4 Automakers Agree to Cleaner California Air. Now They May Be Sued.

Is this crazy, or what: Four automakers face a Department of Justice investigation and possible lawsuit because they possibly conspired to, uh, build more fuel-efficient cars and help make California’s air cleaner. BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen are the reported targets of a Justice Department investigation into whether they skirted federal competition laws by agreeing with each other to agree to stricter emissions standards in California.

President Trump is mad at California and automakers standing in the way of his administration’s plan to roll back climate change regulations. It’s possible the DOJ is onto something if it can show the automakers agreed among themselves to act in a way that limits competition or product choices without involving the government beforehand. For instance, reducing the number of big SUVs sold there may be good for the air, but it might be seen as collusion.

States’ Rights vs. Executive Power

At a high level, the disagreement is over the rights of states to set a higher standard for higher fuel efficiency and lower air pollution–in this case, a right granted by federal laws (rather the 10th Amendment holding the “powers not delegated to the United States [are] reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”), and on the other hand, the powers of the executive branch.

The law at play here is the federal Clean Air Act, which dates to the 1960s. It has been modified over the years. It says the feds, not individual states, get to set clean air regulations. But there’s a huge loophole: Because California is the state most affected by car-driven air pollution since the end of World War II, the act lets California set more stringent standards. And it allows the other states to follow the same rules California sets (but not its own rules). Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico (model year 2011 and newer), New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington currently use California’s rules. These states represent the entire Pacific West Coast as well as the eastern seaboard from Maine to Washington, DC, and about a third of the US population. For what it’s worth, every California-rules state except Pennsylvania went for Clinton, not Trump, in the 2016 election.

In 2018, President Trump sought to roll back or freeze some fuel economy and air pollution standards. California wants to keep stricter rules. California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who was involved in the July agreement with the four automakers, says California’s emissions goals are achievable and they help US automakers because other countries, particularly China, hew closely to California’s rules. In other words, even if the US were to roll back standards, any automaker that wants a global footprint still has to engineer cars to meet the most stringent standards.

Trump “Enraged.” California Gov: “Political Interference.”

The President used his bully pulpit — Twitter — to excoriate BMW-Ford-Honda-VW. He called them “politically correct Automobile Companies [capitalizations his]” run by “Foolish executives” while the Golden State “will squeeze … [automakers] to a point of business ruin.”

Trump also tweeted that “Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well.” Pollution controls will increase vehicle cost — $3,000 a car according to Trump, or $2,100 a car by the Trump administration’s earlier statements. Factcheck.org said there’s little or no evidence that cars with higher mpg are less safe in accidents.

Lighter cars in accidents with heavier vehicles fare less well, but economy improvements could come from greater efficiencies rather than lightening a vehicle. At the same time, a lighter car does less damage to another lighter-weight car.

Consumer Reports weighed in and said Americans as a group will lose $460 billion in fuel savings “in the coming years if the federal government goes forward with plans to roll back the nation’s fuel economy and emissions standards for new cars and light-duty trucks.”

When The New York Times reported Trump was “enraged” by the audacity of California, his handlers opted to alert others in the media that The Times has correctly captured the President’s mood, according to Politico. California Gov. Gavin Newsom fired back at Trump’s “blatant political interference.”

Administration critics of the BMW-Ford-Honda-VW deal with California say the deal to raise fuel efficiency could mean the end of big SUVs and crossovers. Here, the 2019 Ford Expedition, with three rows of seats, room for eight, and EPA ratings of 18-20 mpg overall. The pact would raise efficiency to almost 50 mpg by 2026, although fuel efficiency mpg is higher than real-world mpg.

How It Came to This

The backstory dates to the early 1950s and the understanding almost 70 years ago of how smog affects California, to California clean air legislation signed by then Gov. Ronald Reagan, federal fuel economy and clean air legislation of the 1960s, and the California-US agreement thanks to the unique status of California and, in particular, the Los Angeles basin that traps smog.

California’s authority to act comes from the Clean Air Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon.

