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FIAT/Chrysler bets the farm on big trucks.

After Marchionne’s public kiss of death, we now know that by 2018, the 200 and its platform-mate the Dodge Dart will be no more. An admittance of something we've known for a very long time, FCA can't build a decent sedan to save their lives!

Like a quarterback under pressure, the company is calling plays on the fly. Marchionne hinted that big changes would be coming and now we know just how much FCA’s future deviates from recent plans. Namely: Cars and Alfa Romeo are on the outs, SUVs and crossovers are in. For the company’s sake, let’s make sure gas prices stay low. And that consumers stay enamored of the Jeep name, even though quality and reliability are very poor.

The Dart and 200 were introduced for 2013 and 2015 respectively, and were meant to represent a fresh start for the brands which were hit hard by the one-two punch of the economic recession and Chrysler’s bankruptcy. But from the outset, both cars had glaring faults that FCA seemed to have little interest in fixing. For the 200, its difficult rear-seat access and unrefined powerplant doomed it to also-ran status in a field with fun-to-drive competitors like the Mazda6, Honda Accord, and Ford Fusion.

And while the midsize sedan segment is contracting, the Dart’s compact segment is only getting more competitive. Up against cars like the Mazda3, Chevy Cruze, and Ford Focus, the Dart’s absence of a hatchback version and lackluster performance make it seem like a relic before its time. The Dart SXT with Mopar Package even made the list of 2015’s worst performance packages

FCA’s strategy for Alfa Romeo has also been dramatically scaled back. While its plan to introduce eight all-new models worldwide and sell 400,000 cars annually by 2018 seemed optimistic at best, the reality now looks much different for the storied Italian marque. After several delays in launching its BMW 5-Series-fighting Giulia, we now know that it will enter production in March 2017, with a long-awaited SUV model joining it by the end of that year. All other Alfa models have now been pushed back to between 2017 and 2020.

If you’re a Jeep or Ram fan, however, this updated plan could be music to your ears. The SUV and truck divisions are set to get priority as fuel prices drop, the economy grows, and Americans snap up big vehicles like it’s 1999. According to Marchionne, fuel prices are “not expected to fundamentally change directionally,” and the company believes that “there’s been a permanent shift toward SUVs and pickups” in America. To me, this reliance on big, thirsty vehicles sounds eerily similar to the ’90s-era plan that got GM in big trouble last decade. Plus, gasoline is a finite resource. With the geopolitical climate being what it is right now, would you really want to put that much faith in the long-term stability in oil-producing countries?

On top of the previously announced new pickup, and flagship Grand Wagoneer, a diesel-powered Wrangler will be joining the Jeep lineup between 2018 and 2022. And while the company is currently the only major American automaker without a hybrid model, it will introduce its semi-electric power train on the upcoming Chrysler Pacifica minivan, with the technology proliferating across its model lines — including to the Wrangler and Ram 1500 — within the next five years. 

While the industry as a whole is moving away from sedans and toward hybrids, crossovers, SUVs, and pickups, FCA’s plan still strikes us as reactionary. For a company whose hybrid power trains are unproven, focusing on larger vehicles in the face of rising CAFE standards seems to be quite the risk. Those cheap gas prices we all love are one recession, natural disaster, or war away from skyrocketing right back to where they were four years ago. Should FCA really rely on prices holding until 2020 while virtually every other automaker switches over to hybrids or smaller fuel-sipping powerplants? This change of focus could yield big results in the short term, but we’re not sure how it’ll shake out in the long run.

But maybe that’s the point. Marchionne spent the better part of 2015 trying to merge FCA with another automaker. He seems to have dropped the subject for now, but by inflating the company’s profits quickly, he may find a more willing partner (or outright buyer) a year or so down the road. Of the Big Three, Marchionne certainly makes FCA the most interesting of the trio. With this new plan, it’ll be interesting to see where it is in five years.


Would You Trust A Self-Driving Car In A Snowstorm?

How will self-driving cars fare in a blizzard? If they’re smart they’ll just stay in the garage and wait for the ploughs to come.

The first wave of self-driving cars will essentially employ an array of cameras and sensors as electronic eyes in what’s expected to be an advanced cruise control system for primarily highway driving to keep a car centered within lane markers, maintain a set speed and distance from traffic ahead, anticipate and slow the car down for curves in the road, and so forth. Eventually, autos should be able to operate as if they had invisible chauffeurs behind the wheel, picking us up at the front door, dropping us off at work, and then parking itself, perhaps at a remote off-site parking lot to save a few bucks.

