An Angel Watching Over Your Kids

Those who have driving-age children must fervently wish that a guardian angel would keep watch over their children. With over 3,500 teen driving deaths per year in the United States, the issue of keeping your children safe when they are in the car has to be top-of-mind. Inexperience, distraction, drinking and drugs are all teen-related problems that can lead to tragic consequences. In response, parents, government officials, health and safety advocates and insurance companies have focused on finding ways to make the road a safer place for teens.

The effort to protect teens is moving forward on several fronts. These days a number of states have instituted graduated licensing programs that ease teens into the driving swing of things before turning them loose on their own and then accompanied by passengers. New Age driver’s training takes them beyond simple Rules of the Road quizzes to a better understanding of the dangers of distractions from cell phone use, texting, music and friends in the car. And one of the most promising new ways of protecting teens comes like an angel from the heavens. But rather than a product of divine intervention, it is a product of technical ingenuity. 

Now, several companies offer teen-behavior tracking systems based on Global Positioning System (GPS) that can keep an eye on your teens even if they are across the country. Progressive, AIG, Safeco and Allstate are just four of several insurance companies that offer such tracking and monitoring systems. According to Hussein Enan, CEO of online insurance comparison site InsWeb, many insurance companies offer insurance rate discounts for parents who take advantage of the GPS tracking programs. Teensurance, one of the leaders in the field, offers an insight into what the programs typically offer.

“The Teensurance program provides parents with a suite of tools to actively monitor and manage their teenager’s driving,” said Safeco executive Tim Haugaard, who is director of product management for the company’s Teensurance. “With its real-time tracking, speed alerts and curfew notifications sent via text message or e-mail, parents can identify and correct their teenager’s driving behavior before an accident occurs.”

“Underwriting teen drivers has always been a complicated situation for insurance companies,” Enan said. “They want to provide excellent service to parents, but teen drivers present a high degree of risk. GPS tracking services provide an easy and effective way to reduce the likelihood of risky driving behavior -- it’s win-win.”

In addition to the systems offered by various insurance companies, several GPS tracking systems with different capabilities are offered by vehicle manufacturers and the auto aftermarket. Some of these systems do not include real-time monitoring but instead record driving data on a removable flash or hard drive. While these devices have the potential disadvantage of not providing real-time information about a teen’s whereabouts, the monitoring functions they do offer -- items like where the teen was and how fast he or she got there -- are still helpful in promoting good behavior. One plus is they generally do not require a monthly fee. The only investment is the cost to buy and install the tracking unit.

While GPS is a technology with a proven track record, the ultimate impact it can have on teen driving safety is still being explored. But one thing is clear: With millions of Americans nationwide focused on helping teenagers drive more safely, GPS tracking services will play a significant role.

Making Vehicles Better Virtually

We’ve all seen the photos of engineers in white lab coats populating vast testing laboratories. These giant test labs are one of the key aspects that separate big, successful car companies from backyard wannabes. In the complicated task of developing a motor vehicle that will operate for 100,000 miles, intensive testing and development work has always been an expensive requirement. But these days, the power of the silicon chip is replacing thousands of square feet of lab space and thousands of hours of tests. Today’s sophisticated computers can do complex design and durability that previously would have taken months in just a few minutes. 

Ford Motor Co., for example, has invested heavily in computer power to allow it to shave months off the product development process, while improving the quality, comfort and customer appeal of its cars and trucks. Ford says its product development is anywhere from eight to 14 months faster than it was as recently as 2004, and that increased agility means it can get vehicles to market faster to take advantage of trends. Company execs attribute the increased speed, in part, to combining the most advanced virtual and digital tools available.

“We’re really competitive in terms of time to market, thanks in part to our digital capabilities,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president of Global Product Development. “Using the technologies at hand to continue accelerating the development of quality products that customers want and value is an essential part of this company’s success going forward.”

