Tag Archives: automobile

Green self-driving cars take center stage at Tokyo auto show

Visions of cars that drive themselves without emitting a bit of pollution while entertaining passengers with online movies and social media are what’s taking center stage at the Tokyo Motor Show.

Japan, home to the world’s top-selling automaker, has a younger generation disinterested in owning or driving cars. The show is about wooing them back. It’s also about pushing an ambitious government-backed plan that paints Japan as a leader in automated driving technology.

Reporters got a preview look at the exhibition ahead of its opening to the public Oct. 30. 

Nissan Motor Co. showed a concept vehicle loaded with laser scanners, a 360-degree camera setup, a radar and computer chips so the car can “think” to deliver autonomous driving. The Japanese automaker called it IDS, which stands for “intelligent driving system.”

Nissan, based in Yokohama, Japan, said it will offer some autonomous driving features by the end of next year in Japan. By 2018, it said vehicles with the technology will be able to conduct lane changes on highways. By 2020, such vehicles will be able to make their way through intersections on regular urban roads.

Nissan officials said they were working hard to make the car smart enough to recognize the difference between a red traffic light and a tail light, learn how to turn on intersections where white lane indicators might be missing and anticipate from body language when a pedestrian might cross a street.

Nissan’s IDS vehicle is also electric, with a new battery that’s more powerful than the one currently in the automaker’s Leaf electric vehicle. Although production and sales plans were still undecided, it can travel a longer distance on a single charge and recharge more quickly.  

A major challenge for cars that drive themselves is winning social acceptance. They would have to share the roads with normal cars with drivers as well as with pedestrians, animals and unexpected objects.

That’s why some automakers at the show are packing the technology into what looks more like a golf cart or scooter than a car, such as Honda Motor Co.’s cubicle-like Wander Stand and Wander Walker scooter.

Instead of trying to venture on freeways and other public roads, these are designed for controlled environments, restricted to shuttling people to pre-determined destinations.

At a special section of the show, visitors can try out some of the so-called “smart mobility” devices such as Honda’s seat on a single-wheel as well as small electric vehicles.

Regardless of how zanily futuristic and even dangerous such machines might feel, especially the idea of sharing roads with driverless cars, that era is inevitable simply because artificial intelligence is far better at avoiding accidents than human drivers, said HIS analyst Egil Juliussen. It just might take some time, such as until the 2030s, he said.

Such technology will offer mobility to people who can’t drive or who don’t have cars, and it can also reduce pollution and global warming by delivering efficient driving, he said.

Other automakers, including General Motors, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and Tesla are working on self-driving technology, as are companies outside the industry, such as Google and Uber.

Cars already can connect to the Internet. Automakers envision a future in which cars would work much like smartphones today, to have passengers checking email, watching movies or checking out social media and leaving the driving to the car.  

Honda Chairman Fumihiko Ike, who is also head of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association which is organizing the show, said the Japanese government was putting tremendous pressure on Japan’s automakers to perfect self-driving features.

Japan is eager to showcase such technology in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, such as having driverless cars pick up athletes from airports and taking them to Olympic Village.  

But Ike acknowledged he had doubts. Unexpected things could happen on roads, like a package falling out of a van, and the human brain has better powers of the imagination than the best artificial intelligence, he said.

“We have to see,” Ike said on when self-driving cars might become common. “The final answer will be from the whole society.” 

Toyota President Akio Toyoda said the technology has clear benefits but also shared Ike’s reservations.

“It’s not that easy,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the show. “We are pursuing the technology, but we are also just being realistic.” 

Toyota driven to eliminate gasoline cars by 2050

Toyota, under ambitious environmental targets, is aiming to sell hardly any regular gasoline vehicles by 2050, only hybrids and fuel cells, to radically reduce emissions.

The automaker promised to involve governments, affiliated companies and other “stakeholders” in its push to reduce average emissions from Toyota cars by 90 percent by about 2050, compared with 2010 levels. 

Electric cars weren’t part of their vision, outlined by top Toyota Motor Corp. officials at a Tokyo museum, striking a contrast with rivals such as Nissan Motor Co., which has banked on that zero-emissions technology.

Toyota’s commitments come at a time when the auto industry has been shaken by a scandal at Germany’s Volkswagen AG, in which it admitted it cheated on diesel emissions tests covering millions of cars.

Toyota projected its annual sales of fuel cell vehicles will reach more than 30,000 by about 2020, which is 10 times its projected figure for 2017.

Fuel cells run on hydrogen and are zero-emissions. Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell went on sale late last year. Toyota has received 1,500 orders for the Mirai in Japan, and it just went on sale in the U.S. and Europe.