But what happens if snow accumulates over a camera lens or otherwise blocks a sensor? What if the cameras can’t “see” highway lane markers and/or if visibility and traction otherwise become compromised during a storm? Earlier reports suggest Google GOOGL +2.55%’s test fleet of self-driving cars is unable to operate in heavy rain or snow because of these issues.

The Society of Automotive Engineers predicts fully autonomous vehicles will be reaching showrooms by 2025, but already some carmakers – including Tesla, Volvo, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz – are gradually taking control away from the driver under certain circumstances. Unfortunately not all is going smoothly. Originally planned for a fall 2016 launch, General Motors GM +0.00% recently announced it would postpone introduction of its heralded “Super Cruise” system for the new Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan until sometime in 2017. Automotive News attributes the delay to “the need to get the system right and keep owners safe.”

One of the major arguments yet to be resolved in the development of self-driving cars is whether the coming generation or fully automated autos should come with a steering wheel and accelerator/brake pedals at all. For its part, the California Department of Motor Vehicles just issued regulations that mandate all self-driving cars come with a steering wheel and pedals and allow the driver to intervene whenever necessary. Quoting the actual rule, “The autonomous vehicle driver is either in immediate physical control of the vehicle or is actively monitoring the vehicle’s operations and capable of taking over immediate physical control.”

Earlier this week Google revealed its fleet of prototype autonomous cars had detected failures with self-driving technology 272 times that required drivers to take immediate control of the vehicles. Another 69 reported incidents weren’t perhaps as perilous, but still caused test-drivers to take the wheel. And Google isn’t alone in facing this problem. Mercedes-Benz reported 1,051 disengagements among its two self-driving test models, the most of any of the seven automakers licensed to test robocars in California; .

How can Google propose a car with no steering wheel, brakes or driver when its own tests show that over 15 months the robot technology and handed control to the driver 272 times and a test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times?

Approach with caution!!

Chryslers' long history of producing unreliable minivans goes back almost 30 years.

From the original Mitsubishi engine that lunched its timing chains, to the V6 engines that lost their timing belt tensioners and wore holes in the valve covers, to the transmissions that didn't transmit anything, the different Chrysler minivans have all been frequent visitors to the dealerships and have been the subject of a voluminous collection of recalls and technical bulletins.

So the arrival of a new van with the resurrected name of Pacifica, should be approached with caution.

Chryslers' current reliability track record with the Jeep family is very poor, so based on the history with this brand, the odds on the Pacifica being of high quality, such that it is bulletproof, is a 50/50 bet at best.

If you are not desperate to change your vehicle right now, the old adage, "Never buy the first years production of any completely new model" remains paramount.

At least you should wait for some independent opinion such as that that you can obtain from Consumers Reports, to decide if you can risk buying the van and determining whether or not you may need to extend the bumper to bumper warranty.

The same philosophy applies to the brand new, Chinese-made Buick Envision, which is a mid sized crossover that will probably reach our shores as early as this summer. The five-seater will slot between the compact crossover, Buick Encore (made in Korea), and the seven-seater Buick Enclave (made in Michigan), targeting models such as the Acura RDX and Lincoln MKC.

This model marks the beginning of the great unknown.
 Will this crossover be another Hyundai Pony?

Or, perhaps, a Volvo?

The Volvo in particular is under Chinese control but is still largely built in Sweden and so far, has not shown many signs of poor assembly quality or design flaws. However, some Volvos are now being produced in China and again, caution is the watchword of the day.

The badge on the front of the car is no longer a sure sign of quality or reliability.

The Envision is a vehicle built in China, with the help of GM, another auto manufacturer that has a less than sterling reputation for reliability and assembly quality, so this also needs a cautious approach.

I would be inclined to wait at least a year before deciding, that in spite of a competitive price, that these vehicles are worth the savings to your pocketbook, in the face of the possible aggravation of being back at the dealership far more often than is necessary.

Tesla has long been a stock for the strong of stomach. Volatility is the norm — except for a short period in 2015 when Elon Musk's startup carmaker started to show some slow-and-steady behavior (which quickly vanished by the time autumn came around).

And then, have a close look at FiatChrysler, which is hardly a go-go startup. 

It is different in one major way, which is that its' CEO, Sergio Marchionne, appears convinced that FiatChrysler isn't sturdy enough to survive the next downturn in the auto industry. I'm not talking about a catastrophic collapse here, either, like we saw in 2008-2009. The concern in this case is a run-of-the-mill business-cycle recession, of the sort that the car business is organized to deal with.

