2013 Ford Taurus: TomorrowÂ’s Car, Today

Usually, car companies keep their new models under wraps until the very last minute because they would like to sell the current models for as long as they possibly can. Since new models frequently make current models look hopelessly outmoded, you can understand where they are coming from. But today, that method of madness might be changing simply because the competitive pressure to capture the public fancy is so great. The year 2013 is still way off in the distance for most of us, but this past week Ford used the New York International Auto Show as a venue to introduce its 2013 model year Taurus and Taurus SHO, two very important models in its portfolio. Since General Motors took the same opportunity to show its 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, you can understand why Ford was willing to pull the wraps off the Taurus early.

The biggest piece of news is the fact that the 2013 Taurus will be the first car in Ford’s North American lineup to offer the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine, which uses a turbocharger and direct injection to deliver highway fuel economy that is expected to be at least 31 mpg. Lest you think the engine is too weak to power the substantial Taurus, rest assured it will offer an estimated 237 horsepower. Equally encouraging is the upgrade on the standard 3.5-liter V-6, which will get a bump of 27 horsepower to about 290 horsepower thanks in large part to the addition of twin independent variable camshaft timing. Both engines are teamed with unique six-speed automatic transmissions that are engineered to maximize their special benefits. And in this era of high fuel prices, it is nice to know that a great deal of engineering time went into gasoline-conserving tech, such as a low-tension accessory drive belt, smart battery management, a variable-displacement air conditioning compressor, and reduced-friction lubricants. The electric power-assisted steering not only saves gas; it also can be tuned for more responsive handling and a better feel. And who doesn’t like a better feel?

The Ford engineers didn’t stop at tweaking the steering either. They also hard-mounted the steering rack and optimized the springs and shocks. Then, they dipped into the relatively new art of electronic torque vectoring. The feature, which will be standard on all 2013 Tauruses, applies a slight amount of braking force on the inside front wheel when accelerating through a corner, providing an effect analogous to that of a mechanical limited-slip differential. The result is a vehicle that feels more maneuverable, largely because it is. Working out of the same trick bag, engineers also added curve control, a braking control innovation aimed at averting single-car accidents that occur when drivers enter curves too swiftly. The application of so-called “smart four-wheel braking” can turn a potential crash into a non-event. Additional safety items include adaptive cruise-control, collision warning with brake support, Blind Spot Information System, cross-traffic alert and the MyKey feature, which enables parents to limit top speeds and audio volume. It can also prevent kids from listening to the adult channels on satellite radio.

To accompany these changes, Ford designers have refined the already handsome and distinctive Taurus exterior. The new Taurus features a more muscular hood, as well as larger wheels and tires that better fill out the wheel-well openings. At the rear, larger, full LED tail lamps are affixed to the Taurus’s heftier haunches, and the SHO model is graced with an attractive new grille. New features include a heated steering wheel, multi-contour seats with Active Motion rolling massage, rearview camera and rear-window power sunshade. Auto high-beams and rain-sensing wipers are other luxury-class-grade additions.

Suffice it to say the 2013 Taurus is filled with innovation, and it looks better than the current car to boot. Normally, a car company wouldn’t be tipping its next hand so early, but these are very competitive times, and the New York International Auto show is a big stage. We’ll see whether showing their cards so soon was worth the gamble.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Aging Drivers Cause Concern

Millions of Americans have a loved one over the age of 70. With one in five Americans caring for an older relative, the number of adults concerned about their parents’ driving abilities is on the rise. According to a new survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab and The Hartford, one out of 10 adults is worried about their elderly family members being on the road.

The key question that has to be asked: When do you pull the keys? It is not an issue to take lightly. Today, the automobile has become so ingrained in our culture that taking away a person’s ability to drive severely hampers his or her opportunity to interact with others and provide themselves with necessities like food. At the same time, continuing to give driving privileges to a person whose driving skills have significantly deteriorated can have tragic consequences. Simply discussing driving issues with a close relative can be stressful and contentious.