When the Trump administration sought to ease some of the clean air standards, 17 automakers urged the White House to continue talks with California and avoid a legal battle. They warned that failure to reach agreement would lead to “an extended period of litigation and instability.” Of the 17, BMW, Ford, Honda, VW continued to discuss with California their support for strong clean-air/higher-mpg standards. They announced an agreement in late July. That’s what enraged the President.

The agreement has the four automakers agreeing to increase fuel efficiency standards by model year 2026, just six years away, to almost 50 mpg (fleet average). Note that what the government calls miles per gallon is considerably higher than the real-world mpg compliant cars would actually get. Between credits and dispensations that are the work of accountants and legislators, not engineers, a vehicle that gets roughly 35-40 mpg would be, roughly, a 50-mpg car for sake of the rules.

According to a Sept. 6 Wall Street Journal story by Timothy Puko and Ben Foldy with the tagline Politics (not Cars):

The four companies [BMW, Ford, Honda, VW] and the California Air Resources Board announced the deal in July to signal support for keeping one, nationwide emissions standard. Justice Department officials believe the agreement could effectively restrict competition by potentially limiting the types of cars and trucks the auto companies offer to consumers, according to people familiar with the department’s thinking. Such an impact of the deal—potentially cutting production of sport-utility vehicles and crossovers that burn more gasoline—could cross legal lines, the people said. Courts have prohibited such deals even if the motivation was for a public good, the people said.

The automakers would also be hurting themselves because big SUVs and pickups often have profit margins on the order of $10,000 per vehicle. To keep selling them, they’ll need to sell even more compact cars and hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs.

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Will Tesla, GM, and Nissan Get a Second Shot at EV Tax Credits?

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A proposed expansion of the $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit has become another polarizing issue, both for fiscal conservatives (“boondoggle … don’t need it”) and liberals and environmental advocates (“an important tool to slow climate change”). It is of greatest interest to Tesla and General Motors, which have already hit the cap. GM is still in the wind-down phase, with a maximum one-quarter credit, or $1,875, for the six months starting next month. Nissan will likely hit the cap in 2-3 years. Ford and Toyota may get there by 2025.

A proposal in front of Congress would expand the tax credit by another 400,000 vehicles per automaker for a total of 600,000. The maximum tax credit would become $7,000, not $7,500, and it would continue t0 apply to purely electric vehicles as well as to plug-in hybrids, but not to hybrids that only go a mile or two on battery power.

Tesla and GM are already over the current cap of 200,000 vehicles eligible for a $7,500 (max) federal tax credit. The site evadoption.com estimates Nissan will get there in 2022 or 2023.

Bill Before Congress

Tax credits for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids have been available since 2010. Tesla, by far the largest seller of EVs in the US, has maxed out is tax credit allocation, and General Motors is winding down its tax credits during a 12-month phaseout period. (See below for more details.)

In April, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Susan Collins (R-ME), along with Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI), introduced the Driving America Forward Act that would extend the phaseout of the federal EV tax credit.  The legislation, if enacted, could include cars purchased between the phaseouts for Tesla and GM. Or not. Or it could be a partial credit, as people bought with little expectation of getting tax credit money. (But legislation with no provision for interim-period credits would drive EV sales close to zero in the months before passage.)

Proponents say the tax credits help drive buyers toward cleaner electrified vehicles during the period when battery technology is still costly. They note the government subsidizes other forms of energy-reducing transportation such as buses and commuter rail. There are subsidies for rebates for efficient houses, furnaces, appliances, and even light bulbs. (Some LED bulbs after energy company rebates are little more than $1 a bulb.)

While critics blame President Obama, the tax credit was passed in the George W. Bush administration, in the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008.

“Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years,” a Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal charges.

“It’s hard to imagine a more blatant income transfer for the well-to-do,” says a Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal, adding, “Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years.” Critics of EV tax credits include people who say the government shouldn’t be in the business of shaping buying decisions. Others — fewer each year — say climate change/global warming is a hoax. The foes got a boost this week with a Wall Street Journal lead editorial, “Subsidize My Electric Car, Please,” that claimed the tax credits mainly benefit the wealthy and that market forces should decide the fate of EVs.  Separately, Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) sent a letter to GOP senators urging them not to extend the EV tax credit.

