EPA puts the brake on Obama-era mpg rules

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 2:48 p.m. ET April 2, 2018

Washington — President Donald Trump’s administration is moving to overturn stringent gas mileage rules that would have required automakers to produce car fleets that averaged over 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said Monday the mileage rules – known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards — are “not appropriate and should be revised” in a determination announced Monday. The stringent CAFE standards were set under President Barack Obama’s watch.

“The Obama administration’s determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a statement, referencing the Obama administration’s decision to finalize the standards ahead of schedule in the months after Trump’s win in the 2016 election.

“Obama’s EPA cut the midterm evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high,” Pruitt said.

The Trump administration did not annouce what the recommendations for the new standards will be.

Pruitt said the EPA will launch a new rulemaking process to craft new mileage rules for the model years between 2022 to 2025. The decision is a major win for automakers, who argued that the Obama-era rules were too stringent and pushed the Trump administration to revive the mid-term review they promised that was supposed to conclude in April 2018.

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major carmakers in Washington, said the EPA made the “right decision.”

“We support the administration for pursuing a data-driven effort and a single national program as it works to finalize future standards,” she said in an emailed statement. “We appreciate that the administration is working to find a way to both increase fuel economy standards and keep new vehicles affordable to more Americans.”

The fuel economy rules were enacted in 2012 and began taking effect with the 2017 model year. They called for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks to an eventual goal of between 50 and 52.6 miles per gallon by 2025. The goal was revised down from an initial target of 54.5 miles per gallon.

The mileage rules were put in place by the Obama administration when gas prices topped $4 per gallon. Automakers have since argued that the rules are too stringent, and drivers have demonstrated in recent years that they are less interested in fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles with gas prices that are now around $2.50.

The Obama administration’s mileage rules for the models years between 2017 and 2021 were locked in place by the 2012 agreement that was struck between the former president and almost every major automaker. The first half of the mileage increase required an average of over 35 miles per gallon for 2017 models. The mileage rules then called for automakers to achieve a fleetwide average mileage rate of more than 36 miles per gallon for cars and trucks in 2018. The standard increases to more than 37 miles per gallon in 2019 and nearly 39 miles per gallon in 2020.

Under the Obama administration’s rules, automakers would have faced fines of $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold. Automakers were allowed to purchase credits from other auto companies that have come in under the mileage requirements to cover pollution deficits.

The EPA’s decision to roll back the mileage rules sets up a fight between the Trump administration and California, which sets its own emissions standards under a waiver included in the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, which worked with the EPA under Obama to craft the national mileage rules, vowed Monday to fight the Trump administration’s effort to roll them back.

“This decision takes the U.S. auto industry backward, and we will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards and fight to preserve one national clean vehicle program,” Nichols said in a statement. “California will not weaken its nationally accepted clean car standards, and automakers will continue to meet those higher standards, bringing better gas mileage and less pollution for everyone.”

Environmental and consumer advocates also accused the Trump administration of acting on behalf of carmakers instead of drivers and ignoring concerns about auto pollution.

“Rolling back these standards means more dangerous pollution will be pumped into the air Michigan families breathe every day,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

David Friedman, director of cars and products policy and analysis for Consumers Union, said the Trump administration’s decision “defies the robust record and years of review that show these targets are reasonable and appropriate.

“Undermining these consumer protections will cost consumers more at the pump while fulfilling the wishes of the auto industry,” he said.

Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, said automakers will likely have to continue developing fuel-efficient cars for global markets where the trend is toward more stringent mileage standards – or moving away for internal combustion engines altogether in some cases.

“These are global automakers who see the rest of the world marching in a different direction,” she said. “To play in other markets, they must meet the standards of other countries, most notably China, the biggest car market in the world which is demanding cleaner vehicles like electrics.”

Krebs noted that fuel efficiency has not been a big motivating factor for U.S. car buyers, however.

“The disconnect in the U.S. is that consumers don’t favor clean, highly fuel-efficient vehicles like electrics and hybrids, particularly as gas prices remain low and consumers opt for sport-utility vehicles,” she said. “EV and hybrid sales account for a miniscule 3 percent or less of the entire new-car market annually.”



Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News

Robocar critics emboldened by Uber crash

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 8:12 p.m. ET March 22, 2018 | Updated 8:46 p.m. ET March 22, 2018

Washington — The crash involving a self-driving Uber that struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona has emboldened critics of the push by Congress to allow automakers to sell thousands of driverless cars.

