The Dangers of Running on Empty

Since, these days, gasoline costs as much as fine wine, many drivers are trying to stretch each tankful to the limit. But this tactic can have very negative consequences that extend beyond being stranded by the side of the road, which is negative enough. AAA, which rescues more out-of-gas motorists than anyone, cautions that allowing your car to run out of fuel could not only put you in a potentially dangerous situation, but also result in costly repair bills.

“We realize some motorists are trying to be resourceful and delay fuel expenditures by driving their car until the gas tank is nearly empty, but this can sometimes do more harm than good,” says John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair, buying services and consumer information.

A key problem of getting extremely low on fuel is the gunk at the very bottom of your fuel tank. The sediment in the nether regions of the tank can clog the fuel-pump pickup, the fuel filter or the fuel injectors. You might even hit the trifecta and foul all three. In addition, as strange as it may sound, gasoline is sometimes used as a coolant for the electric fuel pump, so when a minimum level of fuel is not maintained, it could cause the pump inside the tank to overheat. The cost to replace that one component alone can cost $500 or more in parts and labor.

Then there’s the value of your personal safety, which many gauge as being priceless. Running out of gas can put you and your passengers in a precarious position if your car or truck suddenly becomes immobilized on the roadway. Power steering and power brakes cease to function in their normal manner when the engine dies, so maneuvering an out-of-gas vehicle is cumbersome at best, dangerous at worst. You can end up stranded in the middle of a busy highway -- without the ability to move your vehicle -- and find yourself at the mercy of oncoming traffic. Fortunately, out-of-gas situations are completely avoidable just by keeping an eye on the fuel gauge, says Nielsen. When you’re running low, pull into a gas station, mobilize your charge card and put some gasoline into that tank. AAA recommends that drivers always maintain at least a quarter tank of fuel.

Rather than stretching your fuel supply beyond the prudent limit, you might want to make a few simple changes in your driving habits that can greatly improve fuel economy. For instance, instead of making quick starts and sudden stops, go easy on the gas and brake pedals. Smooth driving is more fuel-efficient, and it is more pleasant for your passengers. If there is a red light ahead, ease off the gas and coast up to it rather than waiting until the last second to brake. Once the light turns green, accelerate gently rather than making a drag-strip-style start. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that aggressive driving can reduce a car’s fuel economy up to 33 percent, so you have to wonder how important it is to beat that other car across the intersection.

When you’re underway, speed is also a key factor in fuel use. The fuel efficiency of most vehicles decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Every additional 5-mile-per-hour increment above 60 mph is like paying an additional 24 cents per gallon for gas, says Nielsen. So even in this era of through-the-roof gasoline prices, you can keep some gas in your tank, and that will continue to pay dividends.

WhatÂ’s the Most Dependable Vehicle Brand?

There is a new top dog in vehicle dependability, according to the just-released 2011 J.D. Power and Associates 2011 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS.) For the first time since the study began, Ford Motor Company’s Lincoln led all the nameplates in dependability. Lexus finished second, followed by (in order) Jaguar, Porsche and Toyota. The bottom five nameplates were (in ascending order from last) MINI, Jeep, Land Rover, Dodge and Chrysler.

So how does the market research giant define the term “dependability”? The dependability study measured problems experienced during the past 12 months by original owners of three-year-old (or, in this case, 2008 model-year) vehicles. If the vehicle had a problem prior to the last 12 months, it was not measured. Vehicle-owner participants were asked to consider 202 different problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. Relative overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles (PP100) versus other vehicles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality.

