A new technology is coming to light as the ’16 model year dawns, and it’s taking the automotive world by storm. But automakers would be better served to ignore it, and government regulators are hoping to never see it again.
Volkswagen’s deceitfully designed software that has allowed 11 million diesel-powered vehicles to bypass emissions controls in daily driving for several years takes the prize as the industry’s most impactful technology, threatening to cost VW billions of dollars in fines and already costing CEO Martin Winterkorn his job. Other VW executives may face a similar fate.
As for the rest of the auto industry, the arrival of a new model year represents the promise and possibility that comes with freshly stamped sheet metal, form-fitting seats, aesthetics that speak directly to one’s desires and, simply, stuff that works better.
As the ’16 model year begins Oct. 1, ’15 bows out not with a whimper but instead with a sense of achievement: A year ago, the ’14 model year ended with robust sales of 16.1 million light vehicles in the U.S., representing the fifth year of steady growth.
U.S. sales in ’15 will continue the streak, projected to reach 17 million units, representing a 5.2% increase over the prior year, based on WardsAuto data.
Hoping to keep the momentum, automakers are launching or soon to introduce new vehicles in every segment of the market, from the Smart Fortwo city car and Chevrolet Cruze compact to the Bentley Bentayga premium SUV and Nissan Titan XD diesel pickup.
Finding technological innovation along the way is as easy as picking ripe apples in Michigan this time of year.
On the materials front, carbon fiber remains the rage, although steel, aluminum and plastics producers have stepped up their game to remain competitive, taking out mass ounce by ounce and, on good days, pound by pound.
BMW continues to lead the industry’s charge into carbon fiber, having set up a plant in Moses Lake, WA, to manufacture spools of the material, which is used in fabricating the body of the i3 electric vehicle and i8 plug-in hybrid.
BMW has slathered the lightweight polymer-reinforced super material all over the new 7-Series sedan, even pressing it together with steel into a rigid hybrid material to comprise the car’s B-pillars.
Carbon fiber also lends structural stability to the 7-Series’ roof rails and roof crossbow, C-pillar and transmission tunnel.
The new Cadillac ATS-V and CTS-V also will use carbon fiber for the hood and spoiler, respectively.
General Motors advances with a technology thought to be extremely difficult and cost-prohibitive not long ago: joining steel and aluminum.
Cadillac’s new CT6 flagship sedan arrives with a body that is 64% aluminum, including the exterior panels, while the rest is high-strength steel. GM says the body is a meaningful 198 lbs. (90 kg) lighter than if it were all steel.
The automaker is seeking 21 patents associated with new applications of aluminum laser welding, flow-drill screws, aluminum spot welding and high-strength steel spot welding at the GM assembly plant in Hamtramck, MI, that will build the CT6.
Emphasis on Safety
The building blocks for autonomous driving are forming a wall of safety as automakers equip more and more vehicles with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control and pedestrian protection.
Because driver error is such a major factor in traffic accidents, Bosch predicts automated-driving technology can eliminate the root cause of 37% of road accidents in Germany.
Continuing to identify safety as a vital brand trait, Volvo plans to make automated emergency braking and forward collision warning standard across its portfolio within five years.
For now, the technologies are standard on the all-new XC90, as is another world-first for Volvo, Braking in Intersection, which will stop the CUV automatically if the driver turns into the path of an oncoming car.
The XC90 integrates another new safety technology: tiny shock absorbers at the base of the seats to mitigate the effects of whiplash when a vehicle leaves the roadway and, for instance, falls into a ditch.
In those types of accidents, a sudden change in elevation can cause spinal injuries when the vehicle slams to the ground. Volvo’s new Run-Off Road Protection introduces an energy-absorbing capability to a normally rigid seat structure, allowing it to flex downward slightly.
The new XC90 also is among a growing number of cars in the world capable of parking itself. The BMW 7-Series takes the technology one step farther: It can maneuver in and out of parking spaces, as well as garages, without anyone behind the wheel.
Valeo already has demonstrated the ability for a driver arriving at his destination to get out of the car and press a button on the key fob commanding it to go find a parking space on its own.
Valeo continues proving out the technology, but at some point the Valet Park4U system also could allow the driver to beckon the car’s return from its parking space with another touch of the key fob.