Forty-nine-year-old Elaine Herzberg was hit by a 2017 Volvo XC90 SUV that was being operated autonomously by Uber in Tempe, Arizona, around 10 p.m. Sunday, according to police in the Phoenix suburb. She later died at the hospital in what is believed to be the first fatality in a pedestrian accident involving an autonomous vehicle.

The fatal crash comes as Congress tries to wrap up work on legislation that would allow automakers to sell thousands of self-driving cars in the near future. It immediately prompted calls from consumer safety advocates in Congress and Washington to pump the brakes on self-driving cars.

“This tragic incident makes clear that autonomous vehicle technology has a long way to go before it is truly safe for the passengers, pedestrians, and drivers who share America’s roads,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., added: “This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads.”

Prior to the Uber accident, Congress appeared to be rushing to give automakers wide latitude to test and sell self-driving cars. A bill championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, would allow automakers to sell as many as 80,000 self-driving cars a year. A similar measure has already been passed by the U.S. House, a fact that House members who back self-driving cars have been eager to point out.

The Trump administration is also gearing up to release its second set of voluntary guidelines for self-driving car operation, which followed a previous framework released in 2016 by former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Federal rules currently require cars to have a human operator. The pending legislation would allow automakers to apply for exemptions if they can prove their self-driving cars can match the safety of existing cars.

An operator was behind the steering wheel of the Uber vehicle, although it was being operated in self-drive mode, when it hit Herzberg, who walking a bicycle outside of a crosswalk. A video released by the police department Wednesday shows an Uber operator who appears to divert her eyes from the road in the moments before the crash.

Peters said in a statement provided to The Detroit News that the Uber accident is “concerning,” and he said lawmakers will “need to get all the facts about what caused it.”

“Congress must move quickly to enhance oversight of self-driving vehicles by updating federal safety rules and ensuring regulators have the right tools and resources to oversee the safe testing and deployment of these emerging technologies,” he said.

His office noted that the self-driving bill that is being considered by Congress requires car manufacturers to submit mandatory evaluations that are supposed to detail how self-driving vehicles meet safety criteria before they are deployed. The office also noted that the government spending bill being considered by Congress this week includes $100 million for research into self-driving vehicles.

David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, said automakers and technology companies have overestimated self-driving cars’ capabilities.

“If you look at self-driving cars today, at best they are novice drivers,” he said. “We need to be thinking about having protections that are similar to the ones you have for novice drivers. You should have to prove that you’re well-trained in order to do things like drive at night or drive at speeds.”

Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the crash “should be a clear wake-up call for Congress to halt this flawed legislation and add desperately-needed minimum performance requirements and safety standards.”

Polls have shown drivers have been slow to accept the premise of self-driving cars. A survey conducted by AlixPartners in September 2017 showed 84 percent of respondents said they are concerned about vehicle-software malfunctions in self-driving cars, and close to 80 percent said they were worried about potential hardware malfunctions.

Friedman said automakers will have to take into account that drivers are likely to react differently to accidents that involving autonomous cars if they hope to increase consumer acceptance: “When you look at the way we react to airplane crashes or when there is a major recall like GM’s ignition switch, we react differently when something bad happens and we are not the ones in control.”


Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News

Uber self-driving vehicle hits, kills pedestrian

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 1:23 p.m. ET March 19, 2018 | Updated 7:57 p.m. ET March 19, 2018

Uber has suspended all testing of self-driving cars following what is believed to be the first fatal pedestrian accident involving an autonomous vehicle. Consumer advocates seized on the incident to urge tougher regulations.

Forty-nine-year-old Elaine Herzberg was hit by a 2017 Volvo XC90 SUV that was being operated autonomously by Uber in Tempe, Ariz., around 10 p.m. Sunday, according to police in the Phoenix suburb. Tempe police said the vehicle was in self-drive mode with an operator behind the wheel when Herzberg, who walking a bicycle outside of a crosswalk, was hit.

Sgt. Ronald Elcock said in an email that the woman died after being taken to a local hospital.

Uber did not respond to email messages sent Monday seeking comment. But Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted Monday: “Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” the company added in a tweet from its main account. “We’re fully cooperating with @TempePolice and local authorities as they investigate this incident.”

Police said Uber is cooperating in the investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board said in a tweet Monday it is sending a team to Tempe to investigate the crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it dispatched its Special Crash Investigation team.

