The feds are looking into Tesla’s troublesome Smart Summon feature, the Model 3 is crushing it in the Netherlands, Toyota is revamping a sedan plant to keep up with SUV demand, a glimmer of hope among poor sales numbers and more for The Morning Shift of Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.
1st Gear: The Feds Are Looking Into Tesla’s ‘Smart Summon’ Issues
Tesla’s clever, but also apparently-flawed Smart Summon feature is now being scrutinized by the U.S. government’s auto regulatory arm, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Reuters reports.
Tesla says its new Smart Summon feature allows owners to, with just the press (and hold) of a button on a smartphone app, “enable their car to navigate a parking lot and come to them or their destination of choice, as long as their car is within their line of sight.”
The system seems like a fun and sometimes useful idea, but a number of users have voiced complaints, even shooting video of their vehicles getting confused and, in some cases, crashing into objects at low speeds. Smart Summon is supposed to use the vehicle’s sensors to detect and avoid obstacles.
U.S. regulators are looking into parking lot crashes involving Tesla Inc (TSLA.O) cars driving themselves to their owners using the company’s Smart Summon feature, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said on Wednesday.
Asked about reports of crashes, NHTSA said it “is aware of reports related to Tesla’s Summon feature. We are in ongoing contact with the company and we continue to gather information. Safety is NHTSA’s top priority and the agency will not hesitate to act if it finds evidence of a safety-related defect.”
We’ve already written a few stories on the problems Teslarians are having with Smart Summon, because the problems appear to be numerous, even if the folks having issues may really only represent a small fraction of the total population, as Tesla boss Elon Musk seems to imply in the tweet below:
Smart Summon was released along with Tesla’s newest “Version 10" software update, which includes the note: “You are still responsible for your car and must monitor it and its surroundings at all times.”
Automotive News spoke with Jason Levine, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, the very-serious-about-safety non-profit consumer advocacy group started by Ralph Nader and Consumers Union. Unsurprisingly, Levine was rather critical of Tesla’s feature, which Tesla apparently states should only be used on private land—a rule that precludes most parking lots and spaces, and you know won’t be followed by everyone.
From Auto News:
Levine said he hopes NHTSA takes immediate action to stop the technology from being used in public spaces, but isn’t optimistic.
“Is NHTSA going to successfully get Tesla to send out a new software update?” he said. “We would be surprised to see that happen.”
He said the center will continue to monitor Smart Summon complaints and information as it’s made available.
“We don’t know yet how these features will work in some circumstances,” Levine said. “Tesla continues to beta test on live human beings who have not agreed to be a part of this experiment and that is dangerous.”
We’ve reached out to Tesla, and will update the story with the company’s response.
2nd Gear: The Good News For Tesla Is That Its Model 3 Outsold All Other Cars In The Netherlands
On a more positive note than two-ton sedans crashing into curbs at low speeds is news that the Tesla Model 3 is the best selling car in the Netherlands, beating out the staple of Europe’s roadways, the Volkswagen Polo. This comes from Bloomberg, which writes:
Tesla Inc.’s Model 3 has vaulted past the VW Polo to become the best-selling model in the Netherlands, making the country the manufacturer’s most important market in Europe.
The California-based carmaker sold 5,768 units of its most affordable sedan during September, an almost four-fold jump from August, according to Dutch motor traders association Bovag. Demand for the Model 3 also made Tesla the most popular car brand in the country for the month.
Those aren’t exactly high volumes, but still: The Tesla Model 3 is the best selling car in an entire country! (Actually, two, as Inside EVs says the Model 3 is tops in Norway as well). That’s wild, and it appears to apply not just to September, but for the entire calendar year.
This does make sense, of course, considering the Netherlands ‘ heavy electric vehicle incentives, which a representative for leasing firm ALD Automotive Netherlands told Bloomberg may soon be disappearing. That could be part of the reason why so many folks have been rushing out to get their hands on Teslas recently. Also, the Model 3 is an awesome car.
It will be interesting to see if Tesla’s dominance will be challenged with the launch of the new Volkswagen ID.3, which should undercut the ~43,000 Euro (~$47,000) Model 3 in pricing by quite a bit.
3rd Gear: Sedan Sales Are So Bad That Toyota Is Revamping Its Car Plant To Also Build SUVs
Toyota’s largest automobile manufacturing plant on earth is located in Georgetown, Kentucky, where the company builds Camrys, Avalons, Lexus ES350s, as well as engines, steering parts, and axles. Called “Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Kentucky,” the 8.1 million-square-foot facility can make up to 550,000 automobiles according to Toyota.
That’s a lot of capacity for a plant building the one type of car that seems to be falling more and more out of favor with the American buying public: sedans.
That’s why Toyota is making some changes. From Bloomberg:
Georgetown is fighting to hold on to its status as Toyota’s biggest plant globally as demand for its sedans has plummeted and the three-decade-old factory deals with high fixed costs, falling productivity, and the rise of a network of sibling plants in North America churning out more popular crossovers, SUVs, and trucks.
Toyota boosted annual capacity at its Kentucky facility to 550,000 vehicles with the addition of a third assembly line in 2015 for a Lexus luxury sedan that shares parts with the Camry. But it’s only cleared the half-million production mark once since then—it made 500,766 vehicles in 2016. In 2018, Georgetown’s production totaled 430,224 cars, a sign of rapidly changing auto tastes. Now, says Jim Jordan, an engineering manager in charge of the plant’s RAV4 project, the focus is on bringing the plant up to capacity. “That’s a point of pride for us,” he says.
That’s meant investing $238 million in Kentucky to add the RAV4 hybrid as well as a hybrid version of the Lexus ES sedan, bringing Toyota’s total investment in the plant to $7 billion since it was first announced in 1985.
Check out Bloomberg for the full story on how Toyota’s biggest plant is making major changes to stay competitive not just in terms of vehicle output, but also quality and efficiency.
4th Gear: Active Safety Features Have Limitations
It seems like every new vehicle press release includes at least a paragraph on active safety features, which are becoming more and more common on new cars. That’s a great thing, as these features—like pedestrian automatic emergency braking systems—have the potential to save lives. They also have the potential to fail, which is what a new report from the Wall Street Journal aims to highlight, citing how a recent AAA study noted inconsistent pedestrian-detection behavior and poor performance at night. From the Journal:
For the AAA study, testers picked four sedan models—the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Tesla Model 3—and put the cars through scenarios meant to replicate some of the most dangerous situations for pedestrians. One test, for instance, simulates a child darting out from between parked cars, and another involves an adult crossing the road as the vehicle turns right.
At 20 miles an hour, the cars struggled with each test, AAA found. The child was struck 89% of the time, and all of the cars hit the pedestrian dummy after making a right turn. The systems were generally ineffective if the car was going 30 mph. The systems were also completely ineffective at night, Mr. Brannon said, the deadliest time for pedestrians. Three-quarters of all pedestrian fatalities occur after dark, according to AAA.
When testers drove the cars directly at a dummy crossing the road in the dark, however, the system failed not only to stop or slow the car but also to provide any alert of a pedestrian’s presence before a collision.
I haven’t gone through the particulars of this study, so I can’t verify its methods, but it’s still important to note that all of this tech has limitations—limitations that automakers try to make clear to customers, with Honda and GM responding to the Wall Street Journal’s request for comment with:
Honda said it takes steps to warn customers of the technology’s limitations in the owner’s manual and recommends drivers pay attention and maintain control of their vehicles at all times. General Motors Co. , maker of the Malibu, said its active safety technologies benefit customers but the features don’t replace the primary responsibility of the driver.
The main takeaway is that AAA is concerned that marketing might lead people to think the tech is more effective than it really is.
5th Gear: The Analysts Want To Believe
Yesterday we wrote that “the collapse might finally be here,” referring to the U.S. car market after some pretty bad September monthly sales figures from darn near every automaker.
Fiat Chrysler and GM were down 10 percent year over year in September, Ford dropped nearly 12 percent, Toyota was down a whopping 17 percent, Subaru was down 9 percent, and it goes on. Things just weren’t good last month, except for at some brands like Buick, which somehow was the only GM marque that didn’t get crushed. From Automotive News:
Buick was the only GM brand to stay in the black in September. Buick deliveries rose an estimated 4.8 percent, with boosts in Encore and Envision demand.
But car sales are hugely affected by seasonal swings, which is why there exists a metric called the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate, which aims to “clean up” those swings to give a better indication of the health of the car market.
Still, the seasonally adjusted annual sales rate came in at a robust 17.16 million.
Blame the calendar for some of the damage. September had two fewer selling days than the year-earlier month. More critically, sales around the critical Labor Day weekend this year were counted as part of August’s tally.
That quirk helped lift August’s industry total 10 percent ahead of their year-ago pace, the industry’s biggest monthly increase in almost three years.
But that was given back in September, as sales fell 12 percent, according to Automotive News Data Center estimates that take into account third-quarter tallies reported Wednesday by General Motors, Ford Motor Co., and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. The SAAR, which factors out the calendar swings, topped 17 million for the fifth time this year.
A representative for an auto forecasting company told the news site:
“As the global sales outlook continues to weaken, light-vehicle demand in the U.S. remains robust,” said Jeff Schuster, head of global vehicle forecasts at LMC Automotive.
Robust. That sounds okay to me.
Anyway, we’re sure the dealers and automakers are freaking out and are looking for reasons to be optimistic, and SAAR may just be that. But we’ll see how the actual sales figures play out. We still have three months to go this year.
Reverse: The Transistor Is Patented
These things are used to control the flow of current, so as you can imagine, they’re pretty much everywhere in both ICE cars and EVs:
Neutral: How Much Do You Rely On Active Safety Features?
That AAA study seems to imply that automakers market their safety features in such a way that downplays their limitations. But I wonder: How much do you actually rely on the safety features? Obviously, if there’s someone in front of you, you should apply the brakes even if you have automatic emergency braking. But what about things like blind-spot detection and backup cameras—do you still look when you turn and reverse?