Pro-EV credits people say the WSJ editorial made assertions that bear Snopes-style fact-checking, such as that “Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years” and claiming it’s a “blatant income transfer for the well-to-do [of EVs, which have] a starting price of around $36,000.” Facts are slippery things. The feds have underwritten energy research (many kinds) for decades, but the first EV/PHEV credits weren’t until 2010. The average vehicle in 2018 sold for about $38,000 (per Kelly Blue Book), including options. Also, while four in five EVs sell to people with household incomes over $100,000 (in 2016), many were higher-priced Teslas like the Model S and X. Also, the majority of EV transactions are leases where it’s hard to determine income.

A more valuable piece of information would be to know the income of people acquiring mainstream EVs such as the Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen e-Golf, Chevrolet Bolt EV, and Hyundai Kona Electric.

If legislation does pass — and it is not currently being fast-tracked — it’s possible the backers might agree to a reduced or zero tax credit for costly EVs. If somebody buys or leases a Porsche Taycan EV — starting price $152,000 — it’s safe to say they are not in the mainstream of American wage-earners. Legislation also faces uncertain odds of being signed by the President. EV credits flow especially to staunch blue states such as California more than, say, West Virginia (the reddest state of the 2016 election). For tax credit backers, the long game may be waiting to see which way the nation votes in 2020. If the Senate, House, and President all go Democratic, the odds of a tax credit reinstatement are higher. The winning arguments may revolve around climate change issues and supporting new technologies.

For 2019, however, the No. 1 automotive/climate change discussion revolves around how much control California and a dozen other states have in setting their own pollution rules. For decades, California, because of its unique pollution issues especially in the Los Angeles basin, has had the choice of following federal air pollution regulations or setting its own. Thirteen other states have chosen to use California’s emissions rules: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

In July, four automakers cut a deal with California to adopt even tougher tailpipe emission rules. That effectively snubbed President Trump’s goal of a standards rollback.

Rules for the EV Tax Credit

The tax credit for an EV has several rules. They’re not hard to understand once you grasp it’s a credit on taxes you’d otherwise owe. It’s not a check, and it’s not always $7,500. To qualify for a tax credit:

  • It must be an electrified vehicle with a battery of at least 4 kilowatt-hours capacity, which is another way of saying hybrids such as the Toyota Prius do not qualify. Also, it must be capable of being charged by an external electric source, meaning it can’t just be recharged by the combustion engine or brake regeneration. It can’t weigh more than 14,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (the latter not a problem for passenger cars or even the biggest SUVs or pickups).
  • The full credit, $7,500, requires at least a 16 kWh battery. Cars with 4-16 kWh get partial credit. See the EPA fuel economy site for specific-car info.
  • Traditional hybrids already had their own tax-credit program. It’s gone, it’s not likely to come back, and hybrids sometimes cost only $1,000 more than gasoline-only versions. That means there’s little need for a tax credit, since the buyer may well earn back the cost delta over a couple of years.
  • It’s a tax credit, not a tax refund or other check from Uncle Sam. This is good because a tax credit is worth more than money back, on which you’d then typically owe taxes. But you have to owe taxes to get a tax credit and you have to owe taxes in the calendar year you bought the car. If you want a $7,500 credit, you need to owe $7,500 in taxes (over the course of the year, not the extra you might owe April 15.) It is not good if you don’t owe taxes, but then, most Americans would be happy to trade places with you assuming you’ve figured how to not pay taxes and still afford a new car.
  • The tax credit accrues to whoever bought the car. If you leased the car, the credit goes to the leasing company (or whoever holds title) and you should see a $7,500 offset in the implied priced of the car. If you didn’t get it, find someplace else to lease.
  • A dealer demo doesn’t count when you buy it almost-new, but the dealer should be figuring the credit into what it sells the car for. There is one credit per qualifying car, and it applies to the first purchaser.
  • When an automaker reaches 200,000 cumulative sales (counting from January 2010), the tax credit phases out, gradually:
    – The quarter that automaker hits 200,000 doesn’t count, nor does the quarter following. If an automaker hit 200,000 this month (September 2019), the third and four quarters would be full-tax-credit quarters.
    –  The following two quarters, the buyer is eligible for a half-credit, or up to $3,750.
    – The next two quarters, it’s a one-quarter credit, or up to $1,875.
    – Then the credit goes away (unless The Congress acts).