Uber has been testing the self-driving vehicles in Tempe and Phoenix for months.

The traffic fatality provided ammunition for robotic-car skeptics who have called for automakers and technology companies to slow their rush to develop the vehicles for the mass market.

“This tragic accident underscores why we need to be exceptionally cautious when testing and deploying autonomous vehicle technologies on public roads,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a statement. “If these technologies are to reap their purported safety, efficiency and environmental benefits, we must have robust safety, cybersecurity and privacy rules in place before these vehicles are traveling our roadways to prevent such tragedies from occurring.”

John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group, took it a step further by calling for “a national moratorium on all robot-car testing.” He blamed the crash on lax self-driving testing rules in Arizona that he said have enticed automakers and technology companies to operate their autonomous cars there.

“Arizona has been the Wild West of robot-car testing with virtually no regulations in place,” he said. “That’s why Uber and Waymo test there. When there’s no sheriff in town, people get killed.”

The crash is the latest in a series of self-driving accidents that have raised questions about the safety of the technology.

In 2017 in Tempe, a self-driving Volvo operated by Uber crashed into a car that failed to yield. That crash also prompted Uber to temporarily suspend its self-driving testing, although the Uber vehicle was found to not be responsible for the accident and there were no injuries.

In 2016, a 2015 Tesla Model S that was operating with its automated driving system activated crashed into a semi-trailer rig turning left in front of it, killing the driver in what was believed to be the first U.S. death in a vehicle driving in semi-autonomous mode.

Glenn Stevens, executive director of Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto, which promotes the importance of retaining and growing the automotive industry in Michigan, said it is important for automakers to continue testing self-driving cars, despite the spate of recent crashes. He noted that thousands of U.S. residents die annually in car crashes.

“It is tragic a life was lost in Tempe today,” he said in an email. “Global research and testing is enabling us to solve problems and provide opportunities for people to experience mobility in a less congested, greener and safer world.”

Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, said it’s unlikely automakers will pump the brakes on self-driving cars.

“I don’t think it’s going to cause anybody to slow down on their development efforts,” he said. “Where you might some impact is they could slow some of the deployment so they can make sure they are covering the safety angles a little bit better.”

Abuelsamid said automakers face an uphill battle to prevent accidents involving pedestrians.

“Humans are going to do bad things,” he said, although he noted that little is known so far about Sunday’s crash. “In some cases, they step out in front of the vehicles or they try to taunt them.”

Abuelsamid said self-driving cars are at disadvantage when they interact with pedestrians because the cars cannot use nonverbal signals like waving a hand to let people know it is OK to cross. “There needs to be some way for the vehicle to signal to pedestrians what its intent is,” he said.

Researchers at Ford Motor Co. sought to address that problem by dressing an engineer in a suit matching the interior of a car to make it look like the vehicle was being operated autonomously in a test of pedestrian interactions with self-driving automobiles. That study was conducted in the Washington metro area last fall in conjunction with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

The research teams developed a system involving a light at the top of the vehicle’s windshield that moved from side-to-side to indicate a self-driving car was about to yield. The lights stayed solid white to indicate the car was in drive mode. And before the self-driving vehicle started, the lights rapidly blinked to signal pedestrians it was about to move.

A poll conducted by AlixPartners in September 2017 showed 84 percent of respondents said they are concerned about vehicle-software malfunctions in self-driving cars, and close to 80 percent said they were worried about potential hardware malfunctions.

Akshay Anand, analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said the Uber crash could prompt more misgivings about safety.

“There will no doubt be an exhaustive investigation of the tragic incident involving an Uber self-driving vehicle and a pedestrian,” Anand said. “What is clear is that this has the potential to severely impact public perceptions of autonomous technology, and should be handled with utmost prudence by regulators, authorities and the industry alike.”


Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News

Trump imposes tariffs, exempts Canada, Mexico

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 8:55 a.m. ET March 8, 2018 | Updated 10:43 p.m. ET March 8, 2018

Washington — President Donald Trump on Thursday imposed steep 25 percent tariffs on foreign steel and 10 percent tariffs on foreign aluminum, despite strong opposition from fellow Republicans in Congress and the U.S. auto industry. But he temporarily exempted Canada and Mexico as leverage to renegotiate changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump signed a proclamation making it official Thursday despite warnings the action could spark a global trade war and increase prices of U.S.-made goods, including automobiles. The action drew immediate condemnation from members of Congress and the auto industry.

