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More New Vehicles Get Forward-Crash Prevention Systems

By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

More cars are coming equipped with robotic functions that protect drivers from front-end crashes with other vehicles or objects, which could result in fewer crashes and lower insurance rates for drivers.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said 52 percent of the 784 new vehicle models come with technology that alerts a driver to a pending crash as either a standard or optional feature.

Among 2015 models, 27 percent also offer robotic braking, which automatically slows or stops the vehicle without driver intervention if a crash is imminent. That’s more than twice as many as in the 2012 model year.

“Automatic braking is an accessible technology that’s within reach for many drivers,” said David Zuby, the insurance institute’s executive vice president and chief research officer. “That’s a welcome sign for highway safety and helps pave the way for the eventual deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.”

Early studies are finding the technology is effective. Front-crash prevention systems use cameras, radar and laser sensors to judge whether a vehicle is getting too close to one in front of it. Most systems issue a warning and pre-charge the brakes to maximize their effect if the driver responds by braking, while others have robotic braking.

Automatic braking systems slash front-end crashes 14 percent compared with the same vehicles that don’t offer the feature, according to the institute’s research. Vehicles that only alert drivers to a potential crash, but don’t stop the car, cut collisions 7 percent.

Although the trade group has not measured the technology’s effect on insurance premiums, it believes that fewer crashes will soon be reflected in lower rates, said Russ Rader, an institute spokesman.

Mike Doerfler, Progressive’s product development manager, said the insurer “is starting to lower rates for vehicles with stability control, adaptive headlights and forward-collision warning with braking. We’re introducing that on a state-by-state basis.”

But Rader said vehicle design will influence which vehicles eventually realize premium savings. Many automakers are putting the crash-prevention sensors behind the grille in the front end where they’re vulnerable to being damaged.

“The sensors are expensive to replace, so that can offset the cost benefits of fewer crashes,” he said.

Some manufacturers are making adjustments and moving the sensors to the windshield ahead of the rear-view mirror, where they’re better protected, Rader said.

The insurance group tested the systems and rated the vehicles as basic, advanced or superior for front-crash prevention depending on whether they offer autobrake and, if so, how effective it proves in tests at 12 mph and 25 mph.

Typically, these systems are offered on luxury vehicles or as expensive options. But some automakers, including Mercedes-Benz and Toyota, are making them standard or offering the features as part of a comparatively lower-cost safety-oriented option package.
Toyota, for example, plans to offer safety-package options for nearly every Toyota and Lexus vehicle sold in the U.S. by the end of 2016. The packages will sell for $300 to $500 for Toyotas and $500 to $635 for Lexus models.

Mercedes-Benz is the first automaker to offer a standard front-crash-prevention system that earns the “superior” rating in IIHS test track evaluations. The system comes on Mercedes’ 2015 C-Class, CLA and E-Class.

The technology is catching on with more mainstream nameplates. Seven of the 19 superior- or advanced-rated models in the institute’s latest testing round are moderately priced: Chrysler 300; Dodge Charger; Mazda 6 and CX-5; and Volkswagen Golf, Golf SportWagen and Jetta.

In the latest testing, 14 new models earned the superior rating and five won the advanced rating.

The “superior” vehicles included the 2016 Acura ILX, MDX, RDX and RLX; 2016 BMW X3; 2015 Chrysler 300 and its twin, the 2015 Dodge Charger; 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, CLA and E-Class; and the 2016 Mazda 6 and CX-5. The vehicles rated advanced for front-crash prevention were the 2016 Volkswagen Golf, Golf SportWagen, Jetta and 2015 Volkswagen Touareg.

BMW’s X3 earned an advanced rating when equipped with BMW’s camera-only system, called City Braking Function, and is rated superior when equipped with a camera- and radar-based system.

Acura was pleased with the results.

“Acura is committed to implementing the AcuraWatch suite of safety and driver-assistive technologies on all models, and the recent IIHS results further validates our effort to remain the safety leader in the luxury segment,” said Gary Robinson, manager of Acura product planning.

Photo: Cars undergo Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests of forward-collision avoidance systems. (Photo courtesy IIHS/TNS)

High Gas Prices Driving You Crazy? Do These Simple Things To Slash Your Gasoline Bill

By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

You can’t control the price of gas, but you can minimize the damage to your wallet. Many drivers can improve their fuel economy by 10 percent or more with some easy steps.

“Motorists can significantly reduce fuel consumption and save money by simply adjusting their driving style,” said Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer for the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. “Driving style impacts motorists’ wallets because warming up an engine, speeding and ‘jack rabbit’ starts can needlessly use precious fuel.”

