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Most drivers take tires for granted. They seldom stop to consider that the only thing keeping their cars on the road are four patches of rubber, each about the size of a smartphone. Tires of the correct type and size, in good condition and with proper maintenance enable a car to accelerate, steer and brake safely under a wide variety of road and weather conditions. Tires that are the wrong type or size, excessively worn, or not inflated to the correct pressure can place the driver, passengers and anyone in surrounding vehicles at risk of a crash, injury or worse.

 

Failing to properly care for tires is dangerous. Worn tires hydroplane more easily on wet roads, and underinflation reduces load-carrying ability and can lead to overheating and a blowout. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), underinflated tires are three times more likely to contribute to a crash. NHTSA also reports that in the U.S. alone tire problems cause nearly 200,000 collisions a year, including 33,000 injuries and 660 fatalities.

 

This Automotive Technology Update provides in-depth information about automobile tire categories, types, construction, specifications, life, replacement and maintenance. Each of these areas contains important information that members and other consumers should understand to ensure safe vehicle operation and achieve maximum tire life. Some key points are listed below, along with links to the full paper, a variety of ready-to-use communication materials, and additional online information.

 

Need to Know

 

  • Proper tire type, size and maintenance are critical to automobile safety, handling and comfort.

  • For optimum performance, tire inflation, tread depth and condition should be checked monthly.

  • Tires need to be replaced before they reach the minimum legal tread depth of 2/32" – stopping distances on wet roads increase dramatically once tires are worn to 4/32".

  • Due to tire aging, some manufacturers recommend replacement every six to ten years regardless of tread condition or external appearance.

  • When replacing only two tires, those with the most tread should be installed on the rear axle.

  • To prevent drivetrain damage, some all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles require that all four tires match and have nearly identical tread wear.

  • New tires should be registered with the manufacturer to ensure any future recall notifications are received by the purchaser.

  • When winter tires are used, a full set of four is required on front-wheel-drive models, and highly recommended on all other vehicles, to ensure safe and balanced handling

 

Automakers’ decision to eliminate the spare tire may leave more than 30 million drivers vulnerable at the roadside, according to new research from AAA. Tire inflator kits, a high-cost alternative for consumers, have replaced the spare tire in millions of vehicles over the last 10 model years and, due to their limited functionality, cannot provide even a temporary fix for many common tire-related problems. AAA calls on automakers to put consumer interests first and halt the elimination of the spare tire.

 

 "Flat tires are not a disappearing problem, but spare tires are,” said John Paul, AAA’s Car Doctor. "AAA responds to more than four million calls for flat tire assistance annually and, despite advances in vehicle technology, we have not seen a decline in tire-related calls over the last five years".

 

Along with run-flat tires, tire inflator kits have replaced spare tires on 29 million vehicles in the last 10 model years, steadily increasing from five percent of 2006 model year vehicles to more than one-in-three 2015 model year vehicles (36 percent) sold. While each four-pound kit eliminates approximately 30 pounds of weight, resulting in minimal savings in fuel consumption, the replacement cost is high. With some kits costing up to $300 per use, a tire inflator kit can cost consumers up to 10 times more than a simple tire repair and has a shelf life of only four to eight years.

 

"Automakers are facing increasingly-stringent fuel economy standards and the spare tire has become a casualty in an effort to reduce weight and boost miles-per-gallon," continued Paul. "Advances in automotive engineering allow for weight to be reduced in ways that don’t leave motorists stranded at the roadside."AAA tested the most common tire inflator kits in today’s vehicles and found that the units worked well in some scenarios, but they are not a substitute for a spare tire. For an inflator kit to work effectively, a tire must be punctured in the tread surface and the object must remain in the tire. Used correctly, the kit then coats the inner wall of the tire with a sealant and a compressor re-inflates the tire. If the puncture-causing object is no longer in the tire, a sidewall is damaged or a blowout occurs, a tire inflator kit cannot remedy the situation and the vehicle will require a tow.

 

Knowing how to change a tire is also a skill that is now less prevalent among younger age groups. More than one-in-five millennial drivers (ages 18-34) do not know how to change a tire, compared to the nearly 90 percent of drivers aged 35-54 that know this important skill. Gender differences also exist: while nearly all men (97 percent) claim to know how to change a tire, only 68 percent of women boast the same ability.

 

"Consumers may mistakenly believe that inflator kits are a one-size-fits-all alternative to installing a spare tire," continued Paul. "The reality is these kits can accommodate specific types of tire damage, but having the option to install a spare tire can save stranded drivers time and money."

Is the vision of a self-driving car the frivolous pursuit of some futuristic geeks? Is it too “out there” to be real? The short answer is “no” and autonomous vehicle technology is actively being developed and tested both inside and outside the automotive industry. In fact, in today’s new cars, one can see certain technologies that form the path to enabling a fully autonomous vehicle.

 

One giant reason in support of the development of the autonomous vehicle is safety and the lofty vision of a world with zero auto accidents.

 

It’s no wonder.

 

Buckle up and get ready for some alarming statistics

 

 

In May 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation published a study called The Economic and Societal Impact of Mother Vehicle Crashes, 2010. The study states that the 2010 total economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. was $277 billion. (Note: the 2010 data is the most complete to-date, and complete subsequent years’ data is still being compiled.)

 

According to the report, the $277 billion figure…

 

“…represents the present value of lifetime economic costs for 32,999 fatalities, 3.9 million non-fatal injuries and 24 million damaged vehicles. These figures include both police-reported and unreported crashes. When quality-of-life valuations are considered, the total value of societal harm from motor vehicle crashes in 2010 was $871 billion.”

 

Here’s how the DOT report further quantifies the economic impact of crashes:

 

  • The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes in 2010 ($277 billion) is the equivalent to approximately $897 for every person living in the United States and 1.9 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

  • The lifetime economic cost to society for each fatality is $1.4 million. Over 90 percent of this amount is attributable to lost workplace and household productivity and legal costs.

  • Each critically injured survivor…cost an average of $1.1 million. Medical costs and lost productivity accounted for 82 percent of the cost for (the) most serious level of non-fatal injury.

  • Lost workplace productivity costs totaled $70.2 billion, which equaled 25 percent of the total costs. Lost household productivity totaled $22.9 billion, representing 8 percent of the total economic costs.

     

Beyond the paramount safety aspects, there are other traffic flow and efficiency benefits that can be achieved by connecting a car to the environment around it. These types of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technologies are also being developed and tested.

 

So, throwing money into the development of autonomous vehicles, in the hopes of realizing a zero-accident vision and getting rid of traffic congestion, seems like a pretty good idea.

 

Many of the enabling technologies are available in dealers’ showrooms, right now

 

First came basic “telematics”—the ability to connect a car’s data to a remote source via wireless technology. Telematics technology is behind things like remote diagnostics, usage-based insurance, eCall, etc.

 

Then came other aspects of autonomous operation—adaptive cruise control, automated emergency braking, lane deviation correction, etc.—now commonly available in dealer showrooms. These features use radar, camera and sonar sensors for obstacle detection and collision avoidance.

 

Add to all this Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and map data, now also found built-in to many new cars, and you’ve got a lot of the basics for autonomous vehicle operation, in service, right now.

 

The final bit is integrating them all into an overall system that can not only drive the vehicle down the road, but also react appropriately to the large number of variables that exist in the driving environment. In order to do this, the autonomous vehicle must know where it is and what is going on around it.

 

How autonomous vehicles work: The confluence of technologies

 

Here are the five underlying technologies that we’re going to dive into:

 

  • Location technologies
  • Sensor technologies
  • V2X communication
  • Sensor and data convergence
  • Vehicle actuators

     

Location, location, location 
 Between GPS and mapping data, autonomous vehicles can identify their location, and most models also have other components and systems that can fine-tune the location information based on vehicle speed and direction of travel.

 

GPS 
The Global Positioning System was created for the Department of Defense and made available for civilian use upon completion in 1996. The system consists of 24 satellites (plus a bunch of spares) in Earth’s orbit that can provide location and time information in all weather conditions, anywhere on the planet. A minimum of four satellites is typically used to identify a vehicle’s position. The only limitation to obtaining GPS information is that the receiver in the car must have an unobstructed line of sight to the open sky.

 

Mapping Data 
Autonomous vehicles combine GPS information with mapping data stored in the car, typically as part of a navigation system. Mapping data provides the autonomous control system with information about upcoming road options, while the navigation system employs the GPS information to display the vehicle location onscreen. Points of interest (gas stations, ATMs, restaurants, etc.) in the mapping database can also be used to help direct the car to a desired destination.

 

I’m sensing something… 
Vehicle autonomy depends on sensors to “see” the driving environment. The sensors are arrayed to provide near 360-degree coverage around the car. There are many types of sensors, all with their particular strengths and weaknesses, which is why autonomous cars use multiple sensors all working together to provide a 360 view of the outside world.