The White House said Thursday the tariffs will take effect in 15 days and the exemptions for Canada and Mexico will last as long as the president sees fit.

“Our industries have been targeted for years and years, decades in fact, by unfair foreign trade practices, leading to the shuttered plants and mills, the laying off of millions of workers and the decimation of entire communities, and that’s going to stop,” said Trump, who was flanked by steel and aluminum workers, some carrying hard hats.

“This is not merely an economic disaster, but it’s a security disaster,” he continued. “We want to build our ships, we want to build our planes, we want to build our military equipment with steel, with aluminum from our country. And now we’re finally taking action to correct this long overdue problem. It’s a travesty.”

Trump said foreign steel and aluminum operations that want to avoid the tariffs could relocate to the United States.

The president said he would hold off imposing duties on Canada and Mexico, which are in stalled NAFTA talks, as the U.S. demands greater domestic content for vehicles made in those countries. “If we don’t make the deal… then we’re going to terminate NAFTA and we’re going to start all over again, or do it a different way,” he said.

Trump suggested in a meeting with his Cabinet earlier Thursday that Australia and “other countries that also are very much involved with us on trade, and also on working together with military” might also be spared from tariffs, citing a favorable trade balance between Australia and the U.S.

The official signing of the action follows a week in which congressional Republicans split with the president on trade amid retaliatory threats from foreign leaders and pleas from leaders of the auto industry and other sectors about the increased costs that would be associated with a potential trade war.

Immediately after Thursday’s signing, House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said, “I disagree with this action and fear its unintended consequences.” He said there are bad trade practices by nations like China, but repeated his contention that the better approach is targeted enforcement. “Our economy and our national security are strengthened by fostering free trade with our allies and promoting the rule of law,” he said.

The European Union has threatened retaliation for tariffs, including taxes on imports of Harley-Davidson motorcycles built in Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin.

In a Ford Motor Co. statement released after Thursday’s announcement, the company said, “Despite the fact that Ford buys the vast majority of its steel and aluminum for U.S. production in the U.S., this action could result in an increase in domestic commodity prices — harming the competitiveness of American manufacturers.”

General Motors Co. said in a statement it buys more than 90 percent of its steel for U.S. production from domestic suppliers. The automaker said it was encouraged by the temporary exemption for Canada and Mexico.

“In the near term, there will be little impact to us from the tariff itself,” GM said. “We will be impacted by any general U.S.- sourced steel price increases, but we do not expect a material impact given the majority of our contracts are longer term. And for any longer term impact, we have shown we have the ability to adjust and adapt to a variety of market changes around the world and that will be our approach on this issue as well.”

John Bozzella, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers that represents foreign-based manufacturers, added: “Exemptions will not address the fundamental problems tariffs will create for U.S. car and truck manufacturing. Increased costs will make our industry less competitive and harm American workers, consumers, and our economy.”

A Goldman Sachs study showed GM and Ford could stand to lose $1 billion per year in profits under Trump’s tariff plan. Ford recently introduced an aluminum body for its new Expedition SUV. Ford’s popular F-150 pickup also has large quantities of aluminum in its body.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in a statement Thursday that he is planning to immediately introduce legislation to nullify the tariffs.

“These so-called ‘flexible tariffs’ are a marriage of two lethal poisons to economic growth — protectionism and uncertainty,” Flake said. “Trade wars are not won, they are only lost. Congress cannot be complicit as the administration courts economic disaster.”

But Thomas Gibson, president and CEO of the American Iron and Steel Institute, which lobbies for North American steel producers, supported Trump’s decision: “The president’s action today is key in stemming the tide of unfair foreign imports and putting steel workers back to work.”

The threat of tariffs had upended talks about restructuring NAFTA. Automakers have warned the Trump administration about the risk and disruption of pulling out of the trade agreement, but Trump has vowed to do just that if Canada and Mexico balk at his terms.

The day’s events transpired as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which was the 12-country trade deal with Asian countries that Trump abandoned almost immediately after taking office — was ratified Thursday by the remaining 11 nations, including Canada and Mexico.

Trump campaigned heavily on protectionist policies, frequently identifying international trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP as ones that he would rip up.

The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, which had fallen last week after the surprise announcement of the tariffs, rose Thursday as it became clear there would be exemptions for certain countries. They ended the day up 0.4 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Detroit automakers ended the day mixed. GM shares climbed 1.3 percent, but Ford fell 0.2 percent and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles fell 0.9 percent.

