Tag Archives: auto

UW-Madison researchers get federal OK to test driverless cars

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have received federal approval to start testing driverless cars at sites around Wisconsin.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently designated UW-Madison’s Traffic Operations and Safety Laboratory as one of 10 groups nationwide as proving grounds for the vehicles, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

The lab does not have any driverless cars of its own and has not yet partnered with a company that wants to test the technology in Wisconsin. But researchers say the federal designation boosts Wisconsin’s profile in research into the cars, known as autonomous vehicles.

“It really helps put our name out there,” said Peter Rafferty, a researcher in the transportation lab.

Rafferty said the lab is talking with companies about testing vehicles. If a partner is found, he said, “there’s no reason why we couldn’t be months away” from seeing driverless cars in Wisconsin.

The sites where companies and UW researchers can test autonomous vehicles range from closed courses to busy state highways, and are meant to match the different capabilities of driverless cars.

Proponents say driverless cars can make roads safer by cutting down on crashes caused by mistakes, inattention or drunken driving.

Vehicles with technology still in the early stages of development would start at the MGA Research Corp.’s large test facility near Burlington or the Road America race track near Elkhart Lake.

Researchers will use those closed facilities to ensure the cars are ready for use at the next level of testing sites: UW-Madison and the Epic Systems campus in Verona. The most advanced vehicles would be tested on Madison’s city streets and on state highways.

Driverless cars employ a mix of GPS, cameras and laser-sensing systems to detect other cars, road signs, traffic signals and pedestrians.

Rafferty said researchers will rigorously test the technology to make sure it’s ready to interact with the public, and cars will still have human attendants who can take over the controls if necessary.

“Safety really is an underlying, fundamental priority of all of this,” he said.

Electrifying auto news: Top car award goes to Chevy Bolt

The Chevy Bolt has been named top car in North America, a milestone for a car General Motors hopes will finally get Americans hooked on electric vehicles.

The Honda Ridgeline grabbed the honor for top truck.

Utility vehicles were honored separately for the first time, with the Pacifica minivan from Fiat Chrysler snagging that award.

The honors were announced at Detroit’s Cobo Center as the North American International Auto Show’s press preview days kicked into high gear.

The Bolt beat out the Genesis G90 and Volvo S90 for the car award.

The electric car from Chevrolet went on sale late last year.

It gets more than 200 miles per battery charge, which is more than the average American drives in a day.

The Bolt also sells for around $30,000 when a federal tax credit is included.

Electric vehicles have failed to catch on with most American consumers, but General Motors hopes the improved range and price help shift opinions.

Mark Reuss, GM’s head of global product development, described the Bolt as a “moon shot.”

“We didn’t have all the answers when we started the program — in terms of how far we were going to get range-wise, how light are we going to get the car and … sell price,” he said. “We hit on all cylinders on this, so to speak, even though there’s not any in the car.”

The Ridgeline scored the truck award over Ford F-Series Super Duty and the Nissan Titan. Pacifica got the nod for the utility award over the Jaguar F-Pace and Mazda X-9.

Timothy Kuniskis, Fiat Chrysler’s car chief, said he’s “amazingly proud” that a minivan scored the utility honor. The award recognizes the automaker’s commitment to the foundation it established for the family hauler while reinventing it some three decades later, he said.

“This is really all-new from the ground up,” Kuniskis said of the Pacifica, a sleeker, swept-back minivan that hit showrooms last spring as a replacement for the Town and Country and Dodge Grand Caravan. Among its firsts: hands-free sliding doors that open when the driver sticks a foot under them.

“We love minivans — we sold a quarter-million minivans this last year that just ended,” he added. “Our designers just did an amazing job of taking something that has to be very functional and making it look very beautiful at the same time.”

About 60 automotive journalists serve as judges for North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards. Eligible vehicles must be new or substantially changed.

Organizers accept no advertising, though automakers try to capitalize on the marketing value of the awards, in their 24th year.

The awards program launched in 1993, and patterned itself after the European Car of the Year. Organizers accept no advertising, though carmakers try to capitalize on the marketing value of the honors.

Tesla, SolarCity deal could drive sustainable energy

Tesla wants to put its car and energy storage businesses under one solar-powered roof. Tesla said this week it will buy solar panel maker SolarCity Corp. in an all-stock deal worth $2.6 billion.

The deal must still be approved by the government and shareholders at both companies.

It’s expected to close in the fourth quarter if it goes through.