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NTSB: Autopilot Design Flaw, Inattentive Driver Led to Tesla-Firetruck Crash

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The NTSB said a combination of a  flaw in Tesla’s highly regarded (certainly by Tesla) Autopilot system, plus driver inattention, caused a Tesla Model S to slam into an on-call firetruck parked on a California freeway in January 2018. No one was injured, but the 2014 Tesla Model S P85 needed more than Dent Wizard repairs.

The National Transportation Safety Board said:

[T]he probable cause for the crash was the Tesla driver’s lack of response to the fire truck parked in his lane, due to his inattention and overreliance on the car’s advanced driver assistance system; the Tesla’s Autopilot design which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task; and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from Tesla.

An NTSB timeline of the January 2018 crash in which a Tesla Model S rear-ended Engine 42 of the Culver City, CA, fire department. Orange segments show when Autopilot was engaged and the driver was hands-off the wheel. The crash is the right side of the timeline.

The NTSB recreated the 66-minute trip that ended in the crash (graphic above), with the help of Tesla’s onboard data recorder and various sensors. It found the driver was hands-off (on and off) for 12 of the 13 minutes leading up to the crash. The driver is supposed to always have hands at least lightly on the wheel to allow safe Level 2 self-driving. The latter means the car stays centered in its lane (if there are no sharp curves, this is almost never a problem on interstates) and maintains a set speed and/or paces the car in front. Most drivers of  Level 2 cars soon learn they can get away with giving the steering a little jiggle every 10-15 seconds and in some cases, even less often.

Here’s what the NTSB said in this week’s preliminary finding (NTSB accident ID HWY18FH004):

The NTSB’s investigation revealed the crash trip lasted about 66 minutes, covering about 30 miles, with the “Autopilot” system engaged for a total of 29 minutes, 4 seconds. Hands were detected on the Tesla’s steering wheel for only 78 seconds of that 29-minute, 4-second period. For most of the time the system was engaged, it did not detect driver -applied steering wheel torque (hands on the steering wheel). The “Autopilot” system issued several hands-off alerts during the last 13 minutes, 48 seconds prior to the crash and was engaged continuously during those nearly 14 final minutes of the crash trip. In the last 3 minutes, 41 seconds before the crash the system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque.

During most of the driver’s operation with the “Autopilot” engaged, the system detected and followed a lead vehicle, one that was ahead of the Tesla. In the 15 seconds prior to the crash the system detected and followed two different lead vehicles. Data show that 3 to 4 seconds before the crash, the lead vehicle changed lanes to the right, a movement commonly referred to as a “cut-out scenario” in testing and research. When the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control no longer detected a lead vehicle, the system accelerated the Tesla from about 21 mph toward the preset cruise speed of 80 mph, which had been set by the driver about 5 minutes before the crash. The “Autopilot” system detected a stationary object in the Tesla’s path about 0.49 seconds before the crash and the forward collision warning activated, displaying a visual warning and sounding an auditory warning. By the moment of impact, the Tesla had accelerated to 30.9 mph.

In simple terms, Autopilot finally recognized the firetruck when the two vehicles were 40-45 feet apart (basic math: a vehicle at 30 mph covers 44 feet per second), about two car lengths. The 47-year-old male driver told the NTSB he bought the Tesla in part because he could use the HOV lane to get to work in LA from his home in Woodland Hills (median home price: $815,000) without taking on a passenger. He was, however, accompanied by a cup of coffee and a bagel, but can’t remember if he was drinking coffee or eating the bagel when the car struck the firetruck and the airbag went off. (Memo to NTSB: Check the shirt for spatter marks.) He bought the Model S used, did not real the manuals, but did have the car safety-checked and says the Tesla staff explained the workings of Autopilot.

As a result of the accident, the report says, the NTSB went to the makers of Level 2-autonomy cars in the US and asked what they were doing to develop apps to “more effectively sense the driver’s level of engagement and alert the driver when the engagement is lacking while automated vehicle control systems are in use.” It went to VW Group (which includes Audi), BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and Volvo. According to the NTSB, “All manufacturers except Tesla have responded to the NTSB.”