Among individual models, the Porsche 911 had the fewest problems in the industry, with just 68 PP100. Toyota Motor Corporation, which has been beleaguered by recalls in the past 14 months, continued to perform well in the J.D. Power study of long-term dependability. As a corporation, it collected seven top-in-segment awards, more than any other automaker in 2011. Other segment leaders in dependability included the Lexus RX, Scion xB, Toyota 4Runner, Toyota Prius, Toyota Sienna, Toyota Tacoma and Toyota Tundra. Ford Motor Company received four segment-leader awards for the Ford Fusion, Ford Mustang, Lincoln MKZ and Lincoln Navigator. General Motors (Buick Lucerne, Cadillac DTS, and Chevrolet Tahoe) and Honda Motor Company (Acura RL, Honda CR-V and Honda Fit) each received three segment-leader honors. Other segment leaders in dependability included the BMW X3, Mazda MX-5 Miata and Mercedes-Benz CLK.

An interesting finding was that, while domestic brands have closed the gap with import brands in initial quality (J.D. Power and Associates defines that as owner experiences in the first 90 days of ownership), there is still a considerable difference between domestic-brand vehicles and imports in long-term vehicle dependability. In the 2011 VDS, imported brands outperformed domestic brands by 18 PP100. Interestingly, domestic-brand cars actually have fewer problems (135 PP100, on average) than import-brand cars (147 PP100, on average), but import-brand trucks and crossover vehicles have considerably fewer problems than those of domestic brands. This belies the conventional wisdom that domestic manufacturers build great trucks, while the import manufacturers build great cars.

Vehicle dependability as a whole is getting better and better. In 2011, overall vehicle dependability averaged 151 PP100, which is the lowest problem rate since the inception of the study in 1990. Last year, the overall average was 170 PP100, but the pace of improvement is slowing. Between 2009 and 2011, annual improvement for the industry has averaged 6 percent, while industry improvement has averaged 8 percent each year during the past decade. The market research firm attributed the slowdown in improvement to increased rates of problems with electronic features (e.g., audio, entertainment and navigation systems) and new safety features (e.g., tire-pressure monitoring systems).

“Automakers, as a whole, have made significant improvements in reducing traditional problems -- particularly with vehicle interiors, engines and transmissions, and steering and braking during the past several years,” says David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power and Associates. “However, as manufacturers add new features and technologies to satisfy customer demand and new legislation, they face the potential for introducing new problems.”

The 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 43,700 original owners of 2008 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership. The study was fielded between October and December 2010.


Cars Talking to Cars Is Next Safety Wave

If you want to save American consumers some gasoline, invent something that will prevent cars from crashing into each other. According to Texas Transportation Institute’s (TTI) 2010 Urban Mobility Report, traffic congestion wastes nearly 3.9 billion gallons of fuel annually. That costs the average commuter an additional 49 hours spent sitting in traffic, and the extra 39 gallons of gas (worth $1,112) per driver that idle time requires. Leading factors in traffic delays are caused by accidents, breakdowns and road debris, TTI says, so if you get rid of accidents and you communicate more rapidly in the event of vehicle breakdown, you will save the country billions of gallons of gas. The good news is that the industry is working on the problem, and one of the solutions is to enable cars to communicate with one another while they are sharing the road.

We recently had the opportunity to participate in an event sponsored by Ford Motor Company that demonstrated how intelligent vehicles that wirelessly talk to each other could be effective in reducing crashes. Ford built functioning prototypes of intelligent vehicles and took the show on the road to exhibit the value of the technology. In cars so equipped, it was immediately obvious that the technology could have far-reaching benefits, and safety experts agree. An October 2010 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the potential safety payback of vehicle-to-vehicle communication could help in as many as 4.3 million police-reported light-vehicle crashes annually. That’s approximately 81 percent of all light-vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers. You can see why Ford is so gung ho about the future of intelligent vehicles.

“Intelligent vehicles are the next frontier of collision avoidance innovations that could revolutionize the driving experience and hold the potential of helping reduce many crashes,” says Sue Cischke, Ford group vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering.

