If all you’re interested in is horsepower and zero to 60 times, we have an embarrassment of riches. Regular production cars are faster than ever. But there are some insidious, deeply concerning decisions being made behind the scenes. We’re at a crossroads in 2013 where our cars are still controlled by us. We may look back at this year as the moment when all that started to change:
With all the added electronic functionality over the last decade, there are some pretty serious concerns about electronic security. The concerns were on full alert last spring when Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings — who singlehandedly ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal with an article in the magazine called “The Runaway General,” and had become the defacto watchdog of the “surveillance state.” His last article, “Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans,” was published by Buzzfeed on June 7, 2013. Just 11 days later, Hastings was dead in a fiery crash in his Mercedes-Benz C250 Coupe.
A witness to the crash in Los Angeles said the car was traveling at what appeared to be its maximum speed, trailing sparks and flames before it fishtailed out of control and smashed into a tree, leading some to speculate that Hastings’ car had been somehow hacked and forced to travel at maximum speed. Denials by the FBI and the manufacturer ensued, suggesting that there was no way a car could be controlled in such a manner, but by the middle of July, DARPA-funded researchers took control of a Toyota Prius with a laptop, and Forbes magazine provided a video of the experience.
At the risk of sounding like consummate fear-monger Glenn Beck, the widespread, largely unrestricted use of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology by local police departments has raised significant concern about how Americans are being watched on the road, and even in our own driveways. There are also concerns about how that data is being collected, stored and used. The Boston Police Department, for example, stored license plate reader data on hundreds of thousands of vehicles for three months, significantly longer than it would take to find a stolen car.
More concerning is the fact that the Massachusetts Executive Office for Public Safety and Security is planning a statewide pool of scanned license plate data on millions of innocent Massachusetts residents. The ACLU petitioned the Commonwealth for two years to determine how that data was being collected, and what standards were in place for its use, but the Commonwealth provided no answers. If your state isn’t already surreptitiously collecting your license plate information today, it will be in the near future, and you should know how that data is being used.
The Rush to Autonomous Cars
With the relative exception of Toyota, every auto manufacturer seems to be spending a whole lot of time and effort working on cars that will drive themselves. The basic framework already exists: steer and brake by wire, imminent crash braking, lane departure sensors, cruise control that reads the speed of cars two vehicles ahead. All anyone would have to do at this point is turn the systems on to communicate with each other and BOOM, your car’s driving itself.
What’s deeply concerning is that in a poll conducted by Carinsurance.com, one in five Americans said they’d never drive a car again if they had access to autonomous vehicles. In a way, it would be a way to get 25 percent of America’s worst drivers out from behind the wheel, but with automotive ownership comes responsibility, and part of that responsibility should be knowing how to operate the damned thing. If you’re that willing to give up the keys, maybe your license should be revoked immediately.
The Consequences of 54.5 MPG
By 2025, the auto manufacturers producing cars and trucks for sale in this country will be required to deliver a Corporate Average Fuel Economy of 54.5 miles per gallon. Along the way, CAFE will rise to 36.5 mpg in just two short years. The Obama Administration estimates that the new regulations will save consumers $1.7 trillion at the fuel pump by 2025.
But there’s a massive downside to getting there. Already, you’re seeing technologies that are adding incredible complexity to basic systems that will add breathtaking maintenance cost down the road. For example, the new Infiniti Q50 features a steer-by-wire system that breaks the mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels.
Since the Q50 no longer requires the engine to turn a hydraulic pump, it saves tenths of a gallon per mile. But the complexity of a series of electric motors that no mechanic outside of a few Infiniti dealers will know how to fix leads to a lot of questions about the longevity of modern automobiles. We’re already at a point when the cost of replacing a set of 22-inch tires and massive 15-inch brakes might convince an owner to trade a car rather than fix it. The cost of replacing two electric motors could be breathtaking.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the cost to purchase. A list of the “Best Affordable Performance Cars” by DigitalTrends started at $22,500 with the Fiat 500 Abarth, and went up to $34,995 for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Say you wanted a Ford Mustang in 1964. The base price for the car was $2,427. In 2013 dollars, that’s about $16,500, or $6,000 less than the Fiat 500 Abarth.
The auto industry is wringing its collective hands pondering just why young people just aren’t into cars anymore. It’s not because they want to live in their mom’s basement playing Wii for the rest of their lives. It’s because they’re coming out of college $24,000 in the hole, with another $10,000 in revolving debt on an average of three credit cards. They’re not buying cars because they CAN’T buy cars.
This is a pretty easy equation to figure out. Build a less expensive car that people actually want to buy, and the youthful world will beat a path to your door. The Subaru BRZ an the Scion FR-S should be enough of a lesson for the industry. An engaging automobile priced less than $18k would be a home run.
Image Source: KTLA.com, NYDailyNews.com