Annual sales of hybrid vehicles will reach 1.5 million and by 2020 Toyota would have sold 15 million hybrids, nearly twice what it has sold so far around the world, it said.

Hybrids switch back and forth between a gasoline engine and an electric motor to deliver an efficient ride.

The Toyota Prius, which went on sale in 1997, is the top-selling hybrid, with about 4 million sold globally so far. Toyota is promising to develop a hybrid version in every category, including usually gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, as well as luxury models.   

“You may think 35 years is a long time,” Senior Managing Officer Kiyotaka Ise told reporters. “But for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary.”

Ise acknowledged some gasoline engine cars would remain in less developed markets, but only in small numbers.

He and other Toyota officials insisted on the inevitability of their overall vision, stressing that the problems of global warming and environmental destruction made a move toward a hydrogen-based society a necessity.

Experts agree more has to be done to curtail global warming and pollution, and nations are increasingly tightening emissions standards.

But they are divided on whether all gasoline engines will disappear, or they’ll stay on, thanks to greener internal combustion engines, as well as the arrival of clean diesel technology.

Tatsuo Yoshida, senior analyst at Barclays Securities Japan in Tokyo, said Toyota’s goals weren’t far-fetched.

“The internal combustion engine is developing and metamorphosing into hybrids,” he said. “Toyota has been working on this technology for a long time. When officials speak out like this, it means they are 120 percent confident this is their scenario.”    

As part of its environmental vision, Toyota also promised to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from production lines during manufacturing in 2030 to about a third of 2001 levels.

Toyota said it will develop manufacturing technology that uses hydrogen, and will use wind power at its Tahara plant, both by 2020. It also promised to beef up various recycling measures, including developing ways to build vehicles from recycled ones.

When asked why Toyota remained so cautious on electric vehicles, they said they take too long to recharge, despite battery innovations that have made them smaller, restricting them for short-range travel in cities. 

Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada, known as the “father of the Prius,” said the company was taking the environment seriously because it has always tried to contribute to a better society.

“We have the same principles since our founding,” he said, showing on stage a photo of Sakichi Toyoda, the Toyota founder’s father, who invented a textile loom in 1891. “That is Toyota’s DNA.”   

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.

WiGWheels: Google’s latest version of self-driving car headed to streets

The latest version of Google’s self-driving car — a pod-like two-seater that needs no gas pedal or steering wheel — will make its debut on public roads this summer, a significant step in the technology giant’s mission to have driverless cars available to consumers in the next five years. 

This prototype is the first vehicle built from scratch for the purpose of self-driving, Google says. It looks like a Smart car with a shiny black bowler hat to hide its sensors, and it can drive, brake and recognize road hazards without human intervention. It has more capabilities than the prototype Google introduced last May, which was so rudimentary it had fake headlights. 

The new pod isn’t designed for a long trip, or a joyride. It lacks air bags and other federally required safety features, so it can’t go more than 25 miles per hour. It’s electric, and has to be recharged after 80 miles. And the pod can only drive in areas that have been thoroughly mapped by Google. 

At first, it will likely even have a steering wheel and gas pedal — current California regulations require them. Those regulations also require a driver to be able to take back control of the car at any time. But Google is lobbying for more flexible regulations.

Google will initially build and test 25 pods, mostly in neighborhoods surrounding its Mountain View headquarters. It will eventually build between 50 and 100, and will broaden testing to sites that are hillier and rainier. 

The ultimate goal, says Google co-founder Sergey Brin, is computer-controlled cars that can eliminate human error, which is a factor in an estimated 90 percent of the 1.2 million road deaths that occur worldwide each year. Self-driving cars could also improve traffic congestion and transport the elderly and disabled.

Google shocked the auto industry in 2010 with its announcement that it was working on a driverless car. Brin insists Google doesn’t aspire to be a car company, but wants its technology to be adopted by automakers.

“We want to partner to bring self-driving to all the vehicles in the world,” Brin told a group of journalists and community members gathered earlier this week to take rides in the prototype. 

For now the traditional automakers are pursuing their own self-driving technology, but with less ambitious timeline of 10 to 15 years for a truly driverless car. 

Chris Urmson, who directs Google’s self-driving car project, says the slow-moving, friendly looking prototype _ his young son thinks it looks like a koala because of the nose-like black laser on the front _ is a good bridge between the company’s current test fleet of 20 specially outfitted Lexus SUVs and the more advanced, higher-speed driverless cars of its future, which might not even look like anything on the road today.

“This vehicle is really all about us learning. This vehicle could go on a freeway, but when we think about introducing the technology, we want to do that very thoughtfully and very safely,” Urmson says. 