U.S. aluminum and steel stocks, which had declined earlier Thursday on expectation there would be exemptions, took a hit. U.S. Steel Corp. closed down 2.9 percent after earlier falling as much as 4.6 percent, while Nucor Corp. dropped 2.6 percent. Aluminum producer Alcoa Corp. declined 0.9 percent, while Century Aluminum Co. was down 7.5 percent.


Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News

Car-safety features stuck in slow lane

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 12:05 a.m. ET March 5, 2018 | Updated 2:40 p.m. ET March 5, 2018

Washington — Twenty automakers pledged to the Obama administration they would commit to voluntarily equip all of their passenger vehicles with automatic emergency braking by September 2022, but less than a quarter of the manufacturers appear to be on pace to hit the target.

Safety advocates say the remaining automakers have little incentive to keep their promises regarding safety technologies because President Donald Trump’s administration, which has yet to nominate a director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has shown no urgency about enforcing the deadline — or, for that matter, pushing for other life-saving technologies.

NHTSA says only four of 20 automakers in 2017 equipped at least half of their U.S. models with standard automatic emergency brakes, which automatically apply the brakes when a front collision is imminent.

The highest rates were for luxury brands such as Tesla and Mercedes-Benz. Among mass-market companies, Toyota Motor Corp. fitted the devices to 56 percent of its 2017 fleet, compared with 30 percent for Honda Motor Co., 20 percent for General Motors Co., and less than 10 percent for Ford Motor Co. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV offered automatic emergency braking on only 6 percent of its 2017 fleet, according to NHTSA.

In January, Ford said it would make the automatic brakes standard on half of its cars by 2019. The company said also said it will comply with the voluntary agreement for 2022.

The Trump administration has predicted that automakers will soon pick up the pace.

“With each model year, manufacturers will increasingly utilize technology to allow vehicles to ‘see’ the world around them and navigate it more safely,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement when the statistics were released in December.

It’s not just automatic brakes that automakers are lagging behind on. NHTSA announced in 2014 that backup cameras would be required for all new manufactured vehicles after mid-2018. But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Highway Loss Data Institute says it will take until 2039 before 95 percent of registered vehicles, which also takes into account older legacy cars, will be equipped with rear cameras.

 IIHS estimated just 24 percent of the U.S. registered car fleet had backup cameras in 2016, but the group says rear cameras are now standard on virtually all new models — which will satisfy the federal requirement.

IIHS said rear parking sensors, which alert drivers to obstacles they may encounter while parking and are not subject to a federal mandate, will take even longer to become commonplace. They won’t reach that milestone until 2041.

The insurance institute has estimated that it usually takes about 30 years for safety features to become standard on automobiles. The group said other technologies like forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure warning, which are not currently subject to federal regulations, are not projected to be standard on 95 percent of registered cars until 2043.

Automatic emergency brakes will not reach that level of ubiquity until 2045. And adaptive headlights, which adjust to increase visibility around curves and over hills, won’t be commonplace until after 2050.

Automakers are promising to soon deliver fully self-driving cars that they say will greatly reduce the number of crashes that occur on U.S. highways. John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog group, said automakers would prevent more crashes in the near term if they focused instead on increasing the prevalence of driver-assist technologies, such as automatic emergency braking in cars, that are already in production.

“We are skeptical of a lot of autonomous-vehicle self-driving technology. We don’t think that’s been proven safe enough, but demonstrable automated techniques like automated emergency-braking should be mandated,” said Simpson, who noted that his group unsuccessfully petitioned NHTSA to make the automatic emergency braking requirement mandatory.

“We did not think that the voluntary accord was anywhere near adequate and early indications are, at least from what I’ve seen, that the current administration doesn’t seem to care very much about enforcing it. It needed to be mandatory, and it was not.”

Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications for IIHS, said automakers are following “a typical pattern for advanced safety features” with their slow roll-out of automatic emergency braking and other driver-assist features that have been touted as potential lifesavers.

“The automakers introduce a technology like side air bags, electronic stability control or (automatic emergency braking); it’s optional at first or standard on luxury models and high-end trims,” he said in an email. “Then, as researchers determine technologies are effective, NHTSA requires them — or in the case of AEB, NHTSA and IIHS worked together to push for a commitment from the automakers to make AEB standard across the board by 2022.”