Thirteen-year-old Tesla currently makes two luxury vehicles — the Model S sedan and Model X SUV— as well as Powerwall and Powerpack energy storage units for homes and businesses.

The company said a tie-up with SolarCity would create a one-stop shop for cleaner energy.

With one service call, customers could get their solar panels installed and connected to a Powerwall, which preserves energy for later use. Users could also get the system hooked up to chargers for one of Tesla’s vehicles.

“This is really all part of solving the sustainable energy problem,” said Elon Musk, the chairman and biggest shareholder of both companies, during a conference call.

But some have questioned the wisdom of the deal, which combines two money-losing companies that already have a lot on their plates.

Tesla is working feverishly on its new, lower-cost Model 3 sedan, which is due out by the end of next year, as well as pickups, electric buses and semi-trucks. It’s in the midst of building one of the world’s largest factories in Nevada to make batteries. And it’s under investigation by the government after the semi-autonomous Autopilot system in its Model S failed to prevent a fatal crash in Florida.

Ten-year-old SolarCity is the top provider of residential solar panels in the U.S., and installs about one-fifth of all commercial solar panels. But the company said Monday that it experienced lower-than-expected residential bookings in the first half of the year, so it’s reducing its full-year guidance for megawatts installed.

Others have questioned the conflicts of interest in the deal. Musk owns a 26 percent stake in Tesla Motors Inc., based in Palo Alto, California, and a 22.5 percent stake in SolarCity Corp., which is based in nearby San Mateo, California. Musk’s cousins, Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive, run SolarCity.

But Musk said the companies have synergies they can’t take advantage of unless they’re combined.

“The point of the merger is to get rid of the conflicts,” he said. “Until then it’s very limited what we can do unless we are one company.”

Musk said he believes the companies could save $150 million to $200 million in the first year alone by streamlining manufacturing, sales and service. Customers could learn about SolarCity products at Tesla’s 190 stores, for example, and save on installation costs because they’d be done more efficiently. Tesla also would give SolarCity access to international customers.

SolarCity’s stock slid more than 8 percent to $24.56 in afternoon trading Monday. Tesla’s shares fell 1.3 percent to $231.71.

Tesla’s current offer values SolarCity’s shares at $25.37. That’s less than the $26.50 to $28.50 value it placed on them in June, when it made its initial overture to SolarCity. Musk said he had no role in establishing the value of the deal.

“I know about as much as you do about how this price was obtained,” he said.

S&P Global raised its target price for SolarCity shares to $26 but reiterated its “sell” opinion on Tesla shares Monday, saying the deal benefits SolarCity more than Tesla.

“We see benefits from a combined solar/storage offering and manufacturing efficiencies, but remain concerned about cash flow and capital needs,” S&P analyst Efraim Levy said in a research note to investors.

The deal may draw more attention to the financial position of both companies. Tesla has lost $1.2 billion in the past two years alone while SolarCity has suffered losses exceeding $1.1 billion during the same span. Analysts surveyed by FactSet are predicting a $416 million loss from Tesla this year while they believe SolarCity will lose $851 million.

Rebecca Lindland, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said the deal addresses a tiny market for now. About 1 percent of the 17 million cars sold in the U.S. are electric and only 1.4 percent of single family homes have solar power.

Those markets are expected to grow over time, she said, but in the meantime, both businesses are capital intensive and propped up by government incentives. Electric car buyers can currently get a $7,500 federal tax credit, for example, while solar panel buyers can deduct 30 percent of the cost of their installation from their federal taxes.

“If anything happens with incentives or the economy in general, this could come crashing down even faster than others are projecting,” Lindland said.

SolarCity has a 45-day “go-shop” period in which it can solicit alternative acquisition proposals. It will have to pay Tesla a $78.2 million termination fee unless it ends the deal with Tesla in order to enter an agreement with a third party that initially made an alternative offer before the “go-shop” period ended. If that happens, SolarCity would pay a $26.1 million termination fee, according to a regulatory filing.

Musk said if someone makes a better offer for SolarCity, he has committed to vote his shares with that offer.

Demand for the new Tesla is wild

Demand for the new Tesla Model 3 has been eye-popping, with consumers pre-ordering about $13.7 billion worth of the electric sedans nearly two years before they go on sale.

Yet experts aren’t yet ready to proclaim it’s a tipping point with mainstream America moving from burning gasoline to charging batteries.

