly full-size. Fiat Chrysler unveiled the redesigned 2019 Ram 1500. Chevrolet brought out a new from the ground up Silverado, and Ford launched a diesel version of the F-150 and a midsize Ranger pickup.

Profit in Pickups

Pickups are a segment that is likely to be among the last to gain highly automated driving capabilities, as discussed in Navigant Research’s Market Data: Automated Driving Vehicles forecast and its Leaderboard reports. However, those automation technologies were a major topic of conversation in Las Vegas, particularly in the context of whether manufacturers will build new business models around these costly, complicated, support-intensive vehicles.

That’s why pickups are so important to Detroit. They are the profit engines that keep this industry humming along while indirectly funding R&D efforts that will create the next big things. Part of why Ford is bringing the Ranger back to North America is that the average selling price of an F-150 is now more than $58,000. Pickups and large SUVs generate far more profit per vehicle than any small car and they sell in far larger volumes than any other segment in the American market. Ford is projected to make a full-year 2017 profit of more than $9 billion, largely thanks to sales of nearly 900,000 F-series trucks. Even the third place Fiat Chrysler sold more than 500,000 Ram pickups in 2017.

All three manufacturers are adopting fuel efficiency technologies such as 48 V mild-hybrids, dynamic cylinder deactivation, diesel and active aerodynamics in order to meet fuel economy requirements, as discussed in Navigant Research’s Automotive Fuel Efficiency Strategies report. However, until they all figure out how to make sustainable profits in the new age of mobility, we can rest assured that they will continue pressing ahead with enhancing the customer appeal of these trucks in order to keep the cash flowing to develop the promises made at CES.


Some Thoughts on Meeting Your Heroes

There’s an old adage that you should never meet your heroes because you will inevitably be disappointed, or something to that effect. As I ponder the people I’ve come to know and in many cases befriend over the past decade, I’ve come to believe the core premise of that statement is fundamentally flawed. We are all after all simply human beings and without our inherent flaws and frailties, raising anyone to hero status diminishes that humanity.

In many ways, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the course of my life and career. When I was young I spent countless hours pouring through car books and magazines wishing I could be the narrator or protagonist in those tales. After focusing on engine design and vehicle dynamics while studying mechanical engineering, my later work took me off in very different directions which would later prove be very valuable to me. However, throughout the first decade of my professional life, I never really imagined where my path would ultimately take me and who I would know today.

It was only the emergence of blogging and online journalism that opened new doorways that I was able to pass through. As a young reader and engineer I was aware of the many names on bylines and the characters they wrote about. Executives, designers, engineers, racers and writers. In some respects I saw some or many of them as personal heroes that I’d like to emulate.

Now however, as I’m well into middle age, having met many of these people, my view is more tempered. While I’ve obviously never met many of the people that are widely considered truly heroic like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Eleanor Roosevelt, we’ve all heard enough about other aspects of their respective lives to realize that above all else, humans.

This is not meant to denigrate the accomplishments or actions of any of those people. The accomplishments must be taken in context. The context of our limitations and flaws and humans and the environment in which we live. In some cases, that context will serve to further elevate while in others, we’ll find that the accomplishments came about by mistreating those around the person we might have admired.

I’ve been remarkably fortunate in that I feel like the balance in my life has been generally toward the positive people. Despite some of the personal struggles along the way, having the opportunity to know and befriend many of the people whose work has inspired, educated and entertained me over the 40-some years since I became interested in cars has been a wonderful experience and I’m eternally grateful to my amazing wife for supporting me along my path.

But there have been those that I now know enough about that I would never want to consider as friends despite still respecting what they achieved.

Ultimately though, I’ve come to believe that hero worship is not a positive thing and it should be discouraged. It would be better for society as a whole if we all looked at each other in the context of our lives. By elevating people excessively despite the decidedly not heroic aspects, we are dehumanizing them. In that, we lose the perspective that we are all capable of doing admirable things great and small and being better humans.