Perhaps the easiest move is to keep your tires fully inflated to their recommended maximum pressure.

Make sure your engine is properly tuned and has adequate oil and coolant circulating through the system.

If a car has an eco-mode setting, use it. It forces drivers to accelerate more smoothly and saves energy.

Use cruise control on fairly flat roads because a steady speed conserves fuel, but avoid it in hilly terrain where it could hurt fuel economy.

Always drive gently off the line; never accelerate hard from a stop.

Don’t tailgate on the freeway. Allow five or six car lengths so that if the car in front brakes, you don’t have to hit your brakes. Coast and allow the gap to close somewhat. Generally, the car in front will accelerate again before you get close enough to have to use your brakes.

Anticipate stops. If you see a red light, stop sign or heavy traffic ahead of you, let off the accelerator and coast.

Keep your top speed at about 60 mph.

Don’t haul stuff in your car that you don’t need. Take the golf clubs or flat of bottled water out of the trunk when you get home. Reducing extra weight can save up to 2 percent fuel economy for every 100 pounds removed, according to AAA.

Lose the roof rack if it’s not being used regularly. It increases aerodynamic drag and reduces fuel economy.

Shop around for gas smartly. Used the AAA or GasBuddy apps to see which stations near your location have the lowest gas prices. Don’t drive 10 miles to the nearest Costco gas station. Traveling long distances to save a few cents wastes fuel and may cost more money in the end.

Know what gas your vehicle requires. If the recommended fuel for your vehicle is regular, don’t waste money on a higher grade. It won’t improve performance or fuel economy.

Look for frequent-buyer discounts. Several supermarket chains provide gas discounts based on the volume of groceries you purchase. Some oil company and other credit cards provide a rebate when you fill up.

If you have more than one car in your household, make sure the vehicle with the best fuel economy gets the most use.

Consolidate trips and errands to cut down on driving and the number of miles driven.

Avoid the drive-through. Park the car and walk into the restaurant or coffee shop.

Don’t leave your engine on while parked. There’s no reason to let the motor idle if you aren’t moving or stuck at a red light.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Drivers can improve fuel economy by traveling at steady speeds, anticipating stops and making sure tires are properly inflated. (Photo courtesy Fotolia/TNS)

Wiring Problem Spurs Chrysler Recall Of 895,000 Jeep And Dodge SUVs

By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

Chrysler Group is recalling about 895,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicles because of a wiring problem that could start a fire.

The automaker said if one of these vehicles needs a repair that includes servicing the vanity mirror and/or headliner, the wiring — located inside the sun visor — may be subject to short-circuit and fire if not appropriately reassembled by the dealer. The headliner is the upholstered roof on the interior of the vehicles.

But the problem has not been reported in vehicles that have not had the headliner or vanity mirror serviced.

Chrysler said it knows of three injuries linked to the problem.

The recall campaign includes 2011-14 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango models. An estimated 651,000 vehicles are in the U.S.; 45,700 are in Canada; 23,000 are in Mexico; and 175,000 are outside of North America.

Dealers will install a spacer containing a guide that will keep the lines properly routed, preventing a potential short-circuit during reassembly. The automaker said it will do the work on all of the recalled vehicles, regardless of whether the vanity mirror and/or headliner has been serviced.

This recall brings the number of vehicles called back by automakers in the U.S. to about 40 million so far this year, surpassing the previous high of 30.8 million set in 2004.

General Motors, which has had problems with ignition switches in a wide selection of its vehicles, accounts for about 26 million of the recalled autos. But there also have been large recalls by Toyota, Ford, Honda, and others.

AFP Photo/Geoff Robins

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Ford Recalls 101,000 Vehicles

By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

This year’s record wave of automotive recalls continued Tuesday with Ford Motor Co. calling back about 101,000 vehicles in North America — including its Edge and Flex sport-utility vehicles, for a variety of problems.

This latest action demonstrates how automakers are recalling vehicles for major defects and minor issues. The recalls included more than 90,000 SUVs and sedans that can have a linkage problem that shuts off power to the wheels, as well as 368 Transit Connect commercial vans because the brake fluid reservoir cap has a European rather than U.S. label.

Automakers have become sensitive to recalls after Toyota paid a $1.2 billion federal fine this year for misleading regulators about defects, and General Motors became the target of numerous federal investigations for waiting about a decade to recall cars with a faulty ignition system linked to more than 50 crashes and at least 13 deaths.

Ford’s recalls bring the number of vehicles called back by automakers in the U.S. to about 40 million this year, surpassing the previous high of 30.8 million, in 2004.