“We understand that talking to a parent about their driving can be very difficult,” said Jodi Olshevski, gerontologist at The Hartford. “If you’re worried, you should find out if your concerns are valid. Learn the warning signs, get in the car and observe the older driver. Once you get the facts and educate yourself about the resources available, you will be in a better position to help.”

Red flags that point to waning driving ability may vary. Some of the less serious issues may be resolved by changing driving behavior or improving physical fitness, while the more serious behaviors may require immediate action -- like telling your loved one that they can never drive again.

“Making a single minor driving mistake doesn’t mean that a person needs to stop driving,” says Lisa D’Ambrosio, a research scientist at MIT AgeLab. “What families need to do is look for patterns of warning signs and for an increase in frequency and severity of the warning signs.”

Here are 20 key warning signs of deteriorating driving skills, ranked from minor to serious:

  • Feels less confident while driving
  • Has difficulty turning to see when backing up
  • Easily distracted while driving
  • Honked at by other drivers on the road
  • Hits curbs often
  • Scrapes or dents car, mailbox or garage
  • Experiences increased agitation or irritation while driving
  • Fails to notice traffic signs or important activity on the side of the road
  • Has trouble navigating turns
  • Uses bad judgment when making left turns
  • Does not respond to unexpected situations quickly enough
  • Moves into wrong lane or has difficulty maintaining lane position
  • Gets confused at exits
  • Has been ticketed or given warnings for moving violations
  • Gets lost in familiar places
  • Has been involved in a car accident
  • Stops in traffic for no apparent reason

If someone in your family exhibits some of these behaviors -- especially those on the lower, more severe end of the scale -- you need to come to terms with the issue before a tragedy occurs. To help families prepare for and initiate thoughtful conversations with older drivers, AARP, The Hartford and MIT AgeLab teamed up to produce We Need to Talk, a free course that helps family members to understand the emotional connection to driving, observe their loved ones’ driving skills and plan the conversation.

“Taking time to prepare can alleviate these concerns and help initiate a thoughtful, positive conversation,” said Julie Lee, director of the AARP Driver Safety Program. “We Need to Talk helps families think through who the right messenger is, when the right time to talk might be and provides some conversation-starters. It also covers how to design a transportation plan that provides the driver with alternatives for getting around.”

Keeping Your Battery Happy

Let’s face it, car batteries are problem children: It’s very hard to monitor them, and they either need constant attention or prefer to be ignored altogether. And just when you need them the most, they might fail you. 

That’s frustrating enough, but these days, car batteries are more important than ever because vehicles depend on them not only for starting the engine and providing the spark that ignites the fuel in the cylinders, but also for powering the onboard computers that control just about everything else. A modern car without a battery is a boat without an oar, a cheeseburger without the cheese, a Christmas morning without children’s laughter. And it won’t get you very far either.

So what are you to do about this potential problem waiting to happen that resides under the hood of your car? Maintenance, yes, maintenance. Do the things a battery likes; avoid doing things a battery doesn’t like. (Note: If you substitute the word “wife” for the word “battery” in that sentence, you also have the key to a happy home.) And since avoiding the bad might well be more important than doing the good, here are some things you shouldn’t do with your battery:

1. If your battery is frozen, don’t charge it. Why? It might explode, that’s why -- and we’re pretty sure that’s something you don’t want. How do you tell if your battery is frozen? One sign is that the sides are bowed out, as if the battery gained weight after a big winter meal. This condition is dangerous, and the battery will need to be replaced.

2. If you need to charge your battery, be absolutely certain you know how its charger works. Go to that oddball length of actually reading the instructions. To help avoid inadvertent damage to the battery, you might also want to switch the charger to a low-charge setting. Most chargers have this feature. If you’re not comfortable using your own up-to-date charger, have a professional charge the battery.

3. Don’t attempt to charge a dead battery with a car’s alternator (or a margarita machine, for that matter). Neither an alternator nor a cold-drink blender is designed to function as a charger, and they might damage the battery if used.