So, while the driver was not paying fullest attention, the blame for the crash, according to the NTSB, also goes to the “Tesla Autopilot’s design … which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task … and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer.”

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Porsche Taycan EV Sedan Debuts: $152,250 and Up, 670 hp, 0-60 in 3 seconds

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Game on, Tesla. The Porsche Taycan EV sedan unveiled Wednesday (Sept. 4) in advance of the Frankfurt auto show is a vehicle of superlatives, a low-slung sedan with speed, handling, and most of all, the Porsche name. It will cost half again as much as a Tesla Model S Performance model, a plus for early buyers with deep pockets who want to show off, and later on a challenge because there’s a limit to how many super-costly cars the market can absorb.

According to the trio of worldwide announcements — in China, in Europe and in Niagara Falls, Ontario — the Taycan Turbo will be $152,250 in the US (including freight), while the Taycan Turbo S will be $186,350 with launch-special pricing, after which they go up an additional $2,410 and $2,610. The “Turbo” part of the name is a misnomer (the Taycans are electric-only vehicles) but why not: There’s enough BS already floating around the high end of the EV business. What’s a little more among friends?

The Porsche Taycan, here in its side view, looks like the Panamera.

Mission E Comes to Life

The 2020 Porsche Taycan evolved from the concept car called the Mission E that was unveiled at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show. The Mission E-now-Taycan is Porsche’s first electric except for a couple dating back a century. In silhouette, it looks a lot like the Porsche Panamera sedan.

The Taycan is an all-wheel-drive vehicle with a motor for the front axle and a second for the rear axle. The Taycan uses an 800-volt electrical architecture with the possibility of lightning-fast recharges at the right charge-points. It is the same electrical architecture as the Audi e-Tron GT. Porsche says it takes just 22.5 minutes to run up the battery from 5 percent to 80 percent with a DC fast charger that produces 270 kW of power, under ideal conditions. (Tesla says it takes 20 minutes to charge to 50 percent, using a 150-kW Supercharger.) Charge times can be reduced if the owner sets a departure time into their phone app and the battery will be warmed or chilled, depending on ambient conditions, prior to charging. US-bound Taycans will get free charging (the first 30 minutes) for three years through Electrify America.

Inside, there’s a 16.8-inch LCD instrument panel, a center stack LCD smaller than Tesla’s, and an optional passenger-facing LCD display for entertainment. It can’t be seen by the driver. As on the Panamera, the center console is chock full of gauges and switches and extends almost to the back seat.

The Taycan and solar panels.

Porsche Taycan vs. Tesla Model S

Both the Taycan and Model S are low-slung midsize sedans with two seating rows and four doors. Many dimensions are similar: 195.4 inches long (Porsche) versus 195.7 (Tesla Model S), and width is about 77 inches for both. But Tesla is markedly taller, 56.9 inches versus 54.3 inches, with a longer wheelbase (116.5 versus 114.2 inches) for a smoother ride. Tesla also has more trunk space, 28.4 cubic feet rear and front combined versus 16.8 cubic feet. If you’re going on vacation, the two are competitive — if you, as a Porsche owner, use FedEx second-day for your golf clubs.

Looking at the high ends of the line, the Taycan Turbo S battery is 93.4 kWh, the Tesla Model S Performance is 100 kWh. Both battery packs are under the floor. Porsche projects a range of 265 miles using the WLTP (Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure) methodology versus 365 miles for Tesla. (WLTP figures are about 10 percent more optimistic than EPA numbers.)  Car and Driver estimates 260-270 miles for the Turbo and 225-250 for the Turbo S.

Porsche rates the Taycan at 617 hp (751 hp for a 2.5-second overboost acceleration) while Tesla is rated at around 760 hp. Porsche claims 3.0-3.5 seconds 0-60 mph for the Turbo and less than 3 seconds for the Turbo S, both versus 2.4 for Tesla’s Model S Performance. Porsche’s top speed is 162 mph (260 kph); Tesla’s is 161.

Porsche has the bigger instrument panel LCD, Tesla has the bigger center