The reason? Most of the 325,000 people worldwide who put down $1,000 deposits are tech-savvy, environmentally conscious early adopters who see Tesla as an innovative brand that meets their needs. The $35,000 price tag and the Model 3’s 215-mile range are important, but the brand’s tech image and CEO Elon Musk’s success in cars, rockets and solar panels are the main drivers.

“We’re tech people. I want integration with my phone,” says Charles Butler, a 40-year-old manager with a cloud computing company in Austin, Texas, who was among the first to make an order. “Musk and Tesla, that’s what they do with their customer experience.”

Researchers say other automakers’ electric cars haven’t caught on because their range is limited to around 100 miles. And even General Motors’ Chevrolet Bolt, which will go more than 200 miles per charge and is priced similarly to the Model 3, won’t attract a frenzy of buyers because Chevy doesn’t have Tesla’s tech image, they say.

Surveys by the University of California Davis Institute of Transportation Studies and by Carnegie Mellon University show that Butler is a pretty typical Tesla buyer. The brand is well-known in the U.S., even among those who don’t plan to buy electrics. Tesla buyers always have rated cutting-edge features _ huge touch screens, freeway autopilot and over-the-air software updates — as paramount, said Tom Turrentine, director of electric and hybrid vehicle research at UC Davis.

Early electric cars didn’t have those features, although the new Bolt will have some of them.

“There’s a big overlap in people who think about the future and green technology,” Turrentine said. “Tesla is really sitting right on that.”

Surveys by Carnegie Mellon show that getting from the tech savvy to regular folks will take a lot. Most U.S. consumers don’t even know what an electric car does, said Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy.

“Winning over the enthusiast is just fundamentally different from winning over mainstream consumers,” he said.

Turrentine doesn’t expect similar demand for the Bolt, which is due to hit showrooms late this year. Chevy won’t comment on the Tesla orders, and it isn’t taking advance orders for the Bolt. Instead, it will rely on GM’s vast dealer network, high owner satisfaction with the Volt plug-in hybrid, and Internet connectivity to drum up Bolt sales, a spokeswoman said.

That may not work well, however. UC Davis research shows that when asked to name rechargeable cars, “hardly anybody can name a Volt, but they can name a Tesla,” Turrentine said.

Surveys also show that GM and other automakers don’t have the tech panache of Tesla .

“I just do not believe when you’re a large automaker, you’re necessarily going to solve for that,” says Butler.

Yet Tesla is about to face more competition. Sam Abuelsamid, senior analyst for the Navigant research firm, said other automakers are scrambling to unveil 200-mile electric cars in the same price range.

More established automakers likely will have a reliability advantage over Tesla, which has struggled with quality problems on its current models, he said.

Still, all automakers face a “chasm” that must be bridged between early adopters and the public for electric cars to be in every driveway, Turrentine said. It will take years of influence from early buyers to change a country in which gas-powered pickup trucks are the top-selling vehicles, he said. Also needed will be more battery breakthroughs for lower costs, and continued government incentives, he said.

There are other problems that could make it hard for Musk to satisfy his orders. The volume — which surprised even Musk — will be difficult for Tesla to produce. The company has been a niche manufacturer, selling just 110,000 cars since it started manufacturing at a California plant in 2008. Even Musk seems to be wondering. On Twitter, he said he may have to rethink production plans and open a factory in Europe.

Tesla also has a history of missing deadlines for previous models, and delays could turn away some buyers. Last week, the company blamed parts shortages from a supply company for production shortfalls with the new Model X SUV and pledged to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen with the Model S.

“After a while you have a pattern that things get delayed,” said Standard & Poor’s analyst Efraim Levy.

Another possible bug is the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric car buyers, which could reach its 200,000 limit for Tesla buyers and be phased out before many of those who ordered can get it. Tesla says in a statement that it will make sure customers know when the credits expire.

“We build our vehicles, including Model 3, to offer compelling value without any incentives,” the statement said.

Pricing sparks sales run for Spark electric car

It took a price cut to generate a run on Chevrolet’s 2015 Spark EV, with savvy car buyers realizing the lower price and federal electric vehicle tax credit can make for a super deal.

Chevrolet lowered the starting retail price for the plucky subcompact electric car to $25,995 last month, making it the lowest-priced 2015 electric car with two rows of seats offered in the U.S. by a major auto manufacturer. With the $7,500 tax credit, the purchase price can wind up at just $18,495 — akin to the price of a gasoline-powered small car like the Honda Fit EX.

