Monday, September 28, 2015

VW Diesel engine cheating - should we be looking at the EPA too?

By now you've likely read about the VW diesel engine crisis. The short version is this : the EPA emissions test in the US is so far away from actually driving a car that VW were able to write software into their ECU that could detect when a car was undergoing emissions testing and change the NOX emissions of the engine to make it pass the test. The 4 cylinder 2.0 TDI engine is the one most affected.
This is bad - really bad for VW. In the case of some of their cars, they're driving around emitting 35x the clean air act standard for NOX emissions. The best case scenario is that VW issue a software and hardware fix for the cars which could cripple their performance or economy. The worst case scenario is that this could topple VW completely and take the German economy with it.
In the US alone, the EPA could choose to levy a $37,500 fine PER VEHICLE on the VW Audi group. With 482,000 affected cars, that bill alone comes to $18,075,000,000. That's $18 Billion. With a 'b'.
Then there's the used vehicle market. VW have already pulled all new and pre-owned vehicles from sale that have the affected engines in them. Owners of vehicles with these engines could see a near-zero resale value and to pile on the pressure, VW could be forced to buy back all these vehicles at cost, which could be another $15 billion. Also with a 'b'.
That's just the US. Look at Europe and those numbers could balloon to $70 billion with levies, fines and buy-backs and we've not even looked at the almost-certain-to-happen class-action lawsuits.
Germany's economy is very heavily reliant on their car industry and if VAG collapses as a result of this scandal, what's that going to do to Germany? They're already suffering with high labour costs. Sure Germany weathered the sub-prime scandal, the collapse of the Asian stock markets and even the East Germany fiasco, but do you think they can survive the very heart of their manufacturing industry collapsing?
But let's step back for a moment and look at the root cause here: the EPA testing procedure is so laughable that it hasn't properly represented real-world driving for decades. Two wheels out of four on a rolling road, no physical throttle or steering input and the entire process being done via a hookup to the OBD2 system? It really doesn't take much code at all for a car's ECU to figure that out. It's a series of simple 'IF' statements. Which leads to the obvious question: is the EPA partially to blame for this by making their test so easy to circumvent?
The lead-on questions then would have us looking at all manufacturers. VAG isn't some tin-pot collection of amateurs - they're one of the most technologically advanced manufacturers in the world. If they couldn't get their 2.0 TDI through EPA testing without cheating, what's the bet that other less-capable manufacturers have similar 'cheat modes' in buried in their own software? For petrol-engined vehicles as well as diesel-engined vehicles?
In fact I'd be prepared to bet that we will be able to look back on this point in automotive history and see it as the tipping point for the adoption of electric cars. If this scandal kills off light-duty diesel engines (which it very well could) then the next-best option for cleaner vehicles is all-electric.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Do you use your in-car tech?

JD Power's latest report (here) makes for an interesting read. Seems like most new car owners aren't using most of the tech that manufacturers are trying to jam into new cars. From the pointless things like voice control (which never works) to apps (why?) to genuinely useful things like heads-up displays.
I have to say I'm firmly in that category. I love tech - I'm an early adopter for most things - but the crap 'tech' that manufacturers put in cars is showing how desperate they are to try to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Between speed cameras, gas mileage wars and emissions regulations, there's really no point in having a more powerful, faster car now - you can't use it anywhere. And from a distance, most 4-door saloons look like either a Honda Prelude or a Toyota Camry because all imagination has evaporated from the 'design' departments.
So instead, the manufacturers have turned to tech gimmicks to try to sell cars. This was definitely true last time I was looking to buy a car. I ended up with the Range Rover Evoque because it genuinely looks different and is a fun car to drive at any speed. But when I was looking at the Audi, during the test drive, the dealer really didn't know much about traction control, center of gravity, torque or anything I wanted to know about, but he was bang up to date on how I could play videos directly from my phone on to the center console while driving. Same happened at the Mercedes dealership. According to their salesman, the concierge system (the remote connectivity system that allows you to call someone to do menial tasks for you, like remotely programming your GPS) was the best thing ever in the history of the universe. Again, he knew little about fundamentals like power steering and cruise control. Same was true at every dealer except Land Rover who gave me the keys and said "bring it back when you've had enough". They were the only ones who didn't put a sales drone in the car with me to explain to me how amazing the hifi was or what an awesome feature it was that the car would read my twitter feed to me.
So yeah - do you have a 'tech'-laden car full of things you don't use? And if so, why are we paying for all this crap?

Monday, September 14, 2015

For $60, millions of dollars of self-driving-car tech can be defeated.