 

Ultrasonic 
Ultrasonic sensors are the small, button-like, devices built into the front and/or rear bumpers of many cars. They operate using high-frequency sound waves, and are employed in many of the low-speed, “park assist” systems that let drivers know that their cars are approaching an object. Ultrasonic sensors can “see” only a few feet of the vehicle, so longer-range sensors are needed to provide more advanced autonomous capabilities.

 

Infrared 
Heat-sensitive, infrared sensors can “see” beyond the range of a car’s headlights. Near-infrared systems are used in sophisticated night-vision aids, and provide advance warnings of pedestrians, cyclists, animals or other warm-blooded creatures that might be within the vehicle’s path. Far-infrared sensors provide similar information across a wider range of objects, temperatures and lighting conditions. Because infrared sensors are an optical technology, their signal can be blocked or degraded if anything obscures their sensor lens.

 

Radar 
Radio Detection And Ranging, aka radar, isn't a new technology, but it’s fairly new to automobiles. Radar bounces radio wave signals off objects and determines their distance based on the length of time it takes for the signal to return to its source. Autonomous vehicles use high-frequency millimeter wave radar that offers a 60-degree-plus range of visibility. Radar’s big advantage is that its sensors are not affected by fog, rain or snow that can interfere with other types of sensors. Radar sensors are also maintenance-free and can even be hidden behind painted plastic body panels. Many think that radar will be the dominant sensor technology for monitoring the side and rear of the vehicle.

 

Lidar 
Lidar isn’t technically an acronym, but it is sometimes said to stand for Light Detection and Ranging or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging. Lidar uses invisible laser light (rather than the radio waves used by radar) to generate a “picture” of the driving environment. Lidar can map physical features with very high resolution, and the technology “sees” nearly anything, including non-metallic objects, which are more challenging for radar. Simple lidar sensors are already in production as part of adaptive cruise control systems that automatically slow the vehicle to maintain a preset following distance (or time) from the car ahead. Full-function lidar sensors, such as the one on the roof of the Google car, are much more complex and can cost up to $70,000. Work is underway to find lower-cost solutions for more realistic mass-production.

 

Cameras 
Cars today that have blind-spot monitoring, lane deviation warning systems, and automated emergency braking systems probably have electronic camera systems behind these capabilities. Forward-facing stereo cameras not only capture a view of the road ahead, but provide depth perception as well. This technology, often referred to as computer vision, depends not just on the camera(s), but also on sophisticated software that can analyze the images in real time and identify pertinent data.

 

V2X Technology (Vehicle to…Whatever) 
We’ve got V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) and V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) systems in pilot testing right now. V2X systems interact with both vehicles and infrastructure (and, in the future, who knows what else? Humans themselves?) These V2 systems use dedicated short-range radio communications (DSRC) to share data between nearby vehicles and the transportation infrastructure (e.g., highways). This is the technology that will significantly enhance the ability of autonomous vehicles to avoid collisions, while allowing even better coordination of traffic flow to improve transportation efficiency.

 

The marriage of sensors and data 
The combination of “sensing” (via sensors) and “knowledge” (via data) is “convergence”—all the information from multiple sources consolidated. This is critical to successful autonomous vehicle operation, and it is why many self-driving vehicles may use sensors, computers and actuators (see below) developed by a single supplier to work together in close cooperation…turning all that sensory input and data into actionable understanding and response. Sensors can identify a ball rolling into the street, but it is something completely different for a vehicle to know that there is a good chance that a child may follow the ball. Critical, real-time interpretations like these require sophisticated software, significant computing power and faster in-vehicle computer systems than the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus that is used today.

 

Actuators… actually 
Satellites and mapping databases provide location data, sensors gather information about the driving environment, computers and software analyze it all and provide instructions for vehicle operation, but how do those instructions get carried out to actually drive the car? The answer is electro-mechanical actuators for the throttle, brake and steering control mechanisms. You see these in action in many of today’s new cars, and they all play a role in enabling autonomous vehicles tomorrow.

 

Throttles by Wire 
Gas pedals have traditionally been connected to valves in a throttle body by mechanical rods and/or cables. These valves open and close to control the amount of air entering the engine, and thus, the engine speed. Many new cars, however, replace that mechanism with a computer controlled electric motor that opens and closes the throttle based (in part) on input from sensors attached to the gas pedal. Throttle-by-wire allows precise computer control of the engine speed to meet different driving conditions, and it supports current vehicle systems such as traction control and cruise control.

 

Electronic Braking 
Current automotive brake systems use a series of mechanical and hydraulic components that convert foot pressure on the brake pedal into braking force at the wheels. Most modern cars are also equipped with anti-lock brake systems that use electric motors and/or solenoids to modulate system hydraulic pressure and limit wheel lockup in low-traction conditions. With proper programming, those same components can also be used to apply the brakes without driver input—a capability that currently supports things like brake assist, automated emergency braking and adaptive cruise control.

 

Electric Steering Assist 
Over the past few years, automakers have been introducing power steering systems that use electric motors to provide the steering assist. This is in contrast to the pump-and-steering-wheel-fluid method of yore. Such computer control of electric power steering supports current vehicle capabilities like lane deviation warning and correction and parallel parking assist.

 

(Self-)Driving Forward 
Although spurred by government mandates, actual autonomous car development has largely been championed by technology companies (famously, Google), automakers and their suppliers. At this point, many auto manufacturers have some kind of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle prototype. Most manufacturers are currently selling some of their new car models with many of the enabling technologies and features that comprise the autonomous vehicle, which means that their suppliers are hard at work developing and producing these systems.

 

If you ask technologists and engineers, they will tell you that a fully autonomous vehicle is just a year or two away. This may be true from the sheer technology standpoint, but there are a lot of other issues to iron-out before these hit the market—mainly in the legislation and liability realms. Because these are major and complex obstacles, most experts in the autonomous vehicle space doubt that fully autonomous vehicle adoption will occur within the next decade.

 

That said, drivers will see more and more “autonomous features” in cars rolling off today’s assembly lines. Perhaps by the time the real thing hits the market, we will all have had some practice, and will be ready to have our cars drive us, as opposed to the other way around.

 

In the meantime, follow John Paul to get the latest developments on autonomous vehicles as their evolution continues.

When you grow up used to a gas station on virtually every corner, feeling pretty secure in your mobility, the thought of seeking out a charging station for your car is quite a paradigm change.

 

Still, people are migrating to electric vehicles (EVs) at a steady pace, primarily because of their energy efficiency, to conserve fossil fuels and to reduce the environmental impact of gas-powered vehicles.

 

While these are all great reasons to consider going electric, there are three main areas where electric vehicles are currently lacking in comparison to their gas-engine counterparts: driving range, recharging infrastructure and recharging ("refueling") time.

 

While government agencies, automakers and companies across the electric vehicle industry are working hard to improve these issues, consumers should understand what makes EVs "tick" so that they can weigh the pros and cons for themselves.

 

First, a bit about the different types of electric vehicles

 

People often think of "hybrids" first when they think about electric cars. In fact, conventional hybrids do not require plug-in charging. They still use a conventional gas engine to propel the car, but the engine is powered by an electric motor, which is what makes them fuel efficient. An automatically "car charged" battery powers the electric motor. The battery derives its energy from a generator in the engine, plus a process called "regenerative braking." This process turns the electric motor into a generator during coasting and braking.

 

So, this article isn't talking about these conventional hybrids. Here, we are covering the types of electric vehicles that need to be plugged into a power source to get "charged up".

 

There are three types of these today:

 

  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicle: similar to the conventional hybrid, only it has a bigger battery that is charged by plugging into an external power source. These have an electric-only range of around 10 to 20 miles, and when exhausted, the car reverts to normal hybrid operation with a gas engine that drives the car, and combines with regenerative braking to charge the battery for a limited amount of electrical power assist. The Toyota Prius is an example.

  • Extended-range electric vehicle: has a larger battery that can go for around 30 to 40 miles, then a gas engine powers a generator to give the car an extra 200 to 300 miles. The gas engine in this car doesn't actually drive the car (as it does above); it just provides power to the battery, which continues to propel the car using an electric motor. The Chevy Volt is an example.

  • Battery electric vehicle: does away with the gas engine altogether and is powered exclusively by electricity stored in a large, onboard battery pack. Most of these today have a range of about 60 to 100 miles (except the Tesla Model S, which can go 140 to 265 miles). The Nissan Leaf is a typical shorter-range example.

