Saturday, October 31, 2015

Nissan, GM and other big automakers can't keep up with revolutionary Tesla

At the Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan promised to offer self-driving functions in a few years that are already available in Tesla Motors' Model S.


Automobile writers are so bored with the old technology being hawked at dealers worldwide they go bananas over concept cars and other fantasies that may never hit the road.

Take this week's reports from the Tokyo Motor Show, where Nissan showed an all-electric concept car that isn't likely to go into production for five years, if then.

The Associated Press story on Nissan's IDS (intelligent driving system) noted that by 2018, vehicles equipped with self-drive would be able to change lanes on the highway.

That's what owners of the Tesla Model S can do now, thanks to updated software downloaded to the all-electric cars this month.

To change lanes, all owners have to do is put on their directional signal when Tesla's Autopilot and Autosteer are enabled.

Volt or Dolt?

Meanwhile, a new version of the plug-in Chevrolet Volt adds about 20 miles to its "pure-electric range" for a total of 53, but remains chained to the gas pump.

That means it still pollutes and aggravates climate change.

It's still unclear whether the 2016 Volt will be available in all 50 states.

Chevrolet isn't expected to have the Bolt, an all-electric car with a range of 200 miles, available for another two years.

Is this really the best giant GM can do more than three years after the debut of the Model S, a luxury four-door hatchback from upstart Tesla Motors?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Detroit exec Bob Lutz (rhymes with putz) claims all-electric Tesla is doomed to fail

In the 1990s, hundreds of people died in accidents involving the Ford Expolrer and other vehicles equipped with Firestone tires, below.


There is no way to know how many defective cars were produced when Bob Lutz was a senior leader at GM, Ford and Chrysler or how many people died as a result.

Lutz is credited with bringing the first Ford Explorer SUV to market in 1990, leading to a series of fatal rollover accidents when the vehicles were equipped with defective Firestone tires.

The auto executive also served, until 2010, as vice chairman of General Motors, where he was instrumental in the production of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid the news media incorrectly calls an electric car.

Now, in a column for Road & Track magazine, Lutz claims Tesla Motors is doomed to fail because the California company is losing money on every all-electric car it sells.

Lutz apparently doesn't address why two of the successful auto companies he was involved with, General Motors and Chrysler, only exist today because of federal bailouts.

Nor does he explain why the Big Three consistently produce defective cars that kill hundreds of people every year.

Keep in mind that Lutz rhymes with putz.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Warning to Tesla owners: Don't follow N.Y. Times guide to autonomous driving

On Route 80 west in northern New Jersey on Saturday, I briefly engaged the autonomous-driving features of my Tesla Model S, allowing pedal-free and hands-free driving. But a recent New York Times article erred on how the system works.


New York Times reporter Aaron M. Kessler made two big errors in reporting on high-speed autonomous driving in the Tesla Model S, and one of them could land owners off the road.

In an Oct. 15 article in the paper's Wheels newsletter, Kessler said a software update gave owners Autopilot, "a semi-autonomous feature that allows hands-free, pedal-free driving on the highway under certain conditions."

But the business-automotive writer made no mention of Autosteer, the other shoe that has to drop for the car to "drive us, rather than the other way around," as Kessler put it.

I had the same incomplete understanding on Oct. 16, when I first tried Autopilot on Route 80 west, near my home in northern New Jersey.

I blame some of that on an Oct. 15 email from Tesla -- "Your Autopilot has arrived" -- that didn't fully explain how to engage Autopilot and Autosteer.

After reading the email and Tesla's blog, I asked my wife to accompany me on our first attempt on Route 80, and figured pulling back on the cruise-control stalk would engage the self-driving functions.

I soon found out that wasn't enough, as my Model S didn't start turning as we entered a curve on the highway. I grabbed the wheel.

I turned around in Paterson, and headed for the Tesla dealer on Route 17 in Paramus, where one of the product specialists accompanied me on my second attempt.

I was told I had to pull back once on the cruise-control stalk to engage Autopilot and a second time to engage Autosteer, lighting up speedometer and steering-wheels symbols that flank the digital speed display.

Second error

Kessler's second major error was reporting "Autopilot is not free (the download costs $2,500)."