Ford’s vehicle communications technology allows vehicles to talk wirelessly with one another using advanced Wi-Fi signals for dedicated short-range communications on a secured channel allocated by the Federal Communications Commission. Unlike radar-based collision-avoidance features, which identify hazards within a direct line of sight, the Wi-Fi-based radio system allows full-range, 360-degree detection of potentially dangerous situations, even when a driver’s vision of the other vehicle(s) is obstructed. Cars that talk to the other cars can sense their presence around a curve, over a hill or behind a wall, even when you can’t see them from the driver’s seat.

Because of this critical aspect of the intelligent cars system, a driver could be alerted if her vehicle is on path to collide with another vehicle at an intersection, when a vehicle ahead stops or slows suddenly, or when traffic changes on a busy highway. The systems could also warn drivers if there is a risk of collision when changing lanes or approaching a stationary or parked vehicle, or if another driver loses control.

Preventing deaths and injuries is, of course, the greatest benefit of the system, but the other big plus is the fuel- and time-saving. By reducing crashes, intelligent vehicles could ease traffic delays. A network of intelligent vehicles and infrastructure could process real-time traffic and road information to allow drivers to choose less congested routes.

“We are not far from the day when vehicles will operate like mobile devices with four wheels, constantly exchanging information and communicating with our environment to do things such as shorten commute times, improve fuel economy and generally help us more easily navigate life on the road,” says Paul Mascarenas, vice president and chief technical officer of of Ford Research and Innovation. “A smart network of intelligent vehicles has the potential to benefit drivers in many ways.”

Get Your Armor On

Ronni Chasen was beloved by the Hollywood community -- and when she was murdered on her way home from a movie-premiere party in swank Beverly Hills, it sent a shock wave that is still reverberating. The seemingly senseless act of violence -- her car was struck by numerous bullets presumably fired from another car -- has added a new level of fearfulness in a moneyed society that was already wary of follow-home robberies and celebrity stalkers. One outcome of the crime is an increased demand for armored vehicles. International Armoring Corporation -- the leader in armored passenger vehicles based in Ogden, Utah -- has experienced a 150-percent demand increase in the wake of the shooting. Most of that increase has come from California, a state that already was a leader in armored vehicle sales due to concerns about drug trafficking on its shared border with Mexico. Both public figures and private individuals looking to increase their families’ safety are taking a new look at armored vehicles.

If you think today’s armored cars are much like the ones Al Capone was chauffeured in during the Roaring Twenties, think again. Current state-of-the-art armoring uses high-tech, relatively lightweight materials -- and because of that, virtually any vehicle can be armored to protect passengers of these vehicles from high-powered handgun (like the one used in the attack of Ronni Chasen) or rifle attacks. International Armoring Corporation uses a proprietary material it calls Armormax, which adds less than 400 pounds to a fully-armored, handgun-protected vehicle. At first, the cost for vehicle armoring might not seem inexpensive. Prices begin at $5,800 for a fully armored vehicle door -- which includes curved, original-looking ballistic glass window -- and many clients request that all four doors be armored. But when one considers what is at stake, $25,000 or so seems a small price to pay. Rather than buying a from-the-ground-up armored car, most U.S. clients now transform their own vehicles. Installation usually takes five to 10 days.

“Armored passenger vehicles in the U.S. are no longer just for the rich and famous. Gone are the days of feeling it will never happen to me,” says Mark Burton, CEO of International Armoring Corporation. “These vehicles can provide a peace of mind to anyone who feels a perceived threat. These converted vehicles maintain their original appearance and performance, yet protect occupants against those random acts of violence that appear more common every day.”

Prior to the Chasen shooting and the increase of violence along the border of Mexico, most of the demand for armored vehicles had come from offshore. Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines and the Middle East have all been vibrant markets for armored vehicles -- something that might give you second thoughts about them as vacation destinations. But recent events in the U.S. have caused Americans to reevaluate their personal safety at home. As tragic events become headline news, the demand for armored vehicles increases. It is an area of safety that, thankfully, few of us have had to worry about -- but that might be changing.

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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.