     

Batteries: the lifeblood of electric vehicles


Batteries are often the main discussion when talking about electric vehicles, and each EV contains two of them:

 

  • Starter battery: Despite its name, this is not the battery that actually starts the engine. The starter battery is a 12-volt, lead-acid unit, similar to what you see in a regular car. It powers the car's keyless entry, security systems, maintains various electronic "memories," and provides the energy to wake up the EV's computer control systems when the ignition is turned on. The starter battery also provides "juice" to the…

  • …Traction battery that starts the car, and powers the electric motor that propels the car down the road. This is the workhorse of the electric vehicle, also charging the starter battery and usually powering other things like A/C, headlamps, heater, and more.

     

The traction battery is the thing that you are actually charging when you plug-in your electric vehicle.

 

Traction batteries are lithium-ion, which contain greater energy density. They come in all kinds of different shapes, sizes and weights, depending on the type of EV.

 

And they are expensive. Really expensive. Replacing one of these can cost from $2,500 to over $10,000, depending on the car. Fortunately, automakers warranty their EV traction batteries for at least eight years or 100,000 miles.

 

Generally, the bigger the traction battery, the greater the distance you'll get from the car.

 

Size matters 
We are used to measuring a car's capacity to store energy by how many gallons of fuel its tank can hold. Obviously, the bigger the fuel tank, the more fuel it can hold.

 

In an electric vehicle, the car's energy capacity is measured by how many kilowatts (kW) of electricity the traction battery can store. So, the bigger the battery, the more kilowatts it can store. But—just as a larger gas tank in a regular car—greater battery capacity also increases vehicle weight, cost and charging ("fueling") time.

 

The capacity of the traction battery in an EV is actually expressed in kilowatt-hours (kWh) not kilowatts.

 

What's the difference between a kW and kWh? Here's a brief tutorial:

 

Kilowatts (kW) are a measure of power: the rate at which energy is generated or used.

 

Kilowatt-hours (kWh) are a measure of energy: how much fuel is contained within something, or used by something over a specific period of time. Think of kilowatt-hours like calories; could be a donut or a salad providing the calories, and each has a different "calorie count". The "medium" itself (donut versus salad) doesn't matter. You take in those calories, then burn them for fuel. Same for kilowatt-hours. Could be a battery or a gallon of gas providing the kWh of energy; your car takes in that kWh and "burns" it for fuel.

 

When you're buying a conventional car, you're looking at the size of its gas tank and its "miles per gallon" (MPG) to tell you approximately how many miles you can go before having to refuel.

 

When you're buying an electric car, you're looking at the "size" of its traction battery's kWh.

 

Battery capacities vary widely between the different types of EVs discussed earlier:

 

  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles could have something like a 4.4kWh battery.

  • In extended-range electric vehicles you could see a 16.5 kWh battery.

  • And battery electric vehicles can range from 24 kWh on the lower end and 60 or 85 kWh on the high end.

     

Again, the higher the kWh, the longer you can drive with electric-only power. And, like regular cars, the EV battery's state of charge is expressed as "empty" or "full" (meaning, "fully charged").

 

In a gas-engine car, your little fuel pump light goes on alerting you to the fact that you need to refuel soon. But you don't totally panic because you know you've got a few more miles left in the tank before you've got to get to a gas station.

 

The same is true of EV batteries. There's usually a little more juice held in "reserve"—not available for normal use, but still part of the battery's energy potential. For example, a 24 kWh battery represents the amount of energy available for use, but the total battery capacity is actually somewhat greater. You don't want to run the battery down too deeply, but you could show "empty" and have some reserve energy left to get a charging station.

 

Miles per gallon versus "miles per kilowatt-hour": How do you measure "fuel efficiency" in an electric vehicle?

 

How do you know how many usable, drive-time miles you'll get out of a battery? A rule of thumb is that one kWh of electrical energy will provide between two and three miles of driving range. So, a 24 kWh battery will give you between 48 and 72 miles.

 

In order to provide a comparison for people looking to buy an EV, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came up with "miles per gallon equivalent" or MPGe.

 

MPGe is similar to normal MPG, but instead of representing the number of miles an EV can travel per gallon of gas, MPGe represents how many miles an EV can travel using the same amount of energy as that contained in a gallon of gas.

 

For example, one gallon of gas contains approximately 33.7 kWh of energy—nearly one-and-a-half times the energy in a fully charged Nissan Leaf battery pack. 
The average car can go about 25 miles on that one gallon of gas. 
The Nissan Leaf can go about 70 miles on a single charge.

 

This is because a normal gas engine is only 25 to 30 percent efficient—most of the fuel energy it consumes is lost as "waste heat." Electric vehicles, on the other hand, are around 75 percent efficient—much more of the energy they consume is put to good use to propel the vehicle.

 

For comparison-shopping purposes, the following label is provided at dealerships:

 

 

 

There are a lot of factors that affect the driving range of EVs 
The MPGe estimates notwithstanding, there are some real-world factors that can vary the actual mileage an EV gets from a fully charged battery.

 

  • External temperature: EV battery packs like to be kept within a certain temperature range when not plugged into the grid. Too hot, and more power is needed to cool the battery. Too cold, more power is needed to warm it up.

  • Interior temperature: Air conditioning and heating systems can draw significant amounts of battery power, so cranking-up either of these can reduce driving range.

  • Driving habits: As with gas engines, the faster and more aggressively one drives, the quicker the power supply becomes depleted.

  • Operating conditions: EVs typically get better mileage in "stop-and-go" traffic, where frequent regenerative braking helps recharge the battery. Naturally, the load on the vehicle also impacts its range. An EV will have a much shorter range climbing up a mountain that coasting down the other side.

     

AC/DC: Electric Vehicle Charging Basics 
EV charging is the equivalent of filling the fuel tank in a gas-powered car, but instead of a fuel hose with a nozzle that goes into the gas tank, the EV uses a power cable with a special connector that plugs into a matching socket on the car. And, just as the gas pump automatically shuts off when the tank is full, so too does the EV charging equipment.

 

All modern EVs can be charged using alternating current (AC) electricity, and some can be charged with direct current (DC) power as well. These are two very different processes.

 

Most EVs are routinely charged using a home's AC wall socket. But, since batteries can store only DC electricity, a conversion unit (inverter) and special cables are provided. Fortunately, the cable connectors and vehicle sockets used for AC charging have been standardized, so any charger can be used with any vehicle. This eliminates the need to buy a new charger if you buy a different electric car.

 

You can charge in a few different ways:

 

"AC Level 1 Charging": Essentially, this is plugging your EV into your normal electrical socket. This is slow, but can usually fully restore the battery overnight in 8 to 13 hours.

 

"AC Level 2 Charging": This needs a dedicated 240-volt circuit similar to that for an electric clothes dryer. This is much faster, but also requires a special charging station in one's garage, carport or driveway…at a cost of $750 to $1,500 plus installation. Most commercial/workplace/public charging stations are AC Level 2.

 

"DC Fast-Charging": Some—not all—electric vehicles have provisions to charge the battery directly with high-current DC power. Instead of having to go through an inverter to convert AC to DC, which slows down the process, you can just infuse DC current right into the battery. Even though DC charging can recharge an EV battery four to six times faster than any AC charger, it isn't very practical for at-home use because:

 

  1. the amount of energy required from the grid is significantly greater, sometimes an amount equal to the entire electrical service in a medium-to-large home;

  2. the equipment required to convert that much AC power to DC for charging is expensive…like, $50,000 or more expensive!

  3. DC chargers are large and heavy. High-power DC chargers are big, stand-alone units. All the public-access DC charging locations in the U.S. today are commercial installations;


  4. Unlike AC charging where everyone uses a common standard, there are three different DC charging standards in use (one by the Japanese, one by the SAE, and one by Tesla), each requiring a different charging cable connector and vehicle charging socket.

     

Finding public charging stations and how much it costs 
Public-access charging stations are not on every corner, so how do you know where to find one? There are a few different ways:

 

  • The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) maintains an online "Alternative Fueling Station Locator" at http://www.afdc.energy.gov/locator/stations/

  • The DOE data is available to third parties (car manufacturers, navigation system providers, auto clubs, etc.) for use in their own applications. For example, the location-based services built into most EVs (and their corresponding smartphone apps) provide locations of nearby charging stations;

  • Other mobile apps containing public EV charging station locations, such as the AAA Mobile app, the ChargePoint or PlugShare mobile apps (and many more), can be downloaded to your smartphone. Some can also be found online, like the AAA TripTik® Travel Planner.

     

As for how much it costs…

 

For home charging, any consumer considering the purchase of an EV should first contact their local utility company and determine how at-home charging will impact their monthly bill.

 

For public charging, there are three primary approaches: pay-as-you-go, monthly subscriptions and (the best one) free.