Rader added that automatic emergency braking “is the most effective of the latest crop of advanced technologies, reducing front-into-rear crashes reported to police by 50 percent,” although he said other technologies are also showing benefits.

Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said automakers are grappling with the cost of adding safety features to cars that are already expensive in the view of most consumers.

“The average transaction price of a vehicle is higher than it’s ever been before,” she said, noting the average sale price is approaching $36,000. “It’s putting a significant strain on consumers because it is stretching out loans to 72 and 84 months, whereas before it used to be 48 or 60 months.”

Lindland said that reality is forcing costumers to sometimes have to choose between safety features and other popular vehicle enhancements such as navigation or Bluetooth capability.

“Along with all the other regulations that are going,” she said, “ I don’t think we could turn to manufacturers and say ‘You need to make these standard’ without expecting them to raise prices.”

William Wallace, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, acknowledged automakers have made “some progress” with increasing the availability of driver-assist features, but he said they need to do much more to make this lifesaving technology standard in cars other than luxury vehicles.

“Consumers shouldn’t be forced to pay extra or buy pricey add-ons to have proven safety features like automatic emergency braking,” he said in an email.


Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News

Half of deadly Takata air bags still not fixed

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 11:24 p.m. ET Dec. 7, 2017 | Updated 7:24 a.m. ET Dec. 8, 2017

Washington — More than half of the nearly 42 million exploding air bag inflators recalled by auto supplier Takata have not been replaced and are still in cars on U.S. highways, posing a danger to drivers and their passengers.

Automakers say they are doing everything they can to boost repair rates for the faulty air bags linked to 13 deaths and more than 180 injuries in the United States. They say they have enough replacement parts for the free repairs and in some cases are sending teams door-to-door to track down cars.

Consumer safety advocates counter that automakers should be doing more, using all of their marketing muscle to convince owners of the danger. And they say the federal agency charged with overseeing the recall effort — the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — has been without a leader since President Donald Trump took office, and is not doing all it could to make automakers accountable.


The recall of Takata Corp. air bags, which is the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history, already touches nearly 13 percent of the total number of registered vehicles.

NHTSA says only 19.6 million of the 41.8 million air bags recalled by the end of October had been repaired. The defective safety devices from the now-bankrupt Japanese auto supplier were used in 34 million cars, and the problem is expected to grow. Another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be added in the next couple of years. (Go to http://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls to check if your car has an unresolved recall; you’ll need the 17-character vehicle identification number located at the lower left of your car’s windshield.)

The older the cars get, the higher the risk: Over time, high humidity can cause the propellant that inflates the safety devices to become unstable and explode with too much force during a crash. That ruptures the metal inflator and throws shrapnel at drivers and passengers.

Honda Motor Co. vehicles are disproportionately represented in the recall numbers. About 17.7 million air bag inflators installed in 11.4 million Hondas and Acuras have been recalled because of safety concerns. Honda has repaired 11.4 million inflators so far.

The Japanese automaker hired 500 people to knock on doors to find owners who haven’t responded to mailings. Last month, Honda began using Facebook to track down owners and send warnings. It released an internet video featuring the testimony of a woman who nearly lost an eye when the air bag in her 2002 Civic exploded. It says it has made 150 million outreach attempts to owners.

Honda spokesman Chris Martin says the company has been using parts from other auto suppliers to make sure repairs are not slowed by Takata’s troubles. “On the parts side, we’ve been in pretty good shape for a while,” said Martin, referring to early shortages of parts that may have discouraged some owners from taking their cars to dealers.

Honda, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota have had the most air bags recalled. The companies all say they’ve made substantial progress toward repairs, but acknowledge there is much to be done.

The Takata recall is being conducted in phases that target the most vulnerable cars in humid climates in the southeastern United States. Michigan is among the lowest-priority states in the recall.

Chris Freeman, Takata campaign manager for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — which NHTSA says has about 8.7 million inflators impacted by the recall — said his company has completed 49 percent of its highest-priority repairs. He said Fiat Chrysler is confident it has enough parts to complete the required repairs.

“We’re not in any way parts-challenged,” Freeman said. “We’re not turning customers away because of any parts issue.”

Freeman said Fiat Chrysler has contracted with Uber to provide rides for drivers who drop off their cars at dealerships. He also said the company has begun doing “mobile repairs” in which technicians in vans drive to homes.