That's not the case. 

Tesla Version 7 software with self-driving functions is free, but only to owners who paid for an option called Autopilot Convenience Features when they ordered their car ($2,500 or $3,000 after delivery).

When I ordered my 2015 Tesla Model S 60 early this year, the option was called Tech Package with Autopilot and cost $4,250.

Kessler also didn't mention Tesla's Autopark, which scans for a parking space, alerts you when one is available and parallel parks on your command.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Consumer Reports editors discount Tesla's potential for slowing climate change

Tesla's Model S is a large, premium all-electric car, but it is dwarfed by some of the behemoths produced by General Motors and other U.S. automakers, such as this gas-guzzling Buick Roadmaster from the 1990s.


The editors of the Consumer Reports have been knocking themselves out in recent years, urging food shoppers to buy chicken raised without harmful antibiotics.

Consumers Union, the magazine's advocacy arm, has even tried to shame Trader Joe's into banishing from its shelves any meat or poultry raised on the growth promotant.

But on other important global issues, such as climate change, and air and noise pollution, the editors of Consumers Reports have failed us completely.

That's the only conclusion consumers can draw from the magazine's unexpected decision this week to drop its recommendation of the zero-emissions Tesla Model S.

Consumer Reports surveyed 1,400 Model S owners -- perhaps 1 in 10 -- who listed "a range of problems" involving "its drivetrain, power and charging equipment, body and sunroof squeaks, rattles and leaks," The New York Times reported.

I've owned a 2015 Model S 60 for more than 6 months, and have experienced none of those problems.

I didn't order a sunroof after hardly using the one in my 2010 Toyota Prius.

The Tesla logo.

Clearing the air

Responding to the survey -- "Tesla's reliability doesn't match its high performance" -- company CEO Elon Musk said "a lot of early production cars" were included, and problems have already been addressed "in new cars."

Musk also noted the magazine has said 97% of owners would buy another Tesla -- the highest satisfaction rating of any car it has ever tested.

Still, the bigger omission is that Consumer Reports still evaluates cars on the basis of their performance, and doesn't give them an environmental rating -- this more than 15 years after the first gas-electric hybrid was brought to the United States.

Reliability problems experienced by a minority of owners are one thing:

What about the potential of a growing number of Teslas and other all-electric cars to slow climate change?

Air and noise pollution also will be eased as more Americans buy EVs.

The fixation of the automotive media, including Consumer Reports, on 0-60 times is ill-suited at a time when many drivers spend a good deal of their day in horrendous traffic, choking on fumes from other vehicles.

The charging port on a Tesla Model S.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Now with a video: Tesla's Autopilot and Autosteer make highway driving a dream

When the driver of a Tesla Model S enables Autopilot and Autosteer, as I did today on Route 17 in northern New Jersey, the car drives itself, slows and accelerates, stays in lane, and follows curves in the road as well as lane shifts.

The speedometer and steering wheel symbols flanking the digital speed display indicate the driver has turned on Autopilot and Autosteer by pulling back twice on the cruise-control stalk.


No one can claim driving in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area is fun.

But now Tesla Motors has introduced Autopilot and Autosteer, the ultimate cruise control.

Just two quick movements of the cruise-control stalk in a Tesla Model S enables both auto-drive functions.

In stop-and-go traffic on Route 17 south in Paramus today, I took my hands off of the steering wheel and my foot off of the accelerator, and let my Model S drive itself:

The car slowed and accelerated, and followed a lane shift in a construction zone near the Garden State Parkway.

Take a look at a brief video my wife made as we drove past the Tesla Showroom and Service Center on Autopilot and Autosteer:

Self-drive Tesla defeats Route 17

To change lanes, you simply push down or up on the turn-signal stalk.

Relaxing behind the wheel

I have been using cruise control in my Toyota Prius hybrid on the parkway and turnpike for more than a decade as a way of relaxing.

Speed freaks, tailgaters and other aggressive drivers can just go to hell as I maintain a steady speed to the beat of jazz or soothing classical music.

Now, with Autopilot and Autosteer in my Model S, the North Jersey driving experience just got a whole lot calmer.