 

Here are some high-level recommendations (as of September 2014) from PlugInCars.com, an online forum dedicated to researching, analyzing and reporting on the EV space:

 

  • First, think about your regular routes and favorite destinations. Then use PlugShare or another station finding tool to see which charging networks are along the way. Be prepared to use any of them.

  • ChargePoint is the biggest charging network, so it's a must for nearly all EV drivers.

  • If you live in Pacific Northwest, get a key fob from Aerovironment for its AV Subscription Network.

  • In Texas, it's generally better to pay as you go with ChargePoint and Blink, rather than opting for multi-year expensive contracts with eVgo—unless you want to splurge for the convenience of an all-you-can-charge plan and, at this time, the ability to access DC fast charging.

  • On the east coast, SemaConnect is the best backup to ChargePoint.

  • Who doesn't like free? There are about 2,000 stations, mostly free, not associated with any of the networks listed below. Use PlugShare or other tools to find these stations.

     

One last caveat: The terminology of "station" can be confusing and misleading. Some services call each individual charger a station, when the term station usually refers to a single public site with the capability to charge more than one car at a time.

 

The final word(s) 
Projections vary, but studies indicate there could be 14 million electric vehicles on the road by 2020. Battery improvements, increased competition and economies of scale are all likely to drive down EV prices. Most drivers still have a lot to learn about the benefits of EVs, including significant savings on fuel and maintenance costs, but there are still many concerns (including the basic fear of letting go of gas!) to overcome.

 

 

Today’s cars are complex, rolling computers, using onboard circuitry to provide things like diagnostics. When you couple this with wireless technology such as Bluetooth, cellular, satellite, and short-range communications, you’ve got a car that can “talk” to the outside world. This is what the “connected car,” and the term telematics, is all about.

 


An easy way to think about today’s cars is this: think about desktop computing before the Internet. Your computer was a basic, functional machine that provided you with applications that streamlined things like word processing and basic diagnostics. It couldn’t communicate with anyone but you, and you commanded all its functions. But, then, you hook your computer up to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) via a modem, and suddenly you have a machine that can “talk” to the outside world.

 

The same is true of many of today’s cars.

 

Modern cars are now equipped with complex computer systems that continuously monitor, measure and record a car’s operating data, and, with wireless technology, can transmit that data to others. This capability varies from car to car, but the information generated can include things like:

 

  • The location of your car

  • The rate of speed at which you travel

  • The rate at which your wheels spin

  • The rate at which you accelerate

  • Driver and passenger seatbelt status

  • Number of vehicle occupants

     

…and about two dozen other pieces of data about your car and your driving habits.

 

The upside to “smart cars” 
There are many benefits that connected cars can provide drivers, and they break down into three main categories: safety, convenience/peace of mind, and "infotainment."

 

Safety

This is perhaps the most highly touted benefit in many car commercials airing on TV nowadays. These ads depict scenarios in which a driver avoids a collision because of the car’s advanced driver assistance system. Others show drivers being contacted by a remote call center because an emergency situation was detected and communicated to them (think OnStar). A Volkswagen ad shows a woman using her cell phone to lock and unlock the doors of her car from her seat on an airplane, as her husband and his buddy marvel at this magic happening in the driveway at home.

 

These are all examples of the collision avoidance, roadside assistance and remote vehicle service capabilities that are embedded in many new cars today.

 

Convenience/Peace of Mind
Connected cars can contain features that help increase travel efficiency, avoid (or quickly remedy) vehicle problems, limit ownership costs and introduce helpful new in-car services.

 

A common service is the onboard GPS navigation system that not only gives the driver turn-by-turn directions, but can also point out attractions, restaurants, gas stations, and other points of interest along the way.

 

And, say you lock your keys in your car, or forget to turn off your headlights. Remote vehicle services, operated by an outside service provider or smartphone app, can remotely control functions such as engine start, door lock/unlock, security system (lights and horn) activation, and more. Or, if your car is stolen, a phone call to the service provider can often help find and recover the vehicle. There are even systems that, once activated, can prevent the engine from restarting once it has been turned off.

 

There can also be some cost-savings. Many insurance companies are encouraging people to plug a little device into their car to save on their car insurance. Essentially, Usage-Based Insurance (UBI) programs use a car’s technology to monitor, capture and transmit data on the driving patterns of individual customers. Analysis on the back-end then enables insurers to match rates more closely with their actual risk, and drivers who are deemed “safe” benefit from lower premiums.

 

Speaking of safety, do you have teenaged drivers and want to keep tabs on them? An in-car device, plus access to a corresponding Web site, allows parents to monitor their teens’ driving locations and habits. Some systems can be set up to send the parent an e-mail or text message if the teen strays outside a designated area, and can also notify the parent when the teen reaches their intended destination (home, school, work, etc.).

 

There are also maintenance and repair conveniences. For instance, when that annoying “Check Engine” light comes on, most car owners really have no idea why. Could be any number of things! Some connected car systems are testing the ability to e-mail or text the driver information about why the light has come on, the severity of the problem, and the actions needed to correct it. Plus, routine maintenance can be made more convenient by dashboard alerts when service is due. Some automakers even use the car’s communication system to track these alerts and notify the local dealer so that they can proactively contact the customer to schedule a service appointment. There are also diagnostic advantages to the continual monitoring of vehicle that help identify and communicate problems before they happen, which can ultimately prevent breakdowns.


"Infotainment"

Here’s a new, made-up word for you! Combine information and entertainment, and what do you have? Infotainment.

 

On-board infotainment systems bring familiar functionality (like GPS) together with value-added information and services. For instance, a navigation system can link with real-time traffic information, then automatically re-route the driver. Or, by connecting with other third-party data providers, it can serve-up other travel-related information like weather conditions, fuel availability/pricing, or restaurant reviews. It can even provide services like hotel and dining reservations; movie, attraction or event tickets; shopping discounts…even personal concierge services!

 

Your built-in car radio has also been made smarter. Along with the standard AM/FM/satellite radio/CD player, a car’s entertainment system can connect through wired and Bluetooth interfaces to provide the ability to playback media stored on external devices like MP3 players or smartphones. When Internet access is available through a cellular connection, online streaming audio/video content can be played as well. Some systems even offer access to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, and/or provide an in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot.

 

Many new cars now also feature a touch-screen device on the dashboard that looks a lot like a tablet computer. These systems are beginning to offer apps for in-car use, right now mostly for entertainment purposes (Pandora, iHeart Radio, etc.) But, just as tablets and smartphones have access to thousands of apps developed by third-party software developers, so too will the car’s “dashboard tablet.” It is not hard to imagine the limitless number of productivity, entertainment and information applications that are now available for smartphones, becoming available on your dashboard.

 


The other side of "smart cars"

There are many fabulous features and benefits that come with connected car ownership. However, all this connectivity opens up other discussions as well.

First of all, not everyone is ready for huge technology advances. There are still a lot of people who are happy with the basics, and don’t even want a smart phone, let alone a “smart car.” As with any new technology or gadget, it takes time to “mainstream” it and make it suitably user-friendly for the general public.

 

There are larger concerns, though, when information and data is available outside your control. Think about privacy issues around your information—even your Web browsing habits—on the Internet. When a machine has the ability to gather large amounts of data without the user’s input, plus the ability to communicate with outside parties…well it opens up a whole new can of worms. Who owns the data that is produced (and is able to be transmitted) about your car, your driving behavior, about you? Can you control who has access to it? Do you have the ability to grant permission to some parties, and deny or limit access to others? These are serious questions that have yet to be answered fully, and have yet to be specifically regulated by consumer-protection legislation.

 

Other security concerns emerge, too, when machines are connected to the “outside world.” Computers that are connected to the Internet are vulnerable to hackers. Vehicle systems also have the potential to be hacked. There are protections against this, and many cellular standards include encryption for wireless voice and data transmissions, but such protection strategies need to be taken into account in the design of newer car communications systems.

 

Security, data access and privacy concerns aside, there’s also the matter of driver distraction. The additional features and services provided by connected cars are nice, but using them can potentially distract drivers from the main task at hand: driving. It’s not hard to spot drivers on the road today who are distracted by their cell phones, and adding an additional layer of distraction could pose some traffic safety issues. Automakers are taking this into account, and are designing apps and systems to be “car safe,” but “safety” is still a space to watch.

 

Finally, there are cost implications around connected car technology. Gone are the days when the do-it-yourself weekend warrior could open up the hood and fix many of a car’s mechanical problems. The complex components, wiring and software embedded in today’s cars requires highly skilled (almost IT-like) mechanics, and replacement parts are expensive. Plus, it’s estimated that the addition of an average embedded system adds about $300 to $350 to the selling price of the vehicle. And, like cell phones, the initial cost of these systems is generally subsidized by ongoing subscription fees for service, which can range from $99 to hundreds of dollars per year, depending on the level of service.