Except that Marchionne thinks that FiatChrysler isn't. That's why he spent a lot of time in 2015 in a somewhat embarrassing effort to get GM to merge with FiatChrysler. It didn't go well.


FiatChrysler's core problem is that, apart from being tied up with Fiat and the fortunes of the European auto market — which is much less promising than in the US or China — the company is relying heavily on one brand, Jeep, to bring in the bacon. Its Ram brand is solid in the US pickup-truck market, but it's generally a third choice among consumers, after Ford, Chevrolet and GMC.

This isn't exactly a new situation. Chrysler has long been a boom-and-bust carmaker, the "sick man" of Detroit. Prior to the downturn, Chrysler was a real basket case and there was a debate in Washington about whether, after the bailout of the company, it should be let go, leaving the Big Three as the Big Two.

The troubling thing for Tesla here is that its stock bounces around in a way that's similar to FiatChrysler's.

In mid-2015 Tesla's stock started behaving more like a "normal" carmaker's. It didn't last, but we were briefly permitted to look at how Tesla was operating its business, rather than fixating on how many billions Elon Musk was gaining or losing on his net worth every week.

Now Tesla shares are again rising and plunging, which means, we have two thrilling automakers that are not by any stretch capable of riding out a recession (although frankly I'd say Tesla has the better chance given its attractiveness as an acquisition target — it's pretty clear that nobody wants to hook up with FiatChrysler). We have two legacy car companies that aren't going to enjoy much share-price action, and one wild card, Ferrari, which could surge or continue to decline.

It's hard to get past the similarities between Tesla's and FiatChrysler's 2015. These are companies facing major challenges in 2016 and beyond. It's far from certain that they'll be able to overcome them.

The Most Overhyped Story Of 2015: Driverless Cars

The hype surrounding driverless cars is flowing like lava out of a volcano these days. Every existing automaker is working on it, plus Google, Apple and Uber.

What people mean by "driverless car" or "self-driving car" seems to be a car that can drive without a human being needing to take over on a split second's notice, if the car suddenly doesn't know what to do, or makes a mistake. This car would be able to take you from anywhere to anywhere that a human can drive today.

If this is what people are hoping will happen relatively soon, say within a decade from now, they are likely sorely mistaken.

Let me explain.

It is important to understand that there is a world of difference between a truly driverless car, and one in which there is a driver behind the wheel ready to take over. In one scenario, you are at the mercy of a computer negotiating with the elements. In the other, you have a chance at doing something when a new kind of obstacle appears.

There are numerous scenarios that can illustrate why a driverless car is going to remain pure fantasy for a long period of time:

Scenario number one: Police hand-directing traffic

There's been an accident, blocking the road. A cop has arrived at the scene and is now directing traffic to cross the do-not-pass lines and make an illegal U-turn onto the shoulder against what would normally be oncoming traffic. What does the driverless car do?

Scenario number two: Truck stopped in front of you

You're on a one-lane road (one lane in each direction) and you're not allowed to pass. There's a truck standing still ahead of you. Perhaps someone's got a mechanical issue. Perhaps it's a garbage truck that's stuck. Perhaps it's a poorly thought-out delivery van. In either case, you have to get around it, against the law. What does the driverless car do?

Scenario number three: Snowstorm

You're on your way to the ski resort. Snowstorm happens. Visibility is very low, and you sure can't see any lane markings, let alone the car (or is that a truck?) in front of you. What does the driverless car do?

Scenario number four: Farm animals

You're at your farm and on your country road you're surrounded by swarms of cows or sheep. They're not moving. What does the driverless car do? [Answer: You just go; they will "blink" first]

Scenario number five: Broken sensor

One or more of the cameras, radars, LIDARs or other sonar systems are down. Maybe someone put a piece of tape over one of the cameras just to mess with you. Maybe a sensor is blocked by ice, mud or other dirt. What does the driverless car do?

Scenario number six: Parking 

You arrive at an event. An attendant is directing traffic to go over a ditch to park on a field that's serving as a temporary space for the five thousand people showing up. It's a farm field. What does your driverless pickup truck do?

I could go on and on. In scenario after scenario, the driverless car will be extremely challenged at best, whereas a human being would figure out where, how and why to take a path that doesn't hold up traffic or makes you sit still forever. Driverless cars are typically residing in the imagination world of those who live in California coastline weather, and certainly don't do any off-road driving.

It would make things easier if you dedicated specific areas for driverless cars, where other "regular" vehicles would not be allowed to operate. If you could somehow imagine away the need for delivery trucks and some other things, perhaps you could block off Manhattan to be for these driverless cars only. That might work - at least 99.9% of the time.