Many of the industry-exclusive virtual tools being utilized by Ford engineers and designers are housed inside the Immersive Virtual Review (iVR) lab at the Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich. There, designers and engineers can evaluate early vehicle designs against a backdrop of virtual conditions and literally experience a vehicle from the consumer’s vantage point before it is built. 

“Ford is the industry leader when it comes to melding state-of-the-art motion capture and immersive virtual reality tools to yield a number of impressive results,” said Elizabeth Baron, Ford’s VR & Advanced Visualization Technical Specialist. “They include better visibility, quality and comfort for vehicle occupants, not to mention faster-to-market product delivery for Ford, and overall cost savings that benefit everyone.”

In days gone by, Ford designers and engineers would don suits to simulate mobility issues associated with aging or even pregnancy. That’s all a thing of the past, according to Eero Laansoo, a Ford Human Factors Engineer.

“One of the questions I often get asked is ‘Do engineers really wear pregnancy suits?’ and the answer is, ‘We used to.’ There is no better way to get to know the customer than by walking a mile in their shoes,” Laansoo said. “What was so effectively measured by wearing the suits -- such as the difficulty you may have with finding a comfortable seating position -- is now done digitally.”

Within the iVR lab, anthropometric research gathered by engineers like Laansoo is studied to ensure vehicle designs can accommodate the broadest range of customers. Items evaluated range from the obvious, such as reach and roominess and ingress and egress, to examining door handle location.

Such design considerations are increasingly important as U.S. demographics depict a population that is growing older as well as larger. Census statistics show that nearly one in three Americans now meets the American Medical Association’s classification of “obese.” The same data shows that 30 percent of all adults over age 20 have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Approximately 51.2 million people say they have a disability; for 32.5 million of them, the disability is severe. And the population is aging -- 13 percent of the total population is 65 and older. The number of people 85 and older is 5.5 million.

The specialized tools within the iVR lab that make such wide-ranging customer evaluations possible include a Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE), a Programmable Vehicle Model (PVM) and an open-volume immersive station. All are excellent tools to allow Ford to tailor-make its vehicles to accommodate large segments of the consumer population without actually building prototypes and doing real-world testing. The results are vehicles that are better-suited to a variety of conditions, all designed with the magic of the computer chip.

Aluminum Maker Reaches Heady Milestone

Sixty years ago, all automotive wheels were made of steel. After flirting with wood-spoke wheels in the early days of the motorcar, manufacturers settled on steel for its toughness, durability and low cost. But steel wheels have a downside: most notably, their weight. The high mass of a steel wheel results in significant amounts of “unsprung weight” that entail penalties in the ride, handling and fuel economy. In 1948, Alcoa changed that paradigm forever. That was the year the pioneering company introduced the forged aluminum wheel, resulting in a stronger, lighter, more aesthetic wheel. (Commercial truckers still swear by their “Alcoas” for durability, fuel efficiency and an unbeatable shine on the road.) Numerous hot-rodders immediately adopted aluminum wheels for both their lightness and good looks, and soon the auto industry as a whole followed their lead. Now a significant percentage of auto wheels are made of aluminum.

That is just one of the contributions Alcoa, which is celebrating its 120th birthday this year, has made to the auto industry. In 1994, Alcoa and Audi teamed up to introduce the A8, the world’s first passenger car to use an all-aluminum body and space frame design to provide strength, performance, safety and comfort at a level never before achieved. Today, with fuel and emissions performance more critical than ever, automakers are turning to Alcoa for innovative solutions throughout the entire design and manufacturing process, and it is likely we will see significantly greater use of aluminum in vehicles as the industry moves forward.

None of this would have happened without the establishment of Alcoa, the company that created the modern aluminum industry. Since Oct. 1, 1888, the day it was incorporated as The Pittsburgh Reduction Company in (surprisingly enough) Pittsburgh, Alcoa has been inventing the future. Today the world’s largest aluminum producer operates approximately 350 facilities in 34 countries around the world with approximately 97,000 employees.