 

The more you know…
As the technology evolves and the discussions continue, AAA will continue to provide knowledge, advocacy, leadership and services to drivers, so tapping into AAA’s expertise in “all things automotive” is a good place to start when sorting through the complexities of today’s vehicles.

 

Connected cars offer some remarkable new in-vehicle features, and the future promises even more amazing developments. While some issues remain to be resolved, one thing is clear: the car of tomorrow will be connected to the world outside like never before.

 

Diesel cars are making a comeback. Why, you might ask, would these smelly, loud, black-smoke-producing contraptions be enjoying new popularity?

 

Here’s the short answer: Because today’s diesels have come a long way from “your father’s Oldsmobile” of the late 70s and early 80s, and are actually better for the environment than regular gasoline-powered cars.

 

How can that be?
For starters, thanks to new emission standards, diesel engines don’t stink and blow soot-producing smoke anymore. But the main attraction is fuel economy: a diesel-engine car typically delivers fuel economy that is 25 to 30 percent better than a similarly sized gasoline engine.

 

Diesel engines have always been more fuel-efficient than gasoline engines, but the old diesel fuel was loaded with sulfur (thus the smell), contributing to “acid rain.” But, since 2007, all diesel vehicles are required to use “Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel.” This has enabled the modern “clean diesels” which meet the same exhaust quality standards as their gasoline counterparts.

 

Another attraction, believe it or not, is power. The perception of the lumbering diesel car is just that—a perception. In fact, a diesel engine delivers much more torque at a lower rpm, which makes for quicker starting acceleration and provides more pick-up when you need it for things like passing. Speaking of pick-up, because of their power, diesel engines are commonly found in pick-up trucks that need to haul heavy loads without sacrificing vehicle performance.

 


What are the differences between a diesel engine and a regular gasoline engine? 


One of the main differences is that diesel engines don’t have spark plugs to ignite the air/fuel mixture. Instead, a diesel engine compresses the air in each cylinder until it is hot enough (over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit) to automatically ignite the fuel that is then injected into the engine.

 

Diesels are really the original fuel-injected engines. The diesel engine has always required the use of high-pressure fuel injection, as opposed to its pre-fuel-injection gasoline counterparts that used carburetors. The injection method in diesels wasn’t always as efficient as it is today. Previously, the fuel had to pass through an intermediary chamber before reaching the engine. Most modern automotive diesel engines inject the fuel directly into the cylinder. This leads to greater fuel economy and better cold-starting ability.

 

Another key difference between a diesel and gasoline engine is that diesel engines operate un-throttled—that is, air enters the engine without any restriction. With more air available, more fuel can be burned to provide greater performance. If you see a “supercharged” or “turbocharged” diesel vehicle, this means that it provides more air to the engine, which increases horsepower and torque…and gives you more performance.

 

But, “burning more fuel” and “fuel efficiency” are a little contradictory, don’t you think? 


It’s counter-intuitive to say, on the one hand, that diesels provide more fuel economy, and on the other hand, they can burn more fuel for performance.

 

This is where the nature of the fuel itself comes in. One gallon of diesel fuel contains approximately 17.6 percent more energy (measured in British Thermal Units, or BTUs) than gasoline engines.

 

It all comes from the same place—crude oil refineries. When crude oil is processed, it’s separated into various types of fuel: gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, home heating oil, kerosene (diesel’s close cousin), and liquefied petroleum gas, among other things.

 

Diesel fuel is heavier and oilier than gasoline, which makes compression ignition (as opposed to an external flame or spark) possible. Its higher energy density (BTU), as mentioned above, is one of the reasons it’s more fuel-efficient.

 

What do the different grades of diesel fuel mean?

 Like “regular” gasoline, diesel fuel comes in different grades. Most pump diesel that you come across will be in the 42 to 45 range. “Premium” diesel will be higher. These numbers are similar to the octane numbers in gasoline, but they measure “cetanes” instead of “octanes.”

 

Cetane is a colorless, liquid hydrocarbon (a molecule from the alkane series) that ignites easily under compression. The cetane number tells you about the fuel’s ability to ignite when sprayed into hot, compressed air (which, as you know, is how diesel engines work). The higher the cetane number, the smoother the operation and the lower the engine noise.

 

As mentioned before, all diesel cars sold now are required to use Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel. Sulfur is a naturally occurring element in crude oil, but it can be processed to reduce the amount present in the fuel. Federal regulations require the labeling of diesel pumps at gas stations to identify the type of fuel being dispensed, and if you’ve got a post-2007 diesel car, using anything other than ULSD can cause damage to the new emission control systems.

 

There is now a lot of work being done to develop “biodiesel” fuel. For the environmentally conscious consumer, the introduction of “biodiesel” fuel is attractive. These blended diesel fuels (labeled B5 and B20) are made from organic materials and animal fats that are chemically converted to fuel. This may not necessarily be mainstream yet, but tests show minimal differences in performance or exhaust emissions when biodiesel blends are used in modern clean diesel engines.

 

What’s the cost/benefit ratio? 


It used to be that diesel fuel was less expensive than regular-grade gasoline. This is not the case anymore. Higher demand, limited refining capabilities, refinery upgrade requirements (to meet the ULSD regulation), increased taxes…all have contributed to consistently more expensive diesel.

 

On the other hand, some modern passenger car turbo diesels can deliver fuel economy on par with, or better than, a gasoline-electric hybrid, while offering superior performance.

 

Also, diesel engines can last far longer than their gasoline counterparts. Diesel engines employ heavy-duty construction to withstand the higher compression rates and loads placed on them. As a result, given proper maintenance, it is not uncommon for diesel engines to operate for hundreds of thousands of miles before major repairs are needed.

 

And diesel fuel is easier to find nowadays, with about 40 to 50 percent of all stations having diesel pumps. The better fuel economy means fewer visits to the gas station, anyway, so drivers can typically wait it out until they find a station that serves diesel fuel.

 

All this being said, modern clean diesels are more expensive than gasoline engines. In passenger cars, a four- or six-cylinder diesel engine could add around $1,800 to the sticker price. In pickups with larger eight-cylinder commercial diesel engines, the price premium could be about $5,000.

 

Will your next car be a diesel? 


The number of diesel-powered vehicles is growing rapidly because they not only offer excellent fuel economy, but they are cleaner and greener than most people realize. In addition, the power delivery characteristics of diesels make them well suited to hauling loads or towing trailers.

 

When considering your next car, you might want to test-drive a diesel. And if you want more information and advice, you can always turn to AAA for reviews, ratings and knowledge. This is a space that we are watching, and you can consider us your go-to source for more impartial, unbiased information on not only diesel, but on “all things automotive.”

 

Could metal license plates, paper registration cards and plastic-coated registration stickers eventually be things of the past? Maybe. Maybe not. 

 

Although these registration documents have long been the norm, legislators in California approved a bill last year allowing its state Department of Motor Vehicles to conduct a pilot program aimed at determining whether devices such as digital electronic license plates are the way of the future. 

 

The legislation's author, Sen. Ben Hueso, believes exploring alternatives, particularly wireless-capable devices, will result in improved efficiency and lower the cost of motor vehicle registration services, according to an analysis of the bill, while owners could be alleviated of the need to receive and affix physical stickers.

 

The current method, which uses a mix of license plates issued at first registration and documents such as a paper registration to prove renewal, has been in place for decades. 

 

The devices would operate as computer screens bearing the appearance of standard license plates, which the DMV could use to electronically issue updated registration "stickers" and electronic registration cards. 

 

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, according to the legislation, has until the end of 2016 to conduct its pilot program and, although digital electronic license plates are one possibility, the study is not limited to any particular technology. With license plates facing some of the harshest conditions on the roadway, John Paul, traffic safety manager at AAA Southern New England, said a pilot test would be the only way to see how a given device holds up. 

 

As of 2013, California was home to more than 32 million registered vehicles, according to DMV statistics. Annually, the postage costs associated with licensing and registration runs the department more than $20 million, according to spokesman Artemio Armenta. 

 

The pilot program would be limited to .5 percent of California's total registered vehicle population, or roughly 160,000 vehicles, and any potential participants must take part voluntarily. 

 

Should the Department of Motor Vehicles take up the pilot program, it would be required to issue a report on its findings, including the cost-effectiveness of alternatives compared with the current system. The report would also need to contain a review of each product tested, noting if it could transmit and retain information related to movement, location or vehicle use and if so, its security features. 

 

The bill limits any data exchanged between the DMV and a device, or the provider of a device, to what's necessary to prove registration, and the department could not receive nor retain any information during the program related to movement, location or use of participating vehicles. 

 

As of June, the DMV had not tested any potential alternatives. "The California Department of Motor Vehicles released a request for proposals earlier this year and hopes to pilot proposals received in response to that RFP,” Armenta said. “Nothing is being field-tested at this time, and we are not in a position to describe any proposals that we’ve received,” he added.