4. Never put any part of your body over a battery when charging, testing or jump-starting the engine. (You know which body parts you treasure most, but you probably want to keep them all.) As previously mentioned, batteries have been known to explode, causing grievous harm to those nearby.

5. Don’t disconnect battery cables while the engine is running. Several bad things can happen in this circumstance, and we can’t think of any good that’ll come out of it. (This is doubly the case if the car is moving.)

6. Don't let your battery lose power completely. Most car batteries get their power from lead cells submerged in electrolyte, and these cells can be damaged when the battery has no power at all, shortening the battery’s life -- or worst case, ending its life right there on the spot.

7. Don’t let the battery get hot while charging. At the same time, don’t let yourself get hot while charging. Again, nothing good can come out of that.

By avoiding this kind of stuff -- and common sense items like cleaning your battery with the garden hose -- your car’s electrical system (and your wife) will be that much happier.


Should Fuel Taxes Be Raised?

Do you think the taxes you pay are too low? Not many of you are likely to say “Yes” to that question, but a new study might change your mind at least in one area: state fuel taxes. A new analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a nonprofit that examines the implications of United States tax policy, says that state governments are losing out on more than $10 billion in transportation-related revenue each year. Critics might say that keeping that money away from bumbling governmental spenders is a good thing, but since the money raised by gas taxes would typically go directly to improving roads and related infrastructure, consumers and commerce might well be suffering from this revenue shortfall. The ITEP report suggests that the lost fuel tax revenue results in an estimated $130 billion drain on the economy resulting from higher vehicle repair costs and travel-time delays.

The organization says that state lawmakers who are understandably reluctant to raise gasoline taxes have cost their states, on average, $201 million in annual revenues by not pegging gasoline taxes to inflation. These losses are accompanied by the declining value of the current federal gas tax, which also supports state transportation projects. It has not been raised since 1993 and it has lost 41 percent of its value because of inflation over that time timespan.

“Unfortunately, many politicians won’t consider touching the gas tax,” says Carl Davis, senior analyst at ITEP and author of the study. “They are raising sales taxes, fees on vehicles, tolls on roads, even looting education funds, all to make up for the stagnant gas tax. But they can’t bring themselves to modernize the biggest source of transportation revenue that’s actually under their control. It makes no sense.”

The report “Building a Better Gas Tax” shows that the average state has not increased its gasoline tax rate in more than a decade, and 14 states have gone 20 years or longer without an increase. One has to believe that citizens of those states have reasons to be happy about that, but while state gas taxes remain flat, the cost of paving roads and building bridges has risen markedly, often at a rate higher than general inflation.

“It’s basic math,” says Davis. “The road repairs you could buy in 1990 with 20 cents, for example, are going to cost 34 cents today. But we still see some states collecting the same flat 20-cent tax that they did back in 1990. That’s the definition of unsustainable.”

After adjusting for construction cost growth and general inflation, the average state’s effective gasoline tax rate is down by 20 percent, or 6.8 cents per gallon, since the last time it was raised. The effective rate of taxes on diesel fuel is off by 18 percent, or 6.0 cents per gallon. Note that the taxes haven’t been lowered; they simply have not been raised to keep up with inflation.

Today’s state gas taxes make up a smaller portion of family budgets than at any time since the tax was first widely instituted in the 1920s, the study says. So should we raise gasoline taxes? That is the thorny issue. A 10-cent-per-gallon increase would cost today’s average driver $4.31 per month, and the 6.8-cent-per-gallon increase needed in the average state would cost the average driver $2.93 per month, according to the report. But the report also acknowledges that a gasoline tax is regressive, that is, it has a disproportionate effect on low-income families, who often use as much gasoline as high-income families.

“Building a Better Gas Tax” offers three specific policy recommendations for modernizing -- and increasing -- state gasoline taxes. They are:

1.    Increase gas tax rates to reverse their long-term declines; the “appropriate rate” of increase desired varies by state.

