Will your Next Car be Self-Driving

Some pundits suggest that private ownership of autonomous (self-driving) cars is right around the corner. But that’s not the conclusion of Bern Grush, a systems engineer, futurist and the author of a recently published study on the subject.  He suggests that before they begin to be purchased in large numbers by private individuals, autonomous vehicles will first find their place with taxi and taxi-substitute companies like Uber and Lyft and seriously impact public bus services.  Large-scale private ownership of self-driving vehicles won’t occur until the late 2020s at the earliest, according to the study.

Recent research by Goldman Sachs Group has found less than 10 per cent of travel in North America is currently taken in non-personally owned vehicles, but the personal transport industry should get ready for a change. Grush says that by 2030, that percentage may climb to 25 per cent or higher as more people turn to robo-taxis, micro-transit and ride sharing. Why? His report claims automation will make these systems more reliable and far cheaper than today's taxi and bus services. Going further, the report contends ridesharing will be less expensive than personal car ownership for an increasing number of consumers. Improvements in vehicle automation, combined with a sharing economy, will vastly expand the robo-taxi and micro-transit juggernaut being readied by providers such as Uber, Lyft and Google's Waymo.

"We saw what happened with the town council in Innisfil (Ontario, Canada), which contracted with Uber rather than investing in a traditional bus system,” Grush said.  “This type of disruption will spread to other municipalities. Once these commercial providers begin to automate their fleets, their role in public transit and goods movement will accelerate."

Despite predictions that ridesharing in self-driving cars is imminent, the report has identified many barriers to getting people out of their personal cars and into robo-shuttles or robo-taxis. These include the safety concern of having young children in a car seat; being disabled and traveling with assistive gear; driving with a pet; and the fear that an automated car won't take a passenger everywhere she or he wants to go.  Grush calls this "access anxiety.” As these barriers are dealt with, the need for personal vehicles, as well as non-automated taxis and buses, will diminish dramatically over 15 years, the report "Ontario Must Prepare for Vehicle Automation: How Skilled Governance Can Influence its Outcome” said.

Right now, there is a lot of hype surrounding fully automated vehicles that can operate without a driver in any imaginable circumstance. Due to many hurdles, Grush does not anticipate this type of autonomous vehicle until well after 2050, when the technical issues of having driverless vehicles operate in every possible condition will have been addressed.

Grush encourages governments to prepare for this future by determining now how to influence the role fleets of shared AVs will have in cities and towns. The key to harnessing this technology is for governments and the private sector to work together to implement a regulatory system that will enhance mobility for all, the report said. Grush’s concept, the Harmonization Management System (HMS), would provide the digital tools to incorporate a subsidy and pricing system, and optimize the distribution and social performance of commercial fleets. 


Toyota, Lexus Most Reliable According to Consumer Reports

Some brands were big losers and other big gainers in Consumer Reports’ latest Annual Auto Reliability Survey, but one thing that stayed largely the same was the dominance of Toyota’s Lexus and Toyota brands in dependability.  For the fifth straight year, Toyota brands took their places on top of the ranking of 27 brands for predicted new-car reliability, but other Asia-based manufacturers, notably Acura and Mazda, saw their reliability averages fall. In contrast, Korea-based Kia continued to surprise observers with its rapid rise in the rankings.  Kia continues to make impressive strides in reliability, rising to third. General Motors, on the other hand, took a nosedive with three of its four brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC -- in the bottom third.

The Chrysler brand has had a difficult time in previous reliability surveys, but this year it registered the biggest gain, jumping 10 positions from last year. Even with the big gain it remains in the lower half of all 27 brands ranked by CR, but the general trend at Chrysler is up. Its new Pacifica minivan has average reliability, affected by some minor transmission issues, and overall the brand is greatly improved.  Other FCA brands – Jeep, Dodge and Ram – also registered gains, though the improvement did not push them into the top ranks. CR said Jeep seems to have worked out some of the transmission problems that plagued the early years of the Cherokee, but the Grand Cherokee and Renegade remain below average despite showing “marked improvement with these models each year.” The only Dodge model that did not have below-average reliability was the Grand Caravan, while the Charger and Challenger improved over last year, yet ranked below average. The Ram 1500 pickup improved to average, but the low standing of the 2500 and 3500 heavy-duty pickups keeps the brand near the bottom of the overall list.

Ram has domestic-manufacturer company at the lower reaches of the rankings.  GMC and Cadillac are at the bottom of Consumer Reports’ brand list. The much-touted GMC Acadia debuted with well-below-average reliability, and it has the dubious distinction of being among the 10 least-reliable new models. Aside from some infotainment issues in the Acadia, problems with drive system, power equipment, and climate system were also reported. Equally dismal for General Motors is the fact that all of luxury-brand Cadillac’s models had below-average reliability, including the new-for-2017 XT5 compact SUV that Cadillac hopes will become a volume-driver.

For GM, Buick was the lone bright spot among the brands, but after ranking third last year, it dropped five spots to eighth.  Its biggest “miss” was the redesigned LaCrosse large sedan, which debuted with reliability well-below average. The much-better-than-average reliability of the Encore crossover, and the better-than-average reliability of the Cascada convertible and Envision crossover enabled Buick to stay in the top 10.

Chevy presented a mixed bag, but lagged most major players. Its new Bolt electric car is Chevrolet’s most reliable model with above average reliability, but the Volt plug-in hybrid remains below average, and the Cruze compact, which debuted with well-above-average reliability last year, plunged to below average this time around.