From the "d'uh!" newsdesk, more information this week on how drone cars are not as infallible as Google and everyone else would like you to believe.
Specific to Google, turns out their cars can be paralysed by real drivers. The problem is that Google cars drive by the book, which nobody else does. Everyone has their own little quirks, shortcuts and grey areas of the law that they interpret in their own way. For example, Google's car can have real problems at a four-way stop. By-the-book, all vehicles should come to a complete stop, then the first vehicle to arrive should proceed (or the vehicle to the right if there's only two of you arriving at the same time). But in the real world, people inch, roll, drive slowly and generally don't really come to a full 100% stop unless there's a police office watching. This is a problem for Google's cars because they will not proceed into a four-way stop unless the other three cars are 100% stationary. Google reports that one of their cars was stranded at one intersection because of this particular issue.
Similarly, Google's cars are causing accidents because they drive by the book. When they see a pedestrian waiting to cross a pedestrian crossing, they stop, like everyone is supposed to. Problem is that in America, pedestrians are second-class citizens and almost nobody stops until the pedestrian is actually in the road. Meaning that when Google's cars stop as they're supposed to, people rear-end them. Repeatedly. Google's cars are too law-abiding and are causing accidents.
The supporters of drone cars will naturally point out that this wouldn't be a problem if everyone had them, but back here in the real world, 100% coverage for drone cars is decades away, so for the time being, they will be on the road with the rest of us and the manufacturers had better figure out some fuzzy logic pretty quickly.
Not specific to google, but applicable to any drone car that uses LIDAR to see the world (read: all of them), you can now spoof LIDAR returns for the sake of a $60 Raspberry Pi kit. Jonathan Petit, Principal Scientist at Security Innovation, has been able to spoof LIDAR returns for everything from pedestrians to solid walls to other vehicles, meaning he can effectively perform a denial-of-service attack on any self-driving car and render it unable to navigate.
Researcher hacks self driving car sensors.
This is not dissimilar to the tactics used in the military to spoof radar returns on everything from aircraft to warships. Only they do it using a combination of slab-sided design and countermeasure electronics. But the principle is the same. Make the source LIDAR or RADAR system see something that isn't really there.
You might think this isn't a risk in the real world, but we live in an age where shining laser pointers at commercial airline pilots is a thing, so it seems logical to assume that $60 LIDAR spoofing kits will become a must-have in the toolbox of the same people.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Stop me if you've heard this one : safer cars make more dangerous roads.

This is like a scratched record for me, but go back through my blog and you'll see frequent mentions of how modern cars make drivers more dangerous. Study after study has proven this - isolating people more and more, and adding more and more airbags and "driver assists" is actually making the roads more dangerous. Now we have more than studies - now we have numbers to back it up. The National Safety Council has just released their latest stats for 2015 and it shows a marked and continued increase in the number of fatalities on the road. Despite there being more cars on the road this year with "driver assists" than any year to date (duh), the number of casualties per day is up to 90 now. Compare that to a few years ago when it was in the 55-60 range. There are a number of factors of course and safer cars is only one of them. More texting and more distractions in the form of in-car tech are also being blamed, as manufacturers and more and more gimmicks to distract drivers from the actual task of - you know - DRIVING.
This trend is only going to increase and adding drone cars isn't going to cure the problem. Why? Think of this - you're being driven to work by your drone car. Your busy reading texts, or Facebook, or working on a document or something else. You have no real situational awareness of what's going on outside the car. Suddenly, the car defaults to driver mode because of an error with a sensor (or any other fault) and you're now asked to take the controls. With no situational awareness, you now not only have to control a car with zero notice, you also have to take in everything around you almost instantaneously and act accordingly.
The only constant in traffic accidents is humans - tech isn't going to solve that problem. The more tech you throw at it, the worse the problem is going to become. The answer is - and always has been - simple. Driver training. But that's dull, boring, expensive and doesn't make for good headlines, so sure - drone cars for everyone.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Texting and driving

A short little promo post this week - if you think you're pretty good at texting and driving, give this little game a go : Stay alive.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Car loans are becoming dangerous to the economy

Remember the mini recession brought on by the subprime mortgage lending collapse? According to financial blog Zero Hedge, we might be doomed to repeat the same mistakes only this time with car loans. (Zero Hedge is a pretty good, anonymously written financial blog).
All the signs are there - from record-high loans to dealers taking shotguns as down payments (seriously). For example, when I say 'record high loans', the average loan term for a new vehicle is now 67 months, and for used vehicles it's 62 months. More frightening still is the number of loans that are 84 months - up to 30% now.
Other indicators are way up too - the average monthly payment is $488 and the average new vehicle price is $28,711. Sure - car prices never go down so you'd expect those numbers to rise - it would be odd if they didn't. But it's the length and size of the loans that is the real issue here - and Zero Hedge points out that many of these loans are going to - guess where? Yes - subprime borrowers. ie. people at greater risk of defaulting on the loans.
It's exactly what happened in the housing market, and greedy banks and financial institutions are about to make it happen all over again but this time in the vehicle market.
If you're looking to finance a vehicle - don't lie to yourself. Figure out how much you can afford and don't, under any circumstances, let the dealer talk you up to a more expensive vehicle or more expensive loan.
The Zero Hedge article can be found here: Don't look now, but the subprime auto bubble may be bursting.