GM accounts for about 26 million of the recalled autos. There also have been large recalls by Toyota, Subaru, Nissan, Honda and others. Without GM, the industry has recalled about 14 million vehicles this year, about two-thirds of the number all automakers recalled in the U.S. in all of last year, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Ford’s action includes 92,022 Taurus, Lincoln MKS and Police Interceptor sedans, and Flex and Lincoln MKT SUVs, all from the 2013-2014 model years. It also includes 2012-2014 model year Edge and 2014 MKX SUVs.

All of these vehicles have a potential problem where the linkage in the powertrain to the right front wheel can break. When that happens, the engine still runs but the wheels don’t get power. Additionally, this condition may result in the car rolling away from a parked position if the gearshift is placed in “park” without the parking brake being activated. No accidents or injuries have been attributed to this problem.

Dealers will inspect the vehicles and replace parts if they see problems.

Ford also recalled 197 Fiesta compact cars from the 2014 model year because the fuel tank supplier left out an adhesive layer and the tank can leak and start a fire. Dealers will replace the fuel tanks in these cars. There were no incidents reported linked to this potential problem, the automaker said.

Additionally, Ford recalled 2,124 Escape SUVs in North America because the panorama roof glass may have an improperly cured urethane bond between the glass and the attaching bracket. The roof can leak and the glass can come loose. No accidents or injuries have been attributed to this condition.

Also, 6,000 Ford commercial vehicle and motor home chassis were recalled, either for an electrical problem or an issue with the brake system, depending on the vehicle.

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

GM To Release Investigation Report On Deadly Ignition Switch

By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

General Motors Co. plans to release the findings of a much-anticipated investigation into why it delayed recalling defective cars linked to at least 13 deaths.

Chief Executive Mary Barra is scheduled to brief employees Thursday on the results of a three-month probe by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas.

The report is expected to detail why GM failed to recall about 2.6 million vehicles with a faulty ignition switch, even though the automaker knew more than a decade ago that the switch could unexpectedly shut off cars and disable critical features such as air bags and power steering.

The automaker hired Valukas to investigate whether GM balked at fixing the cars because of the expense and whether employees covered up the problem and hid key details from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

When Barra learned of the problem is among the key findings expected to be revealed. Barra, a longtime GM executive, took the helm of the company in January. Barra said she first heard about the switch issue late last year.

GM also is the target of NHTSA, Justice Department and congressional probes into the ignition switch problem. The switch can shift, suddenly turning off in certain conditions, such as driving on rough roads or when the driver has an especially heavy key ring. GM has warned drivers to operate the vehicles with only a single key.

Auto safety advocates will be looking for details about why the faulty switch was approved by GM’s engineering staff for small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. GM no longer builds the models with the switch problem.

The engineers had two competing designs for the switch back in 2001, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

“GM approved and put into production a less safe and cheaper part,” Ditlow said. “Valukas has to explain that.”

The automaker should have used its design for a more robust system, which had a longer and stronger spring that required greater force to start and turn off the vehicles, Ditlow said.

In 2006, GM suddenly started to install the beefier design in the vehicles. But the company didn’t change the part number or notify safety regulators that it made the change, Ditlow said.

“Valukas has to explain what triggered the change and why didn’t they change the part number,” Ditlow said “Not doing that makes the move look like a cover-up.”

Changing the design would have caused the number of reports involving the car models to decline and may have partially hid the problem from safety regulators, Ditlow said.

“NHTSA won’t open an investigation if they see a declining defect trend,” Ditlow said. “Changing the part without changing the part number was an effort to deceive NHTSA.”

“I want to know who approved all of this,” Ditlow said. “How high up the management chain did this go?”

Ditlow said that based on his review of NHTSA data, he believes more than 13 people have died in accidents caused by the defective part.

NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman also has said he believes the number of deaths will grow as the agency continues to investigate the problem.

So far, GM has repaired less than 100,000 of the millions of vehicles recalled because of the defective switch and says it could take at least until October to fix all the cars.

Because of the delays, the company is offering free vehicles to owners of the recalled cars. So far it has paid for more than 62,000 free loaner vehicles to customers caught up in the ignition recall and who expressed safety concerns with driving their cars.

GM’s ignition switch issue prompted the company to review and change its process for how it decides to recall cars.

It appointed Jeff Boyer to the new position of vice president for global vehicle safety, making him responsible for the safety systems of GM vehicles, evaluation of their safety performance and all recalls. It created a program that recognizes employees for making safety suggestions and speaking up when they see problems.

The automaker also hired an additional 35 product investigators for safety issues and has issued 29 recalls so far this year.