There also are the savings the Spark provides: $80 or more a month on gas, according to the manufacturer, because the car uses only electricity. Even buyers who would prefer to lease the Spark EV can get in on the deal with Chevrolet’s $139-a-month lease program that requires no down payment.

Now, the downside: It has a limited range of 82 miles on a full charge and can take seven hours to fully charge even with a 240-volt charger. 

The Spark EV is sold only in two states — California and Oregon, with Maryland to be added this summer. Still, the appeal was quickly apparent as the Spark EV outsold the better-known and widely available Chevrolet Volt (starting retail price: $35,170) in April. Total sales of Spark EVs in April were small, 920, but far more than the 97 sold in January and more than the 905 Volts sold in April.

The federal tax credit isn’t directly taken off the purchase price of the Spark EV, but instead from a buyer’s U.S. income taxes for the year the car is purchased. So, the tax credit generally won’t be seen until next income tax season.

The Spark EV’s starting manufacturer’s retail price and destination charge include power windows and door locks, keyless start, cruise control, air conditioning and Chevy MyLink entertainment system.

The best-selling electric car in the United States last year — the larger compact Nissan Leaf — has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $29,860 for a base S model. The Spark EV has a better gasoline-equivalent fuel economy rating than the Leaf — 119 to 114. But the Leaf, which has an 84-mile range on a single charge, is available in more states than the Spark EV.

Meantime, the second best-selling electric car in 2014 was the Tesla Model S, which has a $76,200 base retail price and a travel range of at least 240 miles on a single charge.

The Spark EV is not for everyone. The interior can seem spartan, even in the tested 2LT trim level. Front and rear seats in were covered in a faux leather that felt like thick plastic, and the seats seemed smallish and had flat cushions.

Rear door entryways were small, too, as the rear wheel wells cut into the doorways. But rear-seat legroom and headroom are decent, and there’s 23.4 cubic feet of cargo space when back seats are folded down.

The driver has a pull-down center arm rest, though there are no covered storage spots between the front seats and rear seats. All seat adjustments were manual in the test Spark EV.

The test Spark had good acceleration and merged well into traffic, thanks to a class-leading 327 foot-pounds of torque.  Chevrolet puts the 0-to-60-mph time at 7.2 seconds.

The electric power steering gave the Spark EV a bit of a go-kart feel, as response was decently quick. The tidy, 33.8-foot turning circle made U-turns a breeze, and the Spark’s diminutive 12.2-foot length from bumper to bumper meant it could fit into curbside parking spots that SUVs and large sedans had to pass up.

The Spark EV, however, was easily buffeted by winds — and even a passing semi while sitting at a stoplight. The Spark weighs just 2,866 pounds.

The 7-inch display screen in the middle of the dashboard worked easily with a smartphone and was reminiscent of the screen and controls in the higher-priced Volt. There was no rearview camera, but 10 air bags are standard.

The Spark EV is designed as a city car and does best in short, non-highway trips. A nice feature in the configurable instrument cluster is it can show both high and low range for a trip, so a driver can adjust his or her driving style.

There’s a Sport mode in the Spark EV that adds more pep and response, but can reduce travel range.

The brakes worked quickly to stop the test car in emergency stops. The ride was firm, not cushioned, and road noise was evident. And the positioning of the heavy battery pack was noticeable, especially in hard turns.

Danicamania takes hold at Daytona

Danicamania is in full bloom at Daytona – and with a brand new audience.

The first woman in history to earn the top starting spot in a race at NASCAR’s elite Sprint Cup Series, Patrick will bring new fans to today’s season-opening Daytona 500.

It’s an ambassador role Danica Patrick has played since her 2005 debut at the Indianapolis 500, where she became the first woman to lead laps in the biggest race in the world. But it’s so much more now.

“You can only lead by example and I don’t necessarily want my example to step outside the box and be a girl in a guy’s world. That’s not what I am trying to say,” Patrick said. “But if you have a talent for something, do not be afraid to follow through with it and not feel different. Do not feel like you are less qualified or less competent to be able to do the job because you are different. Ignore that and let it be about what your potential is.”

And right now, she believes her potential is to win “The Great American Race.”

Patrick starts first today, next to four-time champion Gordon, and after running 32 laps in Friday’s practice and mixing it up with NASCAR’s biggest stars, she was more convinced than ever that she can be a player in the race.