The French supplier presented another safety technology at January’s Consumer Electronics Show that is an extension of its long-established expertise in lighting.
By using cameras and sensors to identify lane markers and a pedestrian walking along the shoulder of a road at night, Valeo’s technology then can project a message warning the person to stay right and out of the roadway.
German supplier Continental also is paying close attention to the right side of the road, further developing its concept for a virtual guardrail by using a next-generation mono camera and sensors to identify lane markers along the right edge and then using steering and the brakes on the other side of the vehicle to keep it on the road.
Still several years from production, the Road Departure Protection system is designed to intervene more aggressively than current lane-departure technologies to prevent, for instance, a drowsy driver from straying off the intended path.
Some 55% of fatal accidents in the U.S. are caused by a vehicle leaving its lane and striking an object, pedestrian or another vehicle, Continental says.
The ’16 Honda HR-V compact CUV also was designed for pedestrian protection, featuring an impact-energy absorbing hood, deformable hood hinges, energy-absorbing fender mounts and deformable windshield wiper pivots.
The ’16 Lexus RX is among an increasing number of vehicles employing sensor-based Rear Cross Traffic Alert, which is helpful when backing out of a spot in a crowded parking lot. The driver may be backing up blind, unable to see right or left because of adjacent vehicles. The technology uses radar sensors to identify oncoming vehicles.
Another newer technology finding application in the all-new RX are Intelligent High Beam headlamps, which detect oncoming traffic at night and automatically dim the lights.
The Lexus GS F-Sport sedan has optional Dynamic Rear Steering, which turns the back wheels to the left when cornering to the right, helping rotate the vehicle more immediately to improve handling.
On the highway, when changing lanes, the rear wheels turn in the same direction as the front, resulting in quicker lateral motion.
German supplier ZF already supplies rear-steering for several Porsche models and says it will have four more customers for the technology within the next year. The new BMW 7-Series, when hooked up to all-wheel drive, also comes available with Integral Active Steering at the rear.
Lexus’ all-new fullsize LX 570 SUV does not have rear steering but instead uses Turn Assist, which has a similar effect by adding slight brake force to the inside rear wheel when cornering, helping to tighten the turning circle.
In the engine bay, suppliers and automakers have been working furiously to boost efficiency by reducing weight and eliminating parasitic losses.
The new Lexus RX 450h hybrid CUV has an electric water pump, and Volkswagen’s reasonably new 1.8L TSI turbocharged 4-cyl. engine has an oil pump made of plastic.
In a new version of its M4 sport coupe, BMW is introducing a fine spray of water between the turbocharger and the cylinder head.
The mist combines with air and fuel in the cylinder and helps to lower combustion temperatures, which reduces emissions, knock and thermal strain on engine components while boosting horsepower and torque.
On the convenience front, the new Lincoln MKX, BMW 7-Series and Volvo XC90 are among vehicles offering automatic liftgates or trunk lids, which open at the mere waving of a foot under the rear bumper, so long as the key fob is present.
Supplier Brose is a leading developer of the technology and says more customers will be using it in the future.
The Lincoln Continental returns in 2016, hoping to reinvigorate Ford’s languishing luxury brand with a lavish new cabin that features an impressive 19-speaker Revel Ultima premium audio system and front seats that adjust 30 ways with thigh extensions and 11 inflatable bladders for customized comfort.
The recently launched Lincoln MKX has front seats that move only 22 ways.
Finally, the Ford F-150 will offer Pro Trailer Backup Assist, which is a godsend for someone learning to steer a trailer while in reverse.
Supplied by Magna, the system incorporates a knob on the instrument panel that takes the place of the steering wheel for backup maneuvers when a trailer is connected.
Turning the knob to the right automatically steers the trailer to the right by turning the front wheels left, simplifying the process for the towing novice.
Continental has a similar system that places the knob in the center console of a Ram 1500 pickup equipped for demonstration purposes.
Continental takes the technology a huge step further by integrating a tablet with digital representations of the gear shift, brake pedal, accelerator pedal and steering wheel.
The driver can exit the truck and then slowly maneuver it from outside, walking alongside the trailer as it creeps into place. The supplier says the technology will be ready for market in 2018.