The software update I received early Friday includes a simplified digital display, above.

At a Tesla Supercharger on the New Jersey Turnpike in East Brunswick. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

In the Catskills, you could hear the death rattle of those infernal gas, diesel engines

If you aren't a speed freak with the mentality of a high school student, you couldn't help but enjoy driving a Hyundai Sonata gas-electric hybrid over winding country roads draped in fall colors.


In the wake of the Volkswagen scandal, automobile writers who gathered for their annual race-track ritual served to focus attention on the environmental damage caused by the antiquated internal-combustion engine.

The emphasis at Test Days is speed, though members of the International Motor Press Association are warned repeatedly they are there to "test" the latest production models, not "race" them.

I attended Wednesday's session at Monticello Motor Club, which bills itself as "North America's premier automotive country club and private race track" just 90 minutes from New York City. 

TV commercials show cars being driven at 100 mph or more, appealing to the male race-car driver fantasy, and then the manufacturers bring their most powerful -- and loudest -- models to Monticello.

There, auto writers and other IMPA members, who pay $100 each, can drive some of the fastest, most expensive cars made over the challenging 4.1-mile race track, loud mufflers echoing off of the surrounding hills.

But course workers were ready to report over-enthusiastic drivers who put a wheel off the track or wiped out traffic cones meant to slow them down. 

The penalty: Cutting of the wristband all IMPA members had to show to get on the track. 

More green leaves than cars

IMPA sold more than 230 tickets, but the turnout of green cars was disappointing, as it was last year.

Nissan didn't bring its all-electric 2016 Leaf, and Toyota didn't show up with the highly anticipated 2016 Prius, the next generation of the world's best-selling hybrid.

Oh, BMW did make available, only for driving on public roads, the noisy, overpriced i8 plug-in hybrid sports car that debuted last year.

The only all-electric car there was the 2015 Tesla Model S I drove from my home in New Jersey.

Early today, Tesla downloaded new software to all owners who bought their Model S four-door hatchbacks after October 2014, giving them Autopilot, Autosteer and Autopark, a huge step toward a fully autonomous driving experience.

One owner reported commuting to Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway this morning, and using Autopilot, which he said worked flawlessly both at 60 mph and in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

One of the cars in high demand on Wednesday at Monticello Motor Club was this 645-horsepower Dodge Viper.

Burning rubber and gasoline

The horsepower race at the track usually is won by the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, which packs a ridiculous 707 horsepower.

IMPA members who drove it on the road course were accompanied by an instructor who made sure they didn't go completely crazy.

Before the track opened on Wednesday, writers attended a so-called drivers meeting.

Test Days Coordinator Paul Licata scolded unnamed members who were doing "burnouts" in the Hellcat on public roads.

Licata recalled that was something he did in high school, and called those who did the burnouts now "dumb."

But can you blame them?

The auto writers are accustomed to having the world's fastest and most expensive cars provided to them free for a weekend or a week, ostensibly to evaluate them for reviews.

They are delivered to their home or office -- and picked up -- by a small army of low-wage workers employed by ESI, STI and other companies that clean and service the press and marketing fleets maintained by all of the major domestic and foreign automakers.

If the writers or VIPs damage the cars, they aren't held responsible, though the fleet-management companies will insist that any one of their drivers who scratches or dents a car pay for the repairs. 

Few, if any, of the auto writers and bloggers are worried about climate change or the number of people killed by air pollution, and if they are, you never see that reflected in media supported by ad revenue from the major automakers.

VW's so-called clean diesel

These are the same writers who helped Volkswagen pull off one of the greatest scams in automotive history, the so-called TDI Clean Diesel Engine (turbocharged direct injection).

When VW unveiled what it claimed was a cleaner diesel engine in 2009, the automotive media merely regurgitated the company line, even though they should have known a diesel could never be cleaner than a gasoline engine or a gas-electric hybrid.

Now, after admitting that 11 million Volkswagen and Audi diesel engines worldwide were rigged to fool government emissions testers, VW says it will invest more money in plug-in hybrids and purely electric cars.

Still, will the company's reputation or the environment ever recover?