Convincing drivers that driverless technology is safe is one of the hurdles the company must overcome. Earlier, in response to questions from The Associated Press, Google acknowledged 11 minor accidents in the six years it has been testing autonomous cars. Urmson says the company is proud of that record, and notes that Google’s vehicles have completed more than 1.7 million miles of testing. He says all but one of the accidents were caused by drivers in other cars; in the only incident caused by a Google car, a staffer was driving in manual mode.

Consumers question whether they can trust self-driving cars to work all the time, who will be liable if there’s an accident and how self-driving cars will interact with regular cars, says the consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates. In a 2013 survey of U.S. drivers, J.D. Power found only one in five was interested in a fully autonomous car.

Urmson says Google needs to do a better job of educating people about self-driving technology and updating them on Google’s progress. It’s building a Web site to teach people about the technology, and the site will feature a monthly report that will include details of any accidents involving Google cars. The site will also have a section where people can send feedback when they interact with the cars.

The prototype cars — assembled in suburban Detroit by Roush Industries — have the same array of radars, lasers and cameras as Google’s fleet of Lexus SUVs, which allows them to share data. If one car’s camera spots orange cones and construction signs, for example, it will alert all the others to slow down in that area or reroute around a lane closure.

Dmitri Dolgov, the head of software for the self-driving car project, says Google’s software has gotten much better over the last year at classifying objects, like trees and mailboxes, and predicting behavior of pedestrians and other cars. For example, Google’s cars will slow down if they sense that a car in the next lane is speeding up to cut in front of them. And in one recent test, a Google car paused when a cyclist ran a red light. Another car, driven by a human, went ahead and nearly hit the cyclist.

The system isn’t perfect. On a test drive, one of Google’s Lexus SUVs seemed momentarily confused when a mail truck partially blocked its path. Later, during a demonstration drive in Google’s parking lot, the prototype _ without a wheel or pedal _ braked when it spotted a row of folding chairs. It had to figure out that the chairs wouldn’t move before it proceeded.

Dolgov says it’s impossible to predict everything its test cars might see, so they’re programmed to act in the most conservative way when they confront something unusual, like the time a Google SUV stopped and waited while a woman in a wheelchair chased a duck with a broom.

Google isn’t alone in developing self-driving cars. Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and other brands already have advanced driver assistance systems, like lane keeping and adaptive cruise control, that can pilot the car on the highway with minimal input from the driver. Unlike Google, automakers think self-driving cars will arrive feature-by-feature instead of all at once, giving people plenty of time to adapt to autonomous driving.

But Urmson says that approach is “fundamentally wrong.”

“We believe that’s like saying, `If I work really hard at jumping, one day I’ll just be able to fly,'” he said.

Egil Juliussen, the principal analyst of infotainment and advanced driver assist systems for the consulting firm IHS Automotive, says Google’s “moon shot” strategy is difficult and riskier than just adding features to existing cars. But he thinks it could ultimately be successful. Google could make self-driving urban pods for universities or urban centers, for example, or sell its technology to automakers.

Brin says the company is still refining its plans for self-driving cars, but he’s excited about their potential.

“Our goal is to create something safer than human drivers,” he said.

Google: We’re building car with no steering wheel

Google will build a car without a steering wheel.

It doesn’t need one because it drives itself.

The two-seater won’t be sold publicly, but Google said Tuesday it hopes by this time next year, 100 prototypes will be on public roads. Though not driving very quickly — the top speed would be 25 mph.

The cars are a natural next step for Google, which already has driven hundreds of thousands of miles in California with Lexus SUVs and Toyota Priuses outfitted with a combination of sensors and computers.

Those cars have Google-employed “safety drivers” behind the wheel in case of emergency. The new cars would eliminate the driver from the task of driving.

No steering wheel, no brake and gas pedals. Instead, buttons for go and stop.

“It reminded me of catching a chairlift by yourself, a bit of solitude I found really enjoyable,” Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, told a Southern California tech conference Tuesday evening of his first ride, according to a transcript.

The electric-powered car is compact and bubble-shaped _ something that might move people around a corporate campus or congested downtown.

Google is unlikely to go deeply into auto manufacturing. In unveiling the prototype, the company emphasized partnering with other firms.

The biggest obstacle could be the law.

Test versions will have a wheel and pedals, because they must under California regulations.

Google hopes to build the 100 prototypes late this year or early next and use them in a to-be-determined “pilot program,” spokeswoman Courtney Hohne said. Meanwhile, by the end of this year, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles must write regulations for the “operational” use of truly driverless cars.

The DMV had thought that reality was several years away, so it would have time to perfect the rules.

That clock just sped up, said the head of the DMV’s driverless car program, Bernard Soriano.

“Because of what is potentially out there soon, we need to make sure that the regulations are in place that would keep the public safe but would not impede progress,” Soriano said.