The third major domestic manufacturer, Ford, gained several spots in this year’s survey but ranks mid-pack at 15th. The mainstay F-150 pickup improved to average reliability, but the Focus and Fiesta small cars are still well below average with ongoing clutch and transmission problems.  Another somber note was that some respondents reported a few problems with the new Sync3 infotainment system in the Fusion midsize sedan. Ford had hoped Sync3 would cure its ongoing infotainment headaches.  Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand didn’t fare that well either.  Its MKZ sedan had average reliability, and the MKC and MKX crossover SUVs were below average.

Plagued by infotainment woes over the past couple of years, Honda has fallen from its perch as a top-echelon brand for reliability, but it improved by one spot this year, with all of its models having average or better reliability.  Serious improvement included solving the bugs with the Civic’s in-car electronics, and those enhancements were echoed in the redesigned-for-2017 CR-V, which in many ways is a tall Civic. But Honda’s luxury Acura brand took a nosedive this year, dropping to the bottom third of the brand rankings. While the RDX, which was last redesigned in 2013, is above average, the other Acuras were all below average.

As noted earlier, Kia continues to move forward positively in reliability, rising two spots to rank third overall. To demonstrate Kia’s efforts, the new Niro hybrid debuted as the most reliable new car in the entire survey. Kia’s lowest scoring model is the Sportage, which has average reliability. Subaru is another brand on the upswing. It gained five spots to rank sixth this year, despite the “below average” reliability of the redesigned Impreza compact.

Hyundai fell three places to rank 10th. The Elantra compact car, which was renewed for 2017, had well-above average reliability, but problems with the new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission dropped the Tucson compact crossover to below average. Nissan had a slight gain, with the popular Altima sedan improving to better-than-average and the Pathfinder SUV finally improving to average.

Some suggest that highly complex European vehicles deliver poor reliability, but the Consumer Reports survey suggests that, as with vehicles that are designed elsewhere, some European brands are stellar while others are laggards.  For instance, despite travails on the diesel engine front, Audi retained the fourth spot on the survey, and BMW jumped four places to land fifth. All of BMW’s models featured average or better reliability. 

Mercedes-Benz had mixed results. Its redesigned 2017 E-Class bucked the debut jinx to turn in better-than-average reliability in its first year, while the flagship S-Class, one of the world’s most sophisticated models, finally improved to average. The report on Volvo wasn’t as good.  The Chinese-owned Swedish brand remained near the bottom of the heap, dragged down by the much-worse-than-average XC90 crossover SUV, which ranks as the third least reliable model among new vehicles covered in the survey. The problem rate for the XC90’s infotainment, which has been much touted by vehicle reviewers, was the worst in CR’s Survey at 21 percent.  That negative rate was nearly as high as the now notorious Ford/Lincoln’s MyTouch system when it debuted several years ago.

For more information on Consumer Reports’ Annual Auto Reliability Survey, or to get the latest ratings and scores for more than 300 models, visit www.CR.org.

Consumer Reports: High-tech Models Have ‘Growing Pains’

Exhibiting the power of Elon Musk, Consumer Reports led off its coverage of its own Annual Auto Reliability Study by predicting the reliability of the Tesla Model 3, a vehicle that isn’t on the market yet. Citing the fact that the Model 3 is “the least complicated Tesla yet,” according to CR’s auto test director Jake Fisher, the organization predicted that it would turn in an “average” reliability score. But CR admitted that it didn’t have data from actual Tesla Model 3 owners.

Fisher noted, ““Electric vehicles are inherently less complicated than gasoline or hybrid alternatives.  The Model 3… should benefit from what Tesla has learned from the Model S.”

When it comes to mainstream cars, CR’s data indicated that the old idea of avoiding a vehicle that is brand-new might still be a good plan.  The survey of 640,000 vehicles said “growing pains” for new models was a common trend for many manufacturers, and the pain points were often the newest, high-technology equipment.

“All-new or updated models are now more likely than older ones to have a wonky engine, a jerky transmission, or high-tech features that fail outright,” CR said.

Among the problem areas CR cited were new, sophisticated eight-speed, nine-speed and continuously variable transmissions (CVTs.) While the new transmissions offer improved fuel economy, many owners have reported issues with them breaking down or shifting awkwardly. Infotainment systems were another frequently noted trouble spot in new or newly redesigned models, not because they don’t work but because owners don’t understand how to use all their functions. CR’s survey showed that owners of first-year models had twice as many complaints about in-car electronics as owners of carryover models.

“These new technologies can add features and improve fuel efficiency, but are more prone to have issues,” Fisher said. “More often than not, our data suggests it’s prudent for consumers to wait for the technology to mature.”

That’s bad news for car manufacturers who are hoping to lure customers with new models and advanced technologies. In an effort to stem the tide of complaints many automakers now come up with remarkably quick fixes to apparent problems.

CR’s cited the Hyundai Tucson SUV as a case in point.  The 2016 version scored poorly with owners due to transmission issues, but in the most recent survey complaints about 2017 Tucson transmission dropped by more than half. Similarly, the in-car electronics of the 2017 Honda Civic are so improved the complaint rate was only a third of that for the 2016 version.

Speaking of new technology, Teslas are obviously filled with it, but that doesn’t prevent Consumer Reports from making the bold prediction that the carryover Tesla Model S will earn an “Above Average” rating by owners for the first time. It will be interesting to see how the Model 3 fares when actual owner data starts coming in, but that will have to wait until sufficient numbers are in consumer hands.