“It is the great work of our forefathers that allows us to be in an excellent position in many of our businesses,” said Alcoa President and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld. “We have a rich heritage and tremendous accomplishments. It is our part now to take it to the next level.”

The process of creating aluminum metal from aluminum oxide (alumina) through electrolysis was discovered in parallel by two men, Alcoa founder Charles Martin Hall of Oberlin, Ohio, and Paul L.T. Héroult of France. Hall’s patent for the process prevailed in the U.S. and survived numerous challenges. Though the Hall-Héroult process has been refined many times, its basic principles are still used today to produce nearly every ounce of aluminum smelted by aluminum producers worldwide. The then new process cut the price of aluminum dramatically and transformed aluminum from a precious metal into a strategic material whose properties of strength, lightness and durability would open up a world of new engineering possibilities.

Based on this discovery, a group of Pittsburgh entrepreneurs, including Hall, Captain Alfred Hunt, George H. Clapp and others, gathered to incorporate the company. Its original name, The Pittsburgh Reduction Company, was changed to the Aluminum Company of America, in 1907, and then to Alcoa, in 1999. Alcoa’s first employee, Arthur Vining Davis, worked with Hall to start production in a small plant in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Davis stayed with the company for 69 years, serving for 29 of those years as its first Chairman of the Board. The company’s earliest products were aluminum pots and pans.

But the company quickly involved itself in transportation. The Wright Brothers’ historic flight took off with an Alcoa aluminum crankcase as integral part of the plane’s engine. Its lightness helped tip the balance of power and weight that changed the world of transportation forever. Since that day, Alcoa has played a key role in nearly every major innovation in aerospace aluminum, including such milestones as one of the world’s first successful passenger planes, the Ford Trimotor; the first transatlantic flight in 1927; the overwhelming rollout of American aircraft aluminum capacity that helped turn the tide of World War II; the world’s first passenger jet, Boeing’s 707; and today’s latest breakthrough, the Airbus A380 superjumbo.

Alcoa aluminum was first in space as well. Sputnik, the Russian satellite that shocked the world in 1957 and began the space race of the ‘50s and ‘60s, was built in a plant now owned and managed by Alcoa. And Alcoa alloys and propellants have helped make many American space milestones possible, from the first manned flight and the first moon landing to today’s Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs.


Things to Ignore This Fall

“Tomorrow: the best day to do most anything.”

Sure, not everyone subscribes to the epigram above, but when it comes to vehicle maintenance, that philosophy seems to have many adherents. Today’s vehicles are built to require less maintenance and repair than any since the age of the chariot, but even when asked to do very little, many consumers follow their natural instinct to do even less.

Fall weather is fast-approaching, and as the seasons change, so do your vehicle’s needs. Heat, humidity and heavy traffic may have taken their toll during the summer months, so you might see this as the perfect time to take advantage of the cooler temperatures by giving your car some attention before the first cold snap hits. On the other hand, you might not. Whether you’re heading back to school, tailgating at the stadium or just taking a leisurely drive to enjoy the changing leaves, some experts recommend tackling a few simple fall car care maintenance tasks before setting out, in order to keep your car running smoothly as the mercury begins to drop. But others don’t see the necessity as long as everything seems to be operating properly, and that easy chair equipped with the TV remote beckons. So as a service to those who believe in the tenet “out of sight, out of mind,” we offer these maintenance items to ignore this fall:

  • Shocks and Struts These suspension pieces help keep your car on the road, but we doubt that you’re having much trouble with that, so you might simply want to assume they’re OK and move on. After all, they’re pretty hard to check, anyway.
  • Oil and Filter Something pretty easy to check is your oil, but it does require that you get out of your car, and it might get your hands greasy. Experts say you should check the oil level at every fill-up and change it, along with the oil filter, as specified in your owner’s manual, but they obviously have way too much time on their hands.
  • Battery Its efficiency drops off drastically in cold weather, so this might be one instance where global warming is actually working in your favor. We assume your car started the last time you turned the key, so that’s a pretty good indication it will the next time.
  • Brakes You’re a person on the go, so why worry about stopping? Even if your brakes aren’t at their optimum, you car will still stop -- eventually. Maybe it won’t be exactly where you want to stop, but if you haven’t noticed dragging, squealing, grinding, pulling or a pulsating brake pedal, your brakes are probably good enough.
  • Wipers and Lights Here’s a quick test: Can you see out your windshield? If you can, your windshield wipers are likely one reason, so why not leave well enough alone? Ditto with all those lights you have -- hazard lights, headlights, brake lights and turn signals. Geez, if you tried to test them all, it would probably take 10 minutes. Who has that kind of time these days?
  • Belts and Hoses Have you seen steam or water spewing from under your car’s hood lately? That’s a sign that you probably don’t have frayed, glazed or cracked hoses that are leaking, brittle, rusted, swollen or restricted. And odds are your belts are OK, too.
  • Fluid Levels Some experts insist you should check all fluids regularly, including brake fluid, power-steering fluid, transmission fluid and antifreeze -- but these people are undoubtedly belt-and-suspender types who have never lived on the edge. If you’re in a time crunch or just feeling a little tired, you might as well just blow them off.

We’re convinced that if you ignore all of these potential problem areas, you could save an hour or so of time. Or you could find yourself stranded in some muddy ditch somewhere, cursing he fact that you were ever born. It’s your choice -- do ‘em or don’t. Or you can take the passive-aggressive approach and decide not to decide. Happy motoring!

Vehicle Quality Improves for 2008

If you think cars are getting better, you’re right. According to market research firm J.D. Power and Associates, the initial quality in the automotive industry has improved significantly in 2008, and the improvements are nearly across the board. The study reported substantial gains by nearly three-fourths of the 36 ranked automotive brands. Now, in the first 90 days of ownership, the owner of an industry-average car can expect just about one problem (based on the study-reported score of 118 per 100 vehicles). The score in 2007 was 125 problems per 100 vehicles.

While the overriding trend is positive, there are a few flies in the oatmeal. Most of them revolve around the driver and passenger interfaces with new technology like navigation and entertainment systems. Some of these systems are so complex and baffling that they generate reported problems even though they work as designed by the manufacturers and their suppliers. 

“As consumer demand for new and more advanced wireless communication, navigation and audio technology continues to grow, manufacturers face challenges related to how well these systems are integrated into their vehicles,” said David Sargent, vice president of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates. “In particular, issues with difficult-to-use audio and entertainment controls and voice-command recognition failure are among the top 10 problems most frequently reported by customers. Since hands-free communication for drivers will become a mandate in more and more areas throughout the U.S., this will need to be an area of continued focus for automakers.”

On the other hand, the study found that auto manufacturers are doing a very good job of eliminating actual defects and malfunctions. In fact, some 86 percent of the overall improvement is due to advancements in these areas. In other words, today’s cars are largely without mechanical flaws.

The sudden rise in gasoline prices is influencing many to consider smaller cars than in the past, and this might stir fear of diminished quality versus larger, more luxurious cars. But the study reports that there are many high-quality small cars on the market.

“The good news for consumers in this difficult environment is that they can downsize with confidence, as there are many models with high initial quality in the smaller-vehicle segments,” Sargent said.

While there was broad improvement in vehicle quality for 2008, there was particularly positive news for the increasingly beleaguered domestic manufacturers. For instance, as a brand, Mercury was rated better in quality than Honda, while Cadillac and Chevrolet both led Acura and Nissan. The top-ranked brand was Porsche, followed, in order, by Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota.  

The Initial Quality Study is an industry benchmark for new-vehicle quality measured at 90 days of ownership. Initial quality has been shown over the years to be an excellent predictor of long-term durability. The study captures problems experienced by owners in two distinct categories: quality of design and defects and malfunctions.