 

By George Morse

If it seems like you're seeing more and more electric vehicle charging stations these days, it’s because you are. 

 

Just last year, for example, more than four dozen charging stations were installed within Rhode Island's compact 1,200 square miles. 

 

"They're popping up all over the place. They're at shopping malls and restaurants. Municipalities are starting to put them in. There are three of them in front of Boston City Hall," said John Paul, traffic safety manager for AAA Southern New England. As of March 2014, there were more than 7,600 electric vehicle charging stations in the United States, excluding private stations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center. 

 

The growth of these charging stations is likely welcome news to current or potential electric vehicle owners. Paul said most electric vehicles currently on the market have a range of up to 100 miles, significantly less than what is offered by traditional, gasoline-powered engines or even plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. But with zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles are a much more environmentally friendly way of traveling. 

 

Alleviating potential range anxiety is one reason the state of Connecticut started awarding grants to help fund the installation of electric vehicle charging stations. In early November, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced grants between $1,000 and $5,000 for 56 publicly available charging stations in 42 locations around the state. The state has since accepted additional applications and, as of January, there were more than 100 charging stations in Connecticut, excluding private stations.

 

Next door, in Rhode Island, about $780,000 of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds paid for the installation of 50 charging stations in 2013. That project was completed in September with locations selected by officials from the state Office of Energy Resources, National Grid, the Rhode Island Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition, Project Get Ready RI (part of a national initiative to promote plug-in vehicles) and ChargePoint, a company that bills itself as the world's largest network of charging stations. 

 

The chargers are available at a wide range of locations, from colleges (Brown University) to beaches (East Matunuck), hospitals and restaurants. Project Get Ready founder Al Dahlberg said locations were selected based on geographic diversity, visibility, proximity to high traffic areas and other considerations. 

 

The stations are accessible with a ChargePoint account or by calling a phone number listed on the charger, Dahlberg said, and there's no cost to use the stations for four years. 

 

Paul said electric vehicles are ideal for people with round-trip commutes totaling about 50 to 60 miles. A charge on a standard outlet at home typically takes an entire night, he said, though locations such as shopping malls make sense for more powerful Level 2 chargers, which can accomplish the task in about half the time. 

 

And it's even quicker to use a Level 3 charger, though don't be surprised if you have trouble finding one. Earlier this year, in fact, the University of Massachusetts Amherst held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in February to celebrate the commonwealth's first public Level 3 charging station, which works on vehicles with a fast charge port such as the Nissan Leaf. The unit allows for an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes. 

 

Many electric vehicle owners will typically sign up with a charging network, such as ChargePoint, to access charging stations. At UMass Amherst, the Level 3 station is open to those with a ChargePoint account with a billing option. 

 

Plug In America estimates that it costs $2 to $4 to fully charge an EV, and on an energy-adjusted basis, operating a vehicle with electricity typically costs less than half as much as with gasoline. 

 

To find a nearby charging station, visit the Alternative Fuels Data Center online tool at www.afdc.energy.gov which allows drivers to search by state or zip code for charging stations. AAA also makes this information available at AAA.com/TripTik by entering an address or point of interest and clicking on the EV charging icon, or through the AAA Mobile app by clicking on the Maps & Discounts tab and selecting the EV charging icon. See AAA.com/Mobile to download the app.

 

By George Morse

Waiting until the last minute to discover that you need new tires is not an ideal plan, as anyone on the side of the road with a flat will tell you, so here are some basic tire facts, tips and tricks so that you can keep ahead of an emergency need to replace them.

 

Tires require four basic types of care:

 

  • Air pressure checks: even if your car has a tire-pressure sensor, you should still check your tire pressure at least once a month using a quality gauge. Go by the inflation specifications provided on your car’s tire information decal. This decal is usually attached to the driver’s-side door jam. Don’t go by the pressure specifications that are molded into the tire sidewalls.

  • Tread depth measurement: Legally, the minimum tread depth for car tires is 2/32 inches, at which point visible “wear bars” will begin to appear across the tread at several locations. Here’s a neat trick for checking your tire tread depth: insert a quarter into the tread grooves, with Washington’s head facing down. When the top of Washington’s head is exposed, the tread depth is 4/32 inches or less, and it’s time to start shopping for new tires.

  • Visual inspections: This doesn’t really need a whole lot of explanation. If your tires look like they’re “low,” they are, and you need to get some air into them, and get them checked by your mechanic. Before it gets to this point, though, you should periodically inspect your tire treads and inner/outer sidewalls for punctures, cuts, scrapes, bulges and other damage that may indicate the need for replacement. When you get your tires rotated, it’s a perfect opportunity to do this.

  • Periodic rotation: It’s recommended that you get your tires rotated every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, about the same time an oil change is called for. It’s worth noting, though, that you should consult your owner’s manual for instructions. Not all tires can be rotated. For instance, performance cars often have different tire sizes front to rear, or use tires that are designed to rotate in one direction only.

     

Your owner’s manual and/or maintenance booklet should always be your first source. This way, you’ll know what the people who actually designed and built the car recommend and require.

 

For more information about your car and its maintenance, see the Common Mechanical Needs series.

 

New AAA survey reveals three out of four American drivers park incorrectly

 

This holiday season, as parking lots at shopping malls fill with millions of vehicles, AAA warns drivers to avoid a common parking lot mistake. According to a new survey, more than three quarters (76 percent) of U.S. drivers most frequently park their vehicle by pulling forward into a parking spot, rather than backing in, a riskier practice that driving experts warn leaves pedestrians more vulnerable when a driver later reverses from the spot and into the traffic lane.

 

 

 “Recognizing that American parking habits differ from much of the world, automakers are increasingly adding technology to vehicles that is designed to address rear visibility concerns,” said John Paul AAA’s Car Doctor and Traffic Safety Manager . “However, AAA’s testing of these systems reveals significant shortcomings when used in real-world conditions and Americans should rely more on driving skills than technology.”

 

 

In partnership with the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center, AAA tested rear cross traffic alert systems, designed to alert drivers to traffic passing behind a reversing vehicle, and found significant system limitations exist when parked between larger vehicles, such as SUVs or minivans.  In this common parking lot scenario, the tested systems failed to detect pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcycles and other vehicles at alarming rates:

 

 

  • A passing motorcycle was not detected by the systems in 48 percent of tests. 

  • The systems failed to detect a bicycle passing behind the vehicle 40 percent of the time.

  • The systems failed to detect a passing vehicle 30 percent of the time.

  • While not all systems are designed to detect pedestrians, the technology failed to detect pedestrians 60 percent of the time.

 

“AAA’s independent testing showed that rear cross traffic alert systems failed to work effectively in several test vehicles,” cautioned Megan McKernan, manager of the Automobile Club of Southern California’s Automotive Research Center. “It’s critical that drivers reverse slowly and use this technology as an aid to, not a substitute for, safe driving.”

 

 

Previous AAA testing of rear-view camera systems, required on all new vehicles by 2018, revealed significant consumer benefits including increased visibility of the rear blind zone by an average of 46 percent.  However, it’s important to note that no system shows 100 percent of the space behind a vehicle and that rain, snow or slush can impede camera visibility.

 

 

 “When it comes to parking, the majority of American drivers are on the naughty list this year,” continued Paul. “Pulling out of a parking spot, instead of reversing, is an easy way to increase safety and visibility in busy parking lots this holiday season.”

Belts, filters and batteries are all part of the “standard” car maintenance that mechanics often try to sell you. Do you really know if your car needs these services, or how frequently? A little knowledge of your car’s requirements and specifications can go a long way at the service station.

 

Accessory Drive Belts
The accessories that we’re talking about here aren't about fashion. These are engine accessories like the alternator, water pump, air conditioning compressor, etc. And these accessories require their own “accessory”—a serpentine belt.

 

The serpentine belt has a reasonable service life of around 50,000 to 60,000 miles, but it should be inspected at every vehicle service.

 

Filters
Filter replacement has long been the mainstay of maintenance service. Now, however, like many other vehicle components, the replacement intervals today are longer than in the past. Here are some rules of thumb.

 

Engine Air Filter – get it inspected at every service, and replaced when it becomes “gunked-up” with contaminates. Carmakers recommend replacement at 15,000 to 30,000 miles, or more, but filter contamination varies widely with local driving conditions.

 

“Gunked-up” with contaminates and “dirty” are different. Some service facilities try to increase air filter sales by claiming that a dirty filter reduces fuel economy. In older carbureted engines this was true, but in new fuel injection systems it is not.

 

Cabin Air Filter – this filters the air coming into your car through the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Depending on the design of the filter, it’s not unusual for a cabin filter to cost more than an engine air filter. The generally recommended replacement intervals range from 15,000 to 30,000 miles or more, depending on the manufacturer and the local driving conditions.