“Can I win? Yeah. Absolutely,” Patrick said. “I feel comfortable in this kind of race situation. I feel comfortable in the draft. I feel comfortable that the speeds are not a problem. I know I am inexperienced. I know I am rookie out there. I will do the best job I can to win. I do believe I have a chance to win. I do believe experience would help, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a chance to win.”

Crew chief Tony Gibson was even more convinced he’s got a winner. He was part of Derrike Cope’s improbable 1990 victory, when Cope inherited the win when the late Dale Earnhnardt blew a tire on the final lap.

“She has got the talent,” Gibson said. “She’s already proven in the Nationwide Series, from what I’ve seen on the speedway stuff, she definitely gets the respect. People know she’s fast. She can draft. She knows how the air works.  She gets a lot of that from IndyCar. So I have 100 percent confidence she can win the Daytona 500.

“I remember Derrike Cope, nobody gave him a chance, either, but I saw him in Victory Lane. I know it can be done.”

But the Daytona 500 is a pressure-packed race unlike anything except the Indy 500. Some of the best drivers never win it – it took seven-time champion Earnhardt 20 tries to finally get his lone win – and Tony Stewart, Patrick’s teammate and car owner, goes into toay’s race seeking his first victory in 15 tries.

He’s been quiet all week, except, of course, for the nine-car accident he started in an exhibition race last weekend. He lamented afterward, “That is why I haven’t won a Daytona 500 yet. I’m not quite sure exactly which move to make.”

Don’t be fooled, though, by the three-time NASCAR champion. Stewart might just like being out of the spotlight as he heads into one of the few races missing from his resume, and being the favorite for the 500 has never worked out for him before.

He wrapped up his practice with one final run Friday to test his race engine and wound up on top of the speed chart. It was Stewart’s intention to sit out Saturday’s final day of practice.

“I’m excited we’ve made it through the whole week without a scratch on the car,” he said. “We are as ready as you can get for the 500. I feel like we’ve got a car capable of winning the race. It’s just a matter of whether the driver does a good job with the steering wheel.”

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New year, new laws in the states

As 2013 begins, many states are enacting new laws dealing with gay rights, child safety, abortion, immigration and other perennial concerns.

Some other topics states are dealing with in new laws:


Pennsylvania will prohibit use of carbon monoxide chambers to destroy animals at shelters and will make it easier for shelters to get drugs for a more humane method. Activists say animals are often old, young, sick or hurt and not good candidates for gas chamber euthanasia. Some provisions are about to take effect, while others will be in place later in 2013.


Alaska becomes the 31st state to require insurance coverage for autism, with a law mandating coverage for the diagnosis, testing and treatment of autism spectrum disorders for children and young adults. Illinois, which previously approved autism insurance coverage, now also will require insurance companies to cover medical services related to autism.


Washington state is requiring manufacturers of brake pads to phase out the use of copper and other heavy metals as a way to prevent the metal from polluting waters and harming salmon. When brakes wear down, they release copper shavings onto roads that eventually wash into rivers. The first phase of the law takes effect Jan. 1, when manufacturers of friction brakes will be required to report the concentrations of heavy metals in their products.


New Mexico will allow more frequent refills of prescription eye drops, such as those used by glaucoma patients. Under the law, insurance companies could not deny coverage for a refill requested by a patient within a certain amount of time – for instance, within 23 days for someone with a prescription for a 30 day supply of the eye drops. Supporters of the measure say some patients find it difficult to control how many drops they put onto their eye, causing individuals to prematurely run out of medication before an insurer will pay for a refill.


California will start to hold party bus operators to the same standards as limousine drivers, making them legally responsible for drinking by underage passengers. The law is named for Brett Studebaker, a 19-year-old from San Mateo who died in 2010 after drinking on a party bus and crashing his own vehicle while driving home later.


California and Illinois are both making it illegal for employers to demand access to employees’ social media accounts. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law in August at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where several students lamented that online snooping by bosses has caused some to lose out on jobs and forced others to temporarily deactivate their profiles. In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown said the legislation will protect residents from “unwarranted invasions.”


To raise money for its unemployment insurance fund, Georgia will start charging employers for the unemployment insurance tax on the first $9,500 in taxable wages earned by workers, an increase over the previous $8,500. The new law stretches forward the suspension of another unemployment insurance tax, though it allows the labor commissioner to impose it to help repay money borrowed from the federal government or if fund balances dip below $1 billion.