He said the lack of familiarity among American drivers with Takata has presented challenges in convincing them of the urgency of getting their cars fixed. “People don’t know and understand what Takata is,” he said. “If I said you had a Takata recall, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective as if I say you have an air bag recall.”

Victor Vanov, a spokesman for Toyota, which has about 5 million cars impacted by the recall, said the automaker has completed about 68 percent of its repairs for the top-three highest-priority groups identified by federal regulators.

“For us, we have the parts, it’s just a matter of getting folks to come and get it replaced,” he said. “We have a steady flow of parts coming in, it’s just a matter of getting customers to come in and get the repairs done, which takes less than an hour.”

Vanov said Toyota has launched an “active recall” system allowing drivers who take their cars to aftermarket repair shops to be notified of open recalls. He said the system has been installed in 25,000 locations in the U.S.

NHTSA did not respond to a request for comment.

The federal agency released a report from an independent monitor in November that found repair completion rates vary widely by manufacturer, reflecting uneven efforts on their part. Automakers with the best completion rates by the end of October included Tesla (78.6 percent of repairs completed), Honda/Acura (64.8 percent), Subaru (50.2 percent) and General Motors (46.3 percent). Those with the worst completion rates included Mercedes-Benz (2.2 percent of repairs completed), Mitsubishi (23 percent) and Mazda (27.1 percent).

The independent monitor issued a series of recommendations for automakers to boost completion rates, including pursuing different avenues in which owners are contacted at least once a month with “clear, accurate and urgent messaging in order to convey the risk these defective air bag inflators pose.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a frequent critic of NHTSA and Takata, said the federal agency will not be able to force automakers to adopt the recommendations until it has a full-time chief on the job. Nearly 11 months after taking office, Trump has still not nominated a NHTSA administrator.

“The independent monitor has provided good recommendations to ramp up a truly coordinated response to the Takata air bag recall, such as much more individually targeted outreach to drivers that still have these defective air bags in their vehicles,” Nelson said. “But no one at NHTSA is actually forcing Takata or the automakers to do these things, or even meet the fairly low recall-metrics that the agency itself established. NHTSA needs to start baring its teeth, and fining companies that don’t meet deadlines. If they don’t, this is just going to continue to muddle on forever.”

David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union and a former deputy and acting NHTSA administrator, agreed that automakers have not done enough to reach at-risk drivers, although he acknowledged the efforts of companies like Honda to go door-to-door when necessary.

Friedman said automakers should be “using the same techniques they use to sell cars” to convince drivers they are in danger.

“These companies are filled with people who are experts in how to motivate people to do things,” he said. “They know how to do this stuff. The question is, are they willing to?”


Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News

Industry faces long haul to legalize self-driving semis

Keith Laing, Detroit News Washington Bureau
Published 11:58 p.m. ET Oct. 30, 2017 | Updated 12:38 a.m. ET Oct. 31, 2017

Washington — Trucking companies are not giving up the fight to put self-driving semis and delivery trucks on U.S. highways.

Advocates for the trucking industry are pushing back on proposed legislation that largely removes restrictions from operation of autonomous passenger cars but does not do the same for commercial trucks. They say innovation will be stifled at a time of rapid advances.

The push comes as companies like Tesla Inc. have discussed plans to platoon partially automated electric trucks with a lead truck. In that scenario, a human driver in the lead truck punches a hole in the wind, with other trucks drafting close behind for maximum efficiency and to take up less space on the highway. The trucks communicate electronically and can brake immediately as needed.

Testing of autonomous trucks has been ongoing over the past two years: Daimler Trucks North America’s Freightliner Inspiration semi became the first licensed autonomous commercial vehicle to operate on open public highways in the United States when it was cleared for testing by Nevada in 2015. Uber, which acquired self-driving truck maker Otto in 2016, tested a 120-mile shipment of Budweiser in a truck that had no driver in the front seat in Colorado.

Volvo is testing self-driving garbage trucks in Sweden that can navigate cities. And earlier this month, Deutsche Post’s DHL Group announced plans to test Ford Transit-based self-driving trucks for deliveries beginning in 2018.

Even the federal government has gotten in on the act: The Federal Highway Administration demonstrated a three-truck platoon of partially automated trucks on a Virginia interstate in September.

“These new technologies have the ability to increase capacity on our highways and make freight transportation more efficient,” Acting Federal Highway Administrator Brandye Hendrickson said after the test.

