Good morning! Welcome to The Morning Shift, your roundup of the auto news you crave, all in one place every weekday morning. Here are the important stories you need to know.
1st Gear: The Quake, Again
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan’s Fukushima prefecture was a disaster for both the environment and the automotive industry. So naturally, when a similar (but much smaller) incident happened there yesterday, eyes turned to the plants in the area.
For now, this doesn’t appear to be the devastating incident we saw five years ago. Reuters reports that Nissan has merely suspended work at a nearby engine plant, but that no injuries or damage to the plant occurred. The plant was badly damaged in 2011.
Also from Reuters, here’s how Japan put into place the lessons it learned in 2011:
On Tuesday, when a magnitude 7.4 quake hit the same area, the country swung into action, using lessons learned in the March 11, 2011, disaster to ensure coastal residents evacuated well before the much smaller waves hit.
In 2011, warning broadcasts were mostly limited to television, radio, and city officials on loudspeakers, with volunteer firemen in trucks roaming the roads, telling residents to flee to higher ground.
But on the day now known as “3/11,” some of these failed due to power outages after the magnitude 9.0 quake, while many firefighters were killed when the waves - 30 meters (100 feet) high in places - rushed ashore.
“A lot of people told us they weren’t able to hear any of the broadcasts, the waves were bigger than expected, and many went back after the first one to check things out,” said Tsunetaka Omine, a disaster official in Iwaki, a city where around 460 residents died in 2011.
That’s good news, at least.
2nd Gear: Volkswagen 2.0: Electric Boogaloo
Crossovers and electric vehicles! That’s how Volkswagen aims to come back in America. Actually, not just come back, but “evolve from a niche supplier” into a larger mainstream brand, as this Bloomberg story puts it. It’s all about the U.S. market and it’s all about profitability from here on out.
The North American push is part of a sweeping overhaul to improve profitability at VW, one of the auto industry’s least efficient brands. Under the new strategy, the German carmaker’s biggest unit plans to more than triple its profit margin to 6 percent and increase sales of electric cars to 1 million vehicles per year by 2025. Efforts to boost the margin are critical as Volkswagen faces at least 18.2 billion euros of fines and repairs in the wake of the emissions crisis.
To help cover those damages and the cost of developing battery-powered and self-driving technologies, VW reached a landmark agreement with workers last week, to cut as many as 30,000 jobs worldwide and slash 3.7 billion euros of expenses. The electric-car transition will be funded in part by eliminating more than 2.5 billion euros of costs by scrapping underperforming conventional models, while the annual investment budget will remain stable at about 4.5 billion euros, the company said.
And here’s brand chief Herbert Diess:
“Over the next few years, Volkswagen will change radically. Very few things will stay as they are,” Diess said. “The electric car will become the strategic core of the VW brand.”
The next few years should be very interesting to watch.
3rd Gear: Fiat Slashes Prices
Speaking of other brands struggling in the U.S. at the moment, Fiat is set to cut prices on new models by more than 20 percent in some cases for the 2017 model year, reports Automotive News. The Italian brand has had a hard time moving metal here, as customers have shifted away from small adorable cars to big tough hulking trucks and crossovers.
The new pricing structure was hinted at but not detailed earlier this year when Tim Kuniskis, head of passenger car brands for Fiat Chrysler, met in March with North American Fiat dealers at a special meeting in Detroit to save the struggling brand.
The document sent to Fiat dealers this month shows the price for a base-level Fiat 500 Pop minicar — in what is described as the “2017MY showroom” — dropping from $16,995 to $14,995, excluding the current $995 shipping fee.
It also details a Fiat showroom that will have far fewer trim levels across its four-car lineup and fewer places where prices of similar cars overlap each other.
One example is a drop of as much as $5,205 in the price of the convertible 500 minicar, the 500C, as the brand makes the droptop a $1,495 option across all trims next year. That reduces the price of the top-end 500 Abarth Cabrio from $26,695 this year to $21,490 in 2017, before shipping charges.
The good news out of all of this is it means you can now get a 500 Abarth hardtop, about the most fun car in the universe, for under $20,000—and that’s before any dealer discounts and incentives you can nail down. Bring the noise!
4th Gear: Seat Belt Use Way Up
According to a new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 90 percent of all drivers in the U.S. use their seat belts these days. That’s good! Who’s the 10 percent who don’t? Idiots. From the Detroit Free Press:
Media coverage has focused more on new safety technologies such as automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control. But there is no more effective safety device than a seat belt, said Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator.
“We are encouraged by this progress, but with so many people still dying in crashes because they are not wearing their seat belts, we will not rest until we reach 100%,” Rosekind said in a statement.
According to the NHTSA, seat belts saved nearly 14,000 lives during 2015 and an estimated 345,000 lives since 1975.
There’s room for improvement. Nearly half of people killed in crashes in 2015 — 48% — were not wearing a seat belt. When used properly, lap/shoulder belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45%, and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50%.
Wear your seat belts, you goons!
5th Gear: Michigan Governor To Sign Autonomous Car Bills
Come test and buy your autonomous cars here in Michigan, says Gov. Rick Snyder, who wants the state to remain competitive in the auto sector as Silicon Valley looms large over everything. Here’s the package of bills he’s set to sign soon, via The Detroit News:
The proposed laws would allow the public to buy and use fully driverless cars whenever they are available. Autonomous vehicles currently can only be driven in Michigan for test purposes, and a driver must be at-the-ready. The laws also would allow ride-sharing services without drivers to be operated by auto manufacturers or by ride-hailing services such as Lyft or Uber.
The legislation has the support of major automakers and suppliers, many House lawmakers and Snyder, who has said driverless-car testing and operations are crucial for helping Michigan keep its economic edge and remain the automotive capital of the world after years of economic hardship.
They are meant to be open to adjustment to changing technologies and situations.
“We’re not going to take our eye off that ball,” Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth. “As technologies change ... we want to be able to move at the speed of business at this point, when it comes to these. We’re going to follow up with other bills for the social ramifications of autonomous vehicles.”
Reverse: The First Mercedes
Neutral: Are Michigan’s Coming Autonomobile Laws A Good Thing?
Is the state making the right move here?