2.    Peg gas tax to grow alongside the cost of transportation construction projects.

3.    Create or enhance targeted tax credits for low-income families to offset the impact of gas tax increases.

Will the proposal fly? In these days of economic malaise, often made worse by high taxes, onerous regulations, and red tape, it might struggle for air. But as consumers and businessmen alike see the country’s roads and bridges crumble, it might well gain traction.

Relieving Back Pain -- One Drive at a Time

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, back pain ranks second only to headaches as the most frequent cause of pain, and one of the leading causes of this discomfort is the increased amount of time that Americans are spending in their vehicles. A University of California study revealed that the average driver spends 101 minutes per day on the road, and 50 percent of drivers report that they experience lower back pain. This led Ford to completely rethink the way it designs its seats.

“People are spending more time in their vehicles and continually touch the seats, which is why it has become increasingly important to ensure their seat is both comfortable and supportive,” says Mike Kolich, Ford’s seat comfort engineer. “We are designing our seats so when drivers and passengers arrive at their destinations, they are relaxed and ready to go.”

Kolich is a member of the global seating team that was established in 2005 to bring the development of industry-leading seats in-house at Ford. The team creates seats that ensure drivers and passengers are comfortable whether they are in Detroit, Paris, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing. When the team of engineers (three each in Europe and Brazil, seven in North America, and one in Asia) studied customer data in each region, they learned that many of their old assumptions about seats were wrong.

“We used to think Europeans liked aggressively shaped seats with firm cushions, while Americans preferred flat, cushy seats,” says Kolich. “The reality is that regardless of the size and shape of a driver’s backside, they tend to value roughly the same characteristics when it comes to comfort. European drivers actually wanted somewhat more cushioning than previously thought, while Americans wanted better support.”

After running thousands of tests with drivers and passengers around the world, the team was able to quantify a set of common standards that would provide more comfort -- no matter where people drive a Ford vehicle. The challenge was to build seats that hold occupants in place, increase interior roominess and contribute to the goal of reducing vehicle weight. While working on the seats for the new 2013 Ford Escape, Kolich studied dozens of chairs used outside of the automotive industry for ideas about what makes a seat comfortable for long periods of time.

“If you look at the advancements in office chairs from the 1960s (when luxury meant big, puffy cushions) to where they are now (with thin, ergonomic chairs that still feel luxurious), it’s definitely a major change in the way seats are designed,” he says.

By using the same computer simulation tools available to crash safety engineers, the team has developed an award-winning, world-class front seat structure that is 10 percent lighter, meets global requirements and provides enhanced functionality. This work has resulted in seven Ford-exclusive patent applications to date. The all-new 2013 Escape is the first Ford vehicle with a global seat architecture that is specifically designed to conform to the new Ford seat DNA.

So how different are they from the seats in other vehicles? When viewed from above, other seat backs typically have a U-shape, where the main central portion of the cushion is flat with side bolsters emerging from the outer edges. A driver with a torso that is the same width as the seat would be properly restrained during cornering maneuvers, but a thinner driver could find him or herself sliding toward the outer bolster when going around a curve. The new Escape seats feature a V-shape contour that self-centers the driver much as a ball rolling down a V-shaped groove will tend to settle toward the center. Whatever the size or shape of the driver in the 2013 Escape, that person will find him or herself centered in front of the steering wheel and instrument panel and properly positioned relative to the airbags in the event of a crash. In addition, slimmer seat backs and optimized cushions contribute to increased foot and knee room for rear-seat passengers.

After the seats were designed, Ford engineers weren’t through. They had to make certain that the new design passed the test, so comfort evaluations were conducted using a turntable with five different seats mounted on it. Testers sat down on a seat and gave a subjective rating, and then the turntable rotated to bring the next seat around. All of these efforts are paying off, as the survey conducted by the Global Quality Research System shows that satisfaction with Ford seats rose steadily between 2005 and 2010. Now the new Escape seats hope to kick it up another notch.