Avoiding ‘murky’ areas

The law on autonomous vehicles is one of the few pieces of legislation moving quickly in a bitterly divided Washington. Self-driving trucks were dropped from the legislation Sept. 28 after labor unions raised concerns about millions of professional drivers losing their jobs.

“These are vehicles that share the road together, so they should share the same regulatory framework,” said Sean McNally, vice president for communications for the American Trucking Associations, which lobbies for major truck companies. “If companies need to operate under different regulatory policies in, say, Michigan than California, that would have a significant impact on testing.”

The self-driving bill — minus trucks — has been approved by the U.S. House and cleared a key U.S. Senate committee. The measures, which would allow automakers to each put 100,000 or more self-driving cars per year on U.S. roads — and prohibit states from blocking them — has been touted as a rare bipartisan bill in this Congress.

In a bid to exclude trucks and passenger buses, the Senate version of the bill places a 10,000-pound weight limit on its definition of a “highly automated vehicle.” Most big-rig semis weigh around 80,000 pounds. The House version includes language stating that the definition of a self-driving car “does not include a commercial motor vehicle.”

A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, who pushed for trucks to be removed from the Senate’s bill, said in statement that the Bloomfield Township Democrat believes “self-driving trucks raise a separate set of issues, especially given their economic and employment impacts, that must be more thoroughly examined … before moving forward with legislative action.”

The American Trucking Associations’ McNally noted that states could ban self-driving truck testing on their roads unless the bill’s definition of an autonomous vehicle is broadened.

“If the bill doesn’t specifically address the trucking issue, you may get into a murky area where states can do whatever they want,” McNally said. “We need an explicit preemption for commercial vehicles. The only way to get that certainty is if autonomous trucks are in the bill.”

Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents truck drivers who are not affiliated with large trucking companies, said the self-driving truck debate should not just be focused on big trucking corporations represented by the ATA.

Taylor added that her organization is OK with the decision to handle self-driving trucks separately from the rapidly moving legislation that pertains to driverless cars.

“Trucks need to be considered separately,” Taylor said in an email. “There are safety and security issues, an entire industry of jobs, regulations and need for cost versus benefit analysis.”

Safety groups have raised concerns about the idea of automating 80,000-pound big rigs and allowing them on U.S. highways. They point to the high number of crashes that occur now between human-operated cars and trucks.

“You’re talking about a great big huge truck, and it takes them much longer to stop,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group.

“The potential devastation that a large commercial vehicle can wreak is just horrendous,” Simpson continued. “That’s one of the biggest problems on some of these interstate highways, the interactions between the trucks that are on the road and the cars.”

IHS Automotive estimated in 2016 that 60,000 self-driving trucks could be sold annually in the U.S. by 2035, but that is assuming that Congress clears the way for them to operate on the nation’s roadways.

‘We’re not ready’

Labor unions who pressed Congress to block self-driving trucks in a bid to protect jobs of truck and bus drivers are urging lawmakers to keeping pumping the brakes. They cite a May report from Goldman Sachs that forecasts the professional driving sector stands to lose 6.2 million jobs globally by 2030 due to the advent of fully autonomous vehicles.

Samuel Loesche, legislative representative at International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which counts 600,000 professional drivers among its membership, said his union is remaining vigilant about the possibility of self-driving truck supporters moving to put the truck provisions back into the autonomous driving bill when it comes to the Senate floor.

“If it’s reinserted into the bill on the floor, it would completely blow up the bipartisan agreement,” he warned.

Loesche added: “We’re not anti-technology, we’re not anti-innovation. What we are is pro-American and pro-worker. Anything that’s done in this space needs to take into account the job and economic issues that manufacturers and tech companies don’t seem to want to deal with.”

Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, agreed, saying his union’s members “don’t believe this is the right time to introduce autonomous vehicles on the truck or bus side.”

“We’re not ready for that transition,” he said. “There has to be a lot more thought given to making sure that we’re doing enough on the worker side and the job protection side for the huge transition that is going to come with these advanced technologies.”

ATA spokesman McNally countered that self-driving trucks will not be able to live up to their full potential unless Congress gives the OK for them to operate nationwide.

“Autonomous trucks as developed are not going to be confined to one state,” he said. “Our belief is you derive the benefits from this with long hauls. We are an interstate industry, which means we need laws that recognize that.”


Leave a comment

Filed under The Detroit News