Weekly Brief: Obama pledges $4Bn to self-driving cars at Detroit Auto Show

President Obama means business with self-driving cars — to the tune of four billion dollars. Amid all the shiny concept cars at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, despite new flagship sedans from Volvo, Lincoln and Hyundai and the year’s biggest electric car debut from Chevrolet (The Bolt), this was the headline news from America’s signature auto show.

US Department of Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx was in Detroit to announce that Obama has earmarked $4Bn (£2.8Bn) over 10 years to support the creation and testing of self-driving cars and the technologies that spark them. In addition, within six months the National Highway Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA) will propose best-practice guidance for safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles. NHTSA will also start to work with individual states to craft laws in a nationally consistent manner, thus expediting the regulatory process for carmakers.

"We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people," said Secretary Foxx.

Speaking of emissions, the Detroit Auto Show also served as podium for the newly tapped CEO of embattled Volkswagen, Matthias Mueller, to issue a formal apology to the US public for its diesel emissions cheating scandal. He did just this — and then turned around and recanted everything in a follow-up interview with NPR, in which he claimed that VW didn’t lie, this whole thing comes down to a tiny technical error and really isn’t all of this a bit overblown? Good start, Mueller.

Nonetheless, the mood in Detroit was upbeat thanks to record 2015 sales for the US car market. As Mercedes-Benz’s CEO Dieter Zetsche put it, while Santa gave VW coal last year, Mercedes got “a lot of candy in our stockings".

Zetsche was on hand to unveil the new 2017 E-Class, dubbed the most advanced car Mercedes-Benz has ever made. The car features a large digital media display that fuses the infotainment unit and the instrument cluster into one and can be controlled via touch sensitive panels on the driving wheel or a touchpad on the centre console. The car will also feature vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, evasive steering assist and semi-autonomous highway driving. Pricing unannounced; due out mid-summer 2016.

Audi tried to skirt its parent company’s (VW’s) blunders by spotlighting a fancy hydrogen-powered concept car. The car has two electric motors on its front and rear axles, which take a collective four minutes to charge. That’s game-changer material. The h-tron Quattro won’t be out until at least 2018, so we’ll have to wait and see what a consumer-ready version looks like, but waving goodbye to hours of charging time could be the roadblock buster that EVs are looking for.

Sticking on the electrified front, Chevrolet elected to debut its new Bolt EV last week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show, a minor hometown snub, but the car still carried lots of buzz into Detroit. And why not? The Bolt is being called the first EV for the masses, claiming to deliver a range above 200 miles on single charge, without breaking the bank Tesla-style in the process. The Bolt starts below $30k.

We’ve been tough on Ford the past few weeks for remaining far too ambiguous about its mobile ambitions. In Detroit, the automaker began to redeem itself with a new mobile platform, FordPass, which sees itself as the new iTunes of the automotive world. Just as people use iTunes for everything from music downloads to iCloud backups to TV, Ford wants to offer drivers a single mobile platform that manages their entire digital automotive experience. This includes remotely starting cars and setting cabin temperatures, reserve and paying for parking spots (via Ford’s new mobile payment platform, Ford Pay), and coordinate rideshare pickups. The app, due out in April, is free for all drivers (not just Ford customers) and features live chats with FordGuides to help troubleshoot problems on the move.

Finally, 2015 was an ugly year for automotive cyber security, what with one embarrassing cyber breach after another cropping up in the news. 2016 is off to a better start. In addition to Obama’s autonomous support, secretary Foxx announced that every carmaker operating in the US has agreed to collaborate with each other and the government to help beef up in-car security and stop car hackings before they start.

The idea is to make information about threats and dangers as transparent and fluid as possible within the carmaker community and to encourage the integration of the right equipment to mitigate attacks. The companies will all coordinate with industry group Auto-ISAC to make this happen. Participating automakers are: Honda, BMW, Ford, GM, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.


The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU analysis with information from industry press releases.

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