 

Fuel Filter – in the past, a clogged fuel filter caused many a car to stop running. This is because the gasoline used was not as pure as it is at the pump today. The excellent quality of pump fuel is now excellent, and modern fuel injection filters are large and very efficient. As a result, manufacturers rarely recommend routine fuel filter service on gasoline engines.

 

Filter replacement is usually only necessary on a gasoline engine:

 

  • at high mileages;
  • when cleaning a contaminated fuel system;
  • if diagnostic testing indicates a restricted filter is causing a loss of fuel pressure.

 

Diesel engines, however, are another story. Because diesel fuel is less refined than gasoline, it is more apt to contain contaminants. Plus, under certain conditions, filter-clogging bacteria and fungi can grow inside diesel fuel tanks. Because of this, diesel fuel filters require service at intervals as frequent as 15,000 miles.

 

Batteries
Depending on the local climate, car batteries normally last between three and five years. Hotter climates result in shorter battery life. All batteries require periodic terminal cleaning and inspections; these tasks are among the checks normally made during any routine service.

 

Take note: before disconnecting a battery cable for any reason on a modern car, a supplemental 12-volt power source should be connected to the vehicle electrical system. This will ensure that the radio station, power seat and other system memory setting are retained. On certain vehicles, a failure to do this can result in the need to reprogram various electronic control modules at a cost that can run into the hundreds of dollars!

 

If you drive your car infrequently, or are parking it for more than a month at a time, you should consider connecting a special “battery tender” that constantly monitors battery condition and maintains a full state of charge without overcharging. These devices are available for purchase at most AAA offices, and can save you a lot of headache when you go to start your car again after a prolonged period of time.

Using the wrong fluids in your car can result in incorrect operation, premature component failure and expensive repairs not covered under warranty, so it’s good to get a handle on the variations within each type of fluid specified for your vehicle.

 

Engine Oils
Four out of ten drivers are unaware of the type of oil that their car engine requires. It’s no wonder: there are a lot of different types of oil out there, all with confusing different codes. However, it’s critical that only a motor oil meeting the automaker’s standards be used when servicing a vehicle.

 

To help consumers identify the proper products, vehicle manufacturers and oil industry organizations have come up with a number of standards. These standards, designed to help lessen the confusion, are in themselves kind of confusing!

 

Maybe this diagram will help:

Engine Coolants
Older engines and cooling systems contained mostly cast iron, brass and rubber parts. Today, they contain many other materials like aluminum, copper, silicone...just to name a few. These parts require enhanced engine coolants. Today, there are basically three types of coolant in service.

 

Inorganic Additive Technology (IAT) – this is the traditional green-colored coolant used for decades. It provides fast-acting corrosion protection, but it needs to be changed often because it depletes fast.

 

Organic Acid Technology (OAT) – these are usually red, orange, purple or yellow, and offer long-life corrosion protection. OAT coolants are not compatible with other types, and are specified for many General Motors vehicles, among others.

 

Hybrid Organic Acid Technology (HOAT) – these are commonly yellow and orange and deliver the benefits of both the IAT and OAT coolants for a very long and protective life. HOAT coolants are specified for many Ford and Chrysler vehicles, among others.

 

As with engine oils, it is very important to consult your owner’s manual or maintenance booklet to find out which coolant your car requires. Even if the color looks right, the coolant could be the wrong one…an extremely costly mistake.

 

A few words about hybrid and electric vehicle cooling systems:

 

These usually have special cooling systems that may operate differently than a regular car. Same rule-of-thumb applies: it’s critical that these systems be filled only with coolants that meet the manufacturer’s specifications, so check the manual.

 

Automatic Transmission Fluid
The design of transmissions has changed a lot since the dawn of the “automatic.” We’ve now got things like “automated manual,” “dual-clutch,” and “continuously variable” automatic transmissions. The commonality is that automatic transmissions are now outsourced from around the world.

 

Bottom line: with each different transmission design, and each different transmission designer/builder comes a different transmission fluid requirement. It’s super-important to check the manual.

 

What’s more, a growing number of cars have sealed transmissions. No more dipstick to check the fluid level. The idea is “lifetime” fluids that don’t have to be changed until 100,000 miles or more.

 

There’s no easy way to check the fluid level on sealed transmissions. You have to trust the “lifetime” nature of them, and just check for leaks. The process for checking the actual fluid level is complicated (pages and pages of documentation complicated!)

 

If you’ve got a sealed transmission, and a mechanic tells you that your fluid level was “checked,” you’ve got to ask what procedure was used. Chances are excellent that they didn’t “check” the fluid at all. A more accurate report during a routine maintenance on a car with a sealed transmission is that it was “inspected for leaks.”

 

Other Drivetrain Fluids
Here are some common instances when a wide variety of fluids, lubricants and additives are required, some of which are available only from a dealership.

 

  • Manual transmission

  • Front-wheel drive

  • Rear-wheel drive

  • Four-wheel drive

  • All-wheel drive, electronic all-wheel drive

     

Four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive cars use other components that each have specific service requirements, and can also require a wide variety of fluids.

 

As with all fluids—and other vehicle maintenance needs—know what the manufacturer specifies by checking your manual. The more you know about your car, the less likely you are to get taken for a ride at the service station.

 

Maintenance: What you should know before you go to the shop.

 

 

If you’ve ever felt ripped-off by an auto mechanic or dealership service center, it could be because, well…you might have been. You were at their mercy; they sold you a litany of services that they told you that you needed, and you had no real way of confirming or denying it. After all, they’re the experts, right? Unfortunately, it happens.

 

 

This is not to say that there are not extremely trustworthy mechanics and repair shops out there. Not at all! There are plenty of great, qualified shops (look for a AAA-approved shop; they’ve been through rigorous screening to get certified).

 

 

But, there are others that aren’t as scrupulous, and they’re hard to spot.

 

 

There’s actually a term called “wallet flush.” The California Bureau of Automotive Repair coined it, and it refers to an automotive service that is sold at intervals more frequent than those recommended by the manufacturer, or a service that is not recommended by the automaker, but endorsed and sold anyway by a repair facility.

 

 

These services often provide little or no benefit to the vehicle or its owner, but they offer a definite boost to the bottom line of an unscrupulous—or uninformed—shop. Some of these services are sold to address “drivability problems” without any actual testing to determine if the procedure will address the car’s actual need. Some common examples include:

 

 

  • Power-steering fluid changes and engine flushes: They are not recommended by any automaker. 

  • Air conditioning evacuation and recharge: This is not necessary as a routine service. 

  • Spark plug replacement: This isn’t needed on many cars until 100,000 miles or more. 

  • Fuel/induction system cleaning: This is generally not needed, thanks to gasoline detergent additives.

  • Wheel alignment: If your car isn’t pulling to either side and has even tire wear, it is unlikely to need a wheel alignment. Barring any other symptoms, the most sensible time to have an alignment done is when new tires are being installed. 


So, how do you protect yourself against “wallet flush,” especially now that cars are more complex than ever?

 

 

Here are some basic recommendations:

 

 

The Basics

 

  • Many people don’t take the time to read their car’s owner’s manual, which usually comes with a maintenance schedule. Don’t be one of them! Know your car, and when you bring it in for service, know exactly what is needed for your mileage. It’s all there in the owner’s manual. Lost your manual? (Hey, it happens.) Go online and Google “service schedule” plus your year, make and model. Chances are good that you’ll find it on the web. By knowing exactly what your car needs, at what intervals, you can avoid being sold on extra services that are not required by the manufacturer.

  • If your car has a computerized maintenance reminder system, trust it over the recommendation of a mechanic who might suggest things like oil changes more frequently than necessary. Conventional, “old” wisdom used to dictate that you change your oil every three months or 3,000 miles. This is not the case anymore, and you can rely on your car (if it’s newer) to tell you what it needs, and when. (And when it does, listen to it and get it serviced right away.

  • Check the basics like your engine oil level and tire inflation pressure at least once a month. Because newer cars can go longer in between regular services, it’s important to do these types of basic checks regularly, and it’s generally easy to do yourself.

  • Make sure that you are using the right fluids and lubricants, as specified by your automaker. Engine oils, automatic transmission fluids, engine coolants, and other drivetrain fluids have all evolved significantly, and there are a wide variety of different types, depending on the needs of the car. Using the wrong type can cause serious damage. (See “All About Fluids” section below.)

  • Find a reputable, quality auto repair shop and use it for all your maintenance and repair needs. The temptation to go to a “quick lube” place for a “simple” oil change is compelling—it seems faster and cheaper. It’s not necessarily either of these things. Your regular mechanic is like your regular doctor. They get to know you and your car, and can become your trusted automotive advisors.

