Niagara Gazette

November 7, 2013

TOM'S CORNER: Diesel becomes the 'norm' and other auto news

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — By most accounts, the conventional gasoline engine’s days are numbered. Long before electric cars become commonplace, automakers expect to wean themselves from gas-powered engines, replacing them with fuel-efficient alternatives. A few weeks back, Ford’s Joe Bakaj said the time is coming when most Ford vehicles will come with either a diesel or an EcoBoost engine, the latter of which relies on turbo-charging, direct injection, and other innovations to wring high mileage from every drop of gas or diesel fuel. Then on the heels of Ford, Volkswagen said essentially the same thing, claiming that within three or four years, every vehicle in VW’s lineup will be either a turbo-charged gas or a diesel powered vehicle. 

This trend has been developing across the industry for quite some time now. Have you looked for a V8 lately? The shift toward smaller, tech-heavy engines is playing out in family cars, luxury rides, and even performance models.

Gas mileage is up! up! up!

With average gas prices in America still hovering above $3.50 a gallon, fuel economy remains a major concern for new-car shoppers. According to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, that’s having a profound effect on the vehicles consumers buy (or, more specifically, the fuel economy of the cars they buy). UMTRI researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle say that the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold reached a record high in August: 24.9 mpg. That’s up 0.1 mpg from July 2013 and up 4.8 mpg since UMTRI began monitoring such stats in October 2007.

Just as impressive, the average fuel economy of all model-year 2013 vehicles sold to-date clocks in at 24.7 mpg. That’s an improvement of 1.2 mpg over models from 2012. Fuel economy of new cars sold has climbed steadily over the past six years. Spikes in efficiency typically occur in springtime, perhaps because that’s when gasoline gets expensive, because refineries squeeze off supply prior to the summer-blend changeover. That, in turn, makes shoppers more sensitive to the fuel rating of their new ride.

Gas prices often settle down in the fall, after the return to regular or “winter blend” gas has taken place. That’s often when the fuel economy of new cars sold flattens out, because consumers worry less about their MPGs. What’s remarkable is that fuel economy has continued to improve at a time when truck sales are booming and pickups, as we know, don’t tend to be the most fuel efficient vehicles on the road. Then again, with CAFE regulations setting ever-higher goals, perhaps the fact that fuel economy is improving isn’t all that surprising.  

In Virginia, A simple warning sign produces big results

Drivers see warning signs all the time, but we don’t always heed their advice: “Slow Curve” — “Watch for Falling Rock” — “Yield.” However, a very simple message posted to an electronic sign in Arlington, Virginia is having a much bigger impact. It reads, “Don’t hit the car in front of you.” And what’s weird is, motorists seem to be paying attention! According to the Arlington County Police Department, the area around Washington Boulevard and Route 50 saw an unusually high number of accidents before the sign went up. In fact, between April and June 15 collisions occurred there (more than anywhere else in the county). Then, in July when the sign was posted (“Don’t hit the car in front of you”), the number of accidents began to plummet. Since July 1, the department has responded to just two. That’s a drop of about 87 percent.

The sign was changed in late August but it is still having an impact! In other words, its effect seems to be lingering. No one fully understands why the sign has such an impact. It might be a coincidence. Then again, maybe the sign’s simple message caught drivers off-guard, snapping them back to attention from their stupor caused by their daily commute. But hey, with stats like those, no one’s complaining.  

Tesla seeking engineers to develop self-driving cars

Eschewing more traditional means of recruitment, Tesla CEO Elon Musk is using Twitter to hire engineers that will be tasked with developing an autopilot system expected to debut on the battery-powered Model S. Musk ambitiously hopes the technology will be ready for mass production in three years.

The yet-unnamed system is still at the embryonic stage of development but the CEO promises it will be capable of controlling the Model S in about 90 percent of driving situations. Musk predicts that fully autonomous cars requiring no driver input whatsoever will take longer to develop for a host of legal and technological reasons.

A company spokesperson confirmed the system is being developed in-house, putting an end to rumors of a tie-up between Tesla and Google in the field of self-driving cars. Similar to a plane’s autopilot system, Tesla’s technology will drive the car in everyday situations such as when cruising on the highway, but it will require driver input in more complicated situations. A switch on the dashboard will enable the driver to turn autopilot on and off.

Tesla’s self-driving system might be the first on the market, but it will face stiff competition from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Nissan, General Motors and components manufacturer Continental before the end of the decade.  

New anti-theft system works with brain waves

It’s hard out there for a thief today, and it’s getting harder. Once upon a time, all the bad guys needed to do was find an unlocked vehicle. Now, they’ve got to fight their way past kill switches, LoJack devices, and OnStar (not to mention the impending arrival of digital license plates, voice-identification, and fingerprint-recognition). 

But all those gadgets pale in comparison to the latest theft-prevention tool. According to, Isao Nakanishi and his colleagues in the graduate school of engineering at Japan’s Tottori University have developed a prototype for a safety system that uses brain waves to identity drivers. The system takes samples of brain waves from a driver and stores them in a database. If a vehicle begins moving and the driver’s brain waves don’t match those on file, the vehicle is disabled. The system can also tell if a driver is drunk or falling asleep, since brain waves in those circumstances vary significantly from samples taken when a motorist is fully awake and sober.

Though it’s still in the very early stages, the system is ultimately intended for use on mass transit vehicles or on those that carry large sums of money or valuables. However, you could easily envision a day when this technology might roll out to mainstream cars.

Well, that’s it for this week and there’s so much more happening in the world of the automotive that I am splitting this article up into two parts, the next part coming next week.

’Til next time ... Keep Rollin.’

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.