Don't forget, this is a company that was born in 1937 at the behest of Adolf Hitler, who directed engineer Ferdinand Porsche to design a "People's Car" or Volkswagen.

It won't happen in my lifetime, but I can envision a day when production cars equipped with internal-combustion engines of 200, 300, 400, 500 and more horsepower are banned from public roads, and can be driven only on a race track like the one at the Monticello Motor Club.

This Dodge Challenger with a 392 cubic inch V-8 engine is what the company calls a Scat Pack Shaker Model.

Options on this 503-horsepower 2016 Mercedes-Benz AMG GTS include $9,900 for Solarbeam Yellow Paint and $8,500 for an AMG Carbon Ceramic Braking System. Total retail price is $171,900.

Pro race-car driver Andy Pilgrim, who works for Cadillac, gave me and my wife the ride of our lives around the 4.1-mile circuit on Wednesday. Pilgrim said he was doing 110 mph through the S curves; my wife, who sat in the back seat, said she had her eyes closed most of the time.

Pilgrim drove a stock Cadillac ATS.

To me, the onetime owner of a 1966 Fort Mustang GT, the new model is noisy, heavy and not much of a thrill, even on a race track.

The most entertaining car I drove on the track Wednesday is this 380-horsepower 2016 Jaguar F-Type S Coupe with a manual, 6-speed transmission, above the below.

Jaguar calls this color Italian Racing Red. The car's MSRP is $91,145.

Jaguar's 6-speed manual transmission. 

The 707-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. When I drove it on the track, an instructor gave me tips on turn in and braking.

IMPA Test Days Coordinator Paul Licata reminding automobile writers they were at a private race track on Wednesday to "test" cars, not to "race" them.

I took a spin on public roads in a Fiat 500 that was similar to the one Pope Francis rode in when he visited the United States.

One of the public road loops marked with IMPA signs included Dingle Daisy Road in Monticello, N.Y., connecting Sackett Lake Road and Route 42.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Selling solar credits to public utility covers my home electric bill and Tesla charging

My Tesla Model S recharges overnight in my garage.

Solar panels on the roof of my home generate credits I can sell to PSE&G, the public utility, through a middleman.


Last week, I deposited a check for $2,250 for 10 solar credits -- enough money to cover my home electric bill and recharging my Tesla Model S in 2015.

I sold the credits, called Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, to PSE&G, the public utility in northern New Jersey, through a company called

The utility can buy certificates from homeowners and businesses, and count them toward its obligation to generate clean, renewable energy.

Two systems

I have two solar-panel systems, the first installed in 2009 under a state rebate program, and a second from 2012 under a loan from the utility.

I get to keep and sell the solar certificates from the first, and the proceeds aren't taxable. 

The 10 I just sold represent about a year's generation -- one for every megawatt of energy produced by my system.

The solar certificates from the second, smaller system go to repay the loan from the utility.

So, in addition to "free" electricity to charge my Tesla at home, I can use the California-based company's nationwide network of proprietary fast chargers free for life.

No other EV manufacturer has anything like it.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Did Toyota ruin one of the most distinctive designs since the Volkswagen Beetle?

These views of the 2016 Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid, from Consumer Reports, show the designers didn't completely abandon cues from the 2010-15 Prius, one of the most recognizable shapes on the road.
This three-quarter rear view of the 2016 Prius is especially evocative of the old model.

The 2016 Prius now bears a strong family resemblance to Toyota's Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle. Many Prius owners are disappointed Toyota didn't develop an all-electric version of the world's best-selling hybrid or a completely new EV. 
The 2010-15 Toyota Prius looks fresh six years after the wraps came off. We still have a red 2010 Prius, one of four Toyota hybrids we bought starting with a burgundy 2004. 

The futuristic, second-generation 2004-09 Toyota Prius in silver, the most popular color. The 2004 model -- as groundbreaking as the air-cooled, rear-engine VW Beetle -- introduced the hatchback design that continues in the 2016 Prius. 
Toyota brought the first Prius to the United States in 2000, one year after Honda imported the Insight, a two-seater with rear fender skirts. But unlike the Insight, the Prius was a full hybrid and could operate at times on its electric motor and battery.