  • Keep good service records. Save all your hard-copy records in a folder and/or use an online application to track maintenance. AAA’s AutoManager (aaa.com/AutoManager) is a great tool for keeping track of maintenance schedules. The application guides you through a series of questions about your car, and the information you provide yields a tailored maintenance and reminder schedule to meet your needs.

     

Final Words: Become your own best advocate
The more you know about your car, its components and its needs, the better you are able to avoid getting “taken for a ride” at a service station. Your owner’s manual and/or maintenance booklet should always be your first source. This way, you’ll know what the people who actually designed and built the car recommend and require, and you won’t base your maintenance decisions on just someone else’s opinion.

 

 

However, if you feel like you’ve been “wallet flushed” by a repair shop, maybe it’s time to find a new one. AAA is a go-to source for rigorously examined and “AAA-approved” shops, and if you see that “AAA Approved Auto Repair” sign hanging outside the garage, you can be assured that you’re going to get quality service. And if you have any other questions about your car, you can always rely on the experts at AAA for answers.

 

 

By following the above basics, you will save money, avoid over-maintenance and become less of a target for “wallet flush.” For more in-depth information, see the Common Mechanical Needs series.

 

There are few things many of us spend more time looking at than a windshield. And these days, there’s a lot more in front of your eyes than you might realize. With design elements affecting everything from sight to sound, fuel efficiency and safety, modern windshields - and auto glass in general - haven’t been overlooked as vehicle technology rolls forward.

 

It’s not just new features, either. More and more vehicles are being built with advanced glass technology.

 

The percentage of windshields that are heated or have acoustic features has been growing steadily over the years, and that trend is expected to continue.

 

“The trick for the future, I think, is making glass as safe, as quiet and as thin as possible,” said John Paul, traffic safety manager for AAA Southern New England. Here’s a bit more on the different ways auto glass is shaping today’s driving experience:

 

Rain sensors: While these detectors aren’t exactly cutting-edge technology, AAA Auto Glass Manager Brent Golden said many drivers don’t realize this tool is included in their vehicles. The sensor, as its name implies, causes wipers to react to the amount of moisture striking the windshield.

 

Heated windshields: If you can’t stand scraping ice off your window every winter – and you don’t like waiting for the defroster – this option is for you. Some heated windshields offer a heating element toward the bottom of the glass while others look more like a rear defroster, with thin wires. The windshield is attached to a vehicle and, as the heating element warms up, ice and snow begin to melt away.

 

Solar coated: These windshields often include a special layer that helps moderate temperature, meaning there’s less need for air conditioning and subsequently, better fuel efficiency. The coating can also help block harmful UV rays.

 

Acoustics: Today’s windshields are made of two sheets of safety glass with a layer of plastic laminated between them. Some windshields have a slightly thicker sheet that cuts down on outside traffic and road noise. This glass also assists with voice-activated controls and features.

 

Laminated side windows: Windshields have long been laminated for safety. It’s why the sheets of glass will typically form a spider-web shape upon impact. Many rear windows and side windows, however, have traditionally been made from tempered glass. That’s why those sheets shatter into little pieces upon impact. Golden said some manufacturers have started installing laminated glass for side and rear windows. One advantage? A passenger is less likely to be ejected from a vehicle if the window cracks instead of shattering.

 

Roof glass: Along with larger windshields and sunroofs, motorists may have noticed more and more glass on vehicle roofs. One reason for this trend is that glass roofs can make a vehicle feel bigger when many models are shrinking in size to gain fuel economy.

 

Heads-up display: Lane departure sensors and heads-up displays are just some of the newest features coming to a windshield near you. Some windshields require special inner-layer reflectors for these displays, which project information into a driver’s line of sight, while other glass needs to be made to interact properly with these features.

 

By George Morse

Square, barcode-type links called QR codes – often used in advertising to connect smartphone and tablet users with a website or other information through a quick, simple scan – are now being used by a car manufacturer as a potential life-saving device in vehicles.

 

 

Mercedes-Benz has begun outfitting its cars with the codes to help keep rescue personnel and vehicle crash victims safe. Once scanned, the links provide quick access to a vehicle's rescue sheet, detailing information such as airbag, battery and fuel tank locations.

 

 

"Electronic access by means of a QR code enables Mercedes-Benz to support in the rescue of accident victims," said Christian Treiber, director of service and parts for passenger cars at Mercedes-Benz Global Service and Parts.

 

 

Jeffery Larkowski is a firefighter and paramedic for the Dennis Fire Department and he likes the feature. Larkowski said he's seen more accidents than he can keep track of during his 18-year career, and finding a rescue sheet in a vehicle is "rare as rare can be."

 

 

"We definitely need this kind of technology at our fingertips," Larkowski said, adding that manufacturers are putting equipment such as batteries in all kinds of locations nowadays.

 

 

"When you start getting into the vehicles within the last few years, there's been so many changes. Honestly, it's a risky maneuver sometimes because they're putting airbags in all the spots we normally cut and they're putting the charge for the airbags in spots we normally cut. … There are more electric and hybrids, and they're running wires, in some cases, again, where we would cut."

 

 

The first time he drove a car equipped with an airbag, AAA Southern New England Traffic Safety Manager John Paul said the safety feature was housed solely in the steering wheel.

 

Today is a different story.

 

 

"They're all over the place, in the doors, in the roof, between the seats. There's even an airbag that protects a passenger's knees by firing off from underneath the dashboard," Paul said.

 

 

Not only does knowing the layout of a vehicle's equipment help keep passengers safe during a rescue, Larkowski said, it also protects rescue personnel. "The days of a 12-volt battery and a 20-gallon gas tank being the only real thing you had to worry about in a car, those days are gone," Paul said. Mercedes-Benz, a Daimler brand, is placing its QR codes on both sides of vehicles, including one inside the fuel filler flap and another affixed to the B-pillar, the support between a car’s front- and rear-door windows.

 

 

"They're so far apart from each other, it's rare that both spots would be damaged," Larkowski said.

 

 

The manufacturer began placing the codes as standard procedure in all new cars since the end of 2013 and onto Smart cars, another Daimler brand, since January. Those who own an earlier model or who purchased a used vehicle can also have their vehicles equipped with the QR codes, which can be installed at authorized Mercedes-Benz or Smart service stations on models 1990 and newer. 

 

 

While a cellphone or tablet will initially require an Internet connection to retrieve the information, an app allowing the card to be read without such a hookup is slated for later this year.

 

 

Mercedes-Benz has waived its right to a patent application for the feature, allowing others to adopt the QR codes. If others do follow suit, Larkowski said, it would be incredible.

 

 

By George Morse

No Wheels? No Worries! Just Share.

 

In North America and around the world, car sharing is a growing business. As of January 2013, there were 900,000 car-sharing program members in the United States, according to a summer 2013 market outlook from the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. That figure was up from about 806,000 in July 2012 and roughly 560,000 in July 2011.

 

 

Worldwide, membership grew from about 346,000 in 2006 to 1.78 million in 2012. Hertz began offering hourly car rental service more than five-and-a-half years ago, and much like the car-sharing landscape in general, its program has expanded significantly.

 

 

In June 2013, the company announced the global launch of Hertz 24/7. The service is aimed at bringing car-sharing technology and global car rental capabilities together to create an "anytime, anywhere, any car" rental service.

 

 

By 2016, the company estimates it will have "self-serve" vehicles within minutes of most Americans and a 24/7 fleet of 500,000 vehicles worldwide available for rent by the hour, day, week or month.

 

 

At the time of the announcement, the 24/7 fleet totaled about 35,000 vehicles. When the original program launched in 2008, the pay-as-you-go membership club had fewer than two dozen locations worldwide. Hertz 24/7 was scheduled to be in more than 2,000 locations worldwide by the end of last year.

 

 

The program allows customers to rent vehicles at any time, day or night. Driving on a pay-as-you-go basis, said Hertz Public Affairs Manager Paula Rivera, offers an economical, convenient and socially conscious alternative to car ownership.

 

 

Every 24/7 vehicle, according to Hertz, eliminates about 14 personal vehicles from the road. "Customers can enjoy a car when they need it, where they need it, without the hassle and high expense of owning a car," Rivera said. Hertz 24/7 offers a full range of vehicles, including electric vehicles. After enrolling in the program, customers receive a smart chip-enabled card providing keyless access to a reserved vehicle, which can be found by searching either online at  Hertz 247.com or on a smartphone.

 

 

Vehicles include a hands-free audio kit connecting them to an in-house member care center for questions, assistance or rental extension. Hourly driving rates include insurance, fuel and maintenance, among other features. Rivera said Hertz continually evaluates where vehicles are located to meet customer needs.

 

 

By George Morse