GM has recalled nearly 14 million vehicles so far this year, a record for the company. Other automakers, fearing they will be criticized for not moving fast enough to address safety defects, also are recalling vehicles at a record rate for the industry.

Toyota, for example, has called back 3.3 million vehicles this year; Ford has recalled 2.8 million.

Altogether, the industry has recalled more than 24 million vehicles in just the first five months of this year. That’s more than the 22 million called back for all of last year and represents a pace likely to break the 30.8 million record set in 2004.

AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

Toyota To Pay $1.2 Billion Federal Fine To Settle Acceleration Probe

By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times

Toyota Motor Corp. has agreed to pay a $1.2 billion fine to settle a four-year federal criminal investigation into whether it properly reported safety complaints about the sudden acceleration of its vehicles to regulators.

It is the largest penalty of its kind ever imposed on an automotive company, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.

In the agreement with the Department of Justice, the Japanese automaker admitted that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety issues affecting its vehicles, each of which caused a type of unintended acceleration. The case focused on reports of floor mats jamming gas pedals and sticking gas pedals.

“Toyota put sales over safety and profit over principle,” said George Venizelos, assistant director of the FBI. “The disregard Toyota had for the safety of the public was outrageous. Not only did Toyota fail to recall cars with problem parts, they continued to manufacture new cars with the same parts they knew were deadly.”

The automaker was formally charged with one count of wire fraud, but if it abides by the settlement terms, the Justice Department will defer prosecution for three years and then seek to dismiss the charge.

“Rather than promptly disclosing and correcting safety issues about which they were aware, Toyota made misleading public statements to consumers and gave inaccurate facts to members of Congress,” Holder said.

Car owners “have a right to expect that their vehicle is safe” and manufacturers must be forthright about safety issues and fix them quickly, he said.

“Entering this agreement, while difficult, is a major step toward putting this unfortunate chapter behind us,” said Christopher P. Reynolds, chief legal officer, Toyota Motor North America. “In the more than four years since these recalls, we have gone back to basics at Toyota to put our customers first.”

Reynolds said the automaker has made significant operational changes to become a more responsive company.

Toyota has improved quality control, responded more quickly to customer concerns, and strengthened regional autonomy and decision-making, he said.
Safety advocates said the settlement will grab the attention of the entire auto industry.

“It is a game changer,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

Safety advocates have long held two goals — unlimited civil penalties and unlimited criminal penalties “and the Justice Department settlement with Toyota make both a reality,” Ditlow said.

The fine is close to 350 times the maximum penalty that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can levy on an automaker.

But the “possibility of criminal penalties is now front and center with automakers and that will change their behavior far more than a civil penalty ever will,” Ditlow said.

“Other car companies should not repeat Toyota’s mistake: A recall may damage a company’s reputation, but deceiving your customers makes that damage far more lasting,” Holder warned.

Toyota still faces a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, according to a regulatory filing the automaker made last year.

Meanwhile, Toyota’s lawyers are in settlement talks over hundreds of civil lawsuits alleging wrongful deaths or injuries, potentially adding hundreds of millions to the tab.

Previously, Toyota agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle a class-action case brought by thousands of Toyota owners who contended that sudden-acceleration problems damaged the value of their vehicles.

Toyota has faced sudden-acceleration complaints since 2009, after a California Highway Patrol officer and his family were killed when a Lexus ES crashed outside San Diego. That crash is thought to have been caused by a floor mat jamming the gas pedal in the open position. But investigators said the car was too badly damaged to be sure.

In the months after that wreck, Toyota recalled millions of vehicles, and its top executives came from Japan to testify before several congressional committees investigating the problem.

Toyota has repeatedly denied that its vehicles have an electronic flaw that might cause them to accelerate unexpectedly. Toyota has blamed such incidents on three possible causes: drivers mistaking the gas pedal for the brake; gas pedals getting stuck under floor mats; or sticky gas pedals that don’t throttle back quickly as foot pressure eases.

A 10-month investigation, conducted primarily by NASA engineers, found no evidence that electronic defects or software code errors could have caused the thousands of sudden-acceleration incidents reported over the last decade. That review blamed the incidents on the same mechanical issues identified by Toyota.

Last year, however, an Oklahoma City jury found that faulty electronic systems caused a Camry sedan to suddenly accelerate and crash, killing one woman and injuring another.

“The settlement with the Justice Department focuses on a narrow area, what they disclosed on floor issues and sticky pedals. But it still doesn’t get to what Toyota knew about the vehicle electronics,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies.

“The NASA probe was a great start but the conclusion doesn’t match the study,” he said. “The study found a handful of electronic problems that need to be explored further.”

Photo: Toyota Motor Europe via Flickr