Once you stipulate that a human being must be sitting behind the steering wheel ready to take over, however, you have crossed a major line. For starters, what's the point? If I can't type emails, read articles, watch a TV show or whatever, what's the point of a self-driving car anyways?

It may even be a huge safety issue, to have people sit behind the wheel and be prepared to take over if the computer isn't able or makes a mistake. There are at least two reasons for this:

You have to keep up the concentration, being as vigilant about the car's surroundings as if you were driving it today. Otherwise, how would you know what's approaching in which lane and from what direction? The temptation to slack in this regard will surely prove to be impossible for us mere mortals. If you can't help texting TODAY, then how are you going to resist the temptation when you can get away with more?

No practice, no skill. If the car is supposed to drive 99% or 99.999% of the time, how would the average person even be able to take over the wheel? Driving is a skill that is not insignificant, and you need to keep it up. Practice makes perfect. What you save when the computer works, you might lose one hundred fold when the robot fails.

One of the most oft-cited arguments in favor of driverless cars is that it will save lives. I think it could do just the opposite.

I'm not even talking about the car's computer simply making a mistake and driving you over the 800-foot ravine to certain death. That will of course happen too. I'm talking about something far worse.

The 33,000 annual traffic deaths in the US may seem like a large number, and certainly it would be better to reduce these fatalities. From seat belts to crumple zones, we have made great progress here and will continue to do so.

However, there are far greater dangers that driverless cars could represent to human health. All of these driverless cars will be susceptible to computer hacking of various types. One is from terrorists and sitting-in-mom's-basement hackers. They would be bad enough, sending either a few people or a few million people to their certain deaths.

Another danger is genocide. Can you imagine if Joe Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Chairman Mao had the powers to subpoena or otherwise take control of a population where everyone were being driven around in cars without human control? They would send their political opponents to certain death in a nanosecond. You think 33,000 people dying in US traffic is bad? How about 33 million?!

How vulnerable would we be in the case of an invasion? You might go re-watch "Red Dawn" when Americans drove their pickup trucks into the mountains to mount a defense against the invading army. What if those pickup trucks were connected to the cloud, and the enemy took control of the servers? We would have no defense against pure annihilation. Then these driverless cars will be a tool to help exterminate 320 million Americans.

In that comparison, 33,000 million annual traffic accidents would seem like a beautiful sunny day at the beach.

And if your imagination doesn't stretch to the US being invaded by a foreign power, imagine Russia's fight against Ukraine. Can you imagine the damage Russia could do against Ukraine if Ukraine was dependent on driverless cars? It would be over within seconds. The best they could hope for, is for all the cars to just stop, allowing them to live for perhaps another few hours or days before losing.

Therefore, any time I read that we will save 33,000 lives in the US every year because traffic accidents will somehow cease, I think: You really haven't thought about the bigger picture, have you?

Long before such a catastrophic scenario happens, we are likely to experience far smaller sobering events. The feeling of helplessness if a driverless car just "goes crazy" and ends up in an accident will be very powerful in people's psyche, in terms of the willingness to get into one of those. You can say "Oh, but statistically you'll be safer than riding with Uncle Tony…" all you want, but good luck on making that work for most people.

So does this mean there will be no "progress" in terms of assisted driving technology?

Of course not! The path for the next 3-5 years is pretty much all set. Cars will be able to *mostly* drive themselves - on most roads (city and highway) most of the time in most situations. There is little doubt about getting to 99.9% or some number like that.

As I described in the handful of examples above, however, humans will have to take over, in order to always take the car where you want it to go. Going camping in your Jeep, driving through the forest? Snow storm? Accident ahead? Car just standing still blocking the road and no legal way around it? A cop manually directing traffic against all normal rules? Parking away from a marked road? You have to have the skill to take over.

Other blogs worth reading

41) In praise of the good old station wagon.

44) Future shock, the unending complication of electronic devices in you car.

47)  The case for annual safety inspections.

51) The piston engine is going to be with us for a very, very long time.

52) Avoiding rip offs in the car repair business.

58) Electronic brake force distribution.

61) Hydrogen vs electricity - no contest.

63) Why flushing brake oil makes sense.

64) When should I change my oil?

66) W/W antifreeze and long term warranties.

67) Nitrogen

68) Recirc A/C

70) Electric car radiation danger

71) Fuel saving devices that don't

75) Scheduling appointments.

78 Modern design of alternators and batteries.