L.A. Auto Show to serve as stage for vehicles, technologies
On any Saturday afternoon, the unlikely mix of exotic coupes, vintage woodies and electric cars sharing Pacific Coast Highway makes clear why Southern California is the center of U.S. car culture.
A similarly diverse array of machinery has made the Los Angeles Auto Show the premier stage for both cutting-edge green cars and sportier offerings designed to carve up that famous coastal road.
This year’s show, the first North American showcase of the model year, starts Wednesday for the media and opens to the public Friday at the downtown convention center. It will feature two dozen world debuts, including Porsche’s redesigned 2014 Cayman sports car, a hardtop counterpart to the Boxster convertible; and Toyota Motor Corp.'s latest RAV-4, a leading small sport utility vehicle.
Acura will unveil an all-new flagship sedan, powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine making 310 horsepower. Hyundai Motor Co. will show off a special concept car it says was designed with California car culture front of mind.
On the electric front, Chevrolet will reveal its Spark EV, which will have more power, torque and speed than the gas-powered version of the same car. General Motors Co. says the car will jump from a start to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds, which will make it one of the fastest EVs on the market (though still slow compared with the pricier, made-in-California Tesla Model S). Likewise, Fiat will show off an electric version of its 500 mini-car.
If you go to the show, or just want to track the latest in the auto industry, here are five new technologies to watch.
They have been tried before in America with little success. But a new generation of small, powerful engines will soon make inroads in cars that have traditionally needed at least a four-banger.
Ford Motor Co. will show off its small Fiesta with a new turbocharged three-cylinder engine that produces 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque — more powerful than the car’s current base four-cylinder. The car may also achieve fuel economy north of 40 mpg.
Shrinking the engine size and weight without losing power is a key goal of automotive engineering, said Andrew Fraser, one of the Ford engineers who developed the power plant.
“It’s a virtuous circle,” Fraser said. “As you reduce the weight of the engine, everything else on the vehicle can be lighter, and you get better weight distribution and it drives better. Resistance to turning the car is largely determined by the weight in the front of it.”
That’s why many high-end sports cars have a mid-engine, he said, and why 50-50 weight distribution is seen as the holy grail of car design, creating nimble handling.
Other manufacturers — including BMW and Volkswagen — are working with three-cylinder engines that they may introduce in the U.S. market in coming years. The three-cylinder Ford Fiesta goes on sale in the U.S. in the second half of next year.
Automakers typically embed features such as navigation and voice recognition in dashboards so they can charge as much as $2,000 for the options. Chevrolet is taking a different approach with its smallest and least expensive cars, the Spark and the Sonic.
These vehicles come with a 7-inch color touch screen and GM’s MyLink, which allows drivers to purchase a $50 BringGo smartphone app to display a navigation program and traffic updates. This has virtually all of the information drivers would find in an embedded navigation system, including emergency information for police and the nearest hospital, points of interest, maps and turn-by-turn directions.
The MyLink system enables car owners to bring other apps to the vehicle such as Pandora and Stitcher radio services.
“This makes the car an extension of your smartphone,” said Sara LeBlanc, global program manager for Chevrolet and General Motors infotainment. “It is an incredible deal when compared to the cost of an aftermarket Garmin or embedded navigation system.”
So why don’t automakers do this with all of their cars?
Not everyone has an Android or Apple smartphone, LeBlanc said. GM can take this approach because Spark demographics skew so young, and 90% of the target market has a smartphone, she said. But only about half of Chevrolet Malibu buyers have the phones, and GM can’t afford to alienate the buyers who don’t by not offering a navigation and voice recognition option.
LeBlanc, however, said she wouldn’t be surprised if systems like these gain popularity because of their convenience and cost savings.
“The radio is a perfect example of change at GM,” LeBlanc said. “We didn’t tell our customers what they should have. Instead we listened to what they want.”
Smart tire air pressure sensors
The fastest way to improve fuel economy is to make sure tires are properly inflated. But few drivers actually check the air pressure regularly. Even if they do, hand-held gauges from the auto parts store aren’t always accurate, and it’s likely the gauges at the gas station were last calibrated in the Model T era.
So Continental, the tire and automotive electronics company, has come up with an app for its air pressure sensor system that makes this a lot easier. You can find it on the Nissan Altima, Pathfinder, Quest and Infiniti JX.
When the tire-pressure warning system alerts a driver, a display shows the pressure and the relevant tire or tires. As the driver fills the low tire, the car’s four-way flashers confirm proper air flow and the horn beeps when the tire is full.
If the driver overinflates the tire, the flashers blink faster and the horn beeps three times. The horn chirps again after enough air is let out.
The Continental system also will work with a smartphone, showing the air pressure of each tire and displaying a meter that rises as you inflate the tires to the proper level. But Nissan said it needs to work out connectivity issues with different brands of smartphones before offering that feature.
These systems are showing up in many models, and not just the luxury cars that seem to get all the best technology first. They work in a couple of ways, usually with a light on a side-view mirror that alerts the driver that a car is approaching, making a lane change unsafe.
The 2013 Honda Accord and Crosstour boast one of the more interesting systems. When a driver signals to make a right turn or change lanes, Honda’s LaneWatch system uses a camera mounted on the passenger mirror to provide an enhanced view of the passenger-side roadway on the dashboard screen. Honda Executive Vice President John Mendel says the real-time video view prevents “the risk of false warnings found in some other systems.”
The systems are often coupled with a program that alerts drivers who start to wander from their lanes. The latest Cadillacs use vibrating pulse patterns in the seat cushion to alert the driver to potential dangers, such as drifting from a lane or getting too close to objects while parking.
Collision avoidance systems
These systems use various sensors to anticipate collision risks and take evasive action. Many luxury cars feature such systems, but they are also trickling down to cheaper models with higher-end option packages.
The systems work, according to the insurance industry, which has studied comparative crash frequency. The Highway Loss Data Institute estimates that if all passenger vehicles were equipped with just four sensor-based alert systems — forward collision warning, lane departure warning, blind-spot detection and adaptive headlights that pivot in the direction of travel, about 1 in 3 fatal crashes and 1 out of 5 injury crashes could be prevented or made less severe.
The forward collision warning system can sense when the car is closing in on a vehicle or obstacle. Such systems will typically send signals, including warning chimes and seat-cushion vibrations, to alert drivers to the risk of collision. They will trigger the brakes and tighten seat belts to help reduce the impact on occupants if a crash becomes unavoidable. Cadillac, Toyota, Lexus and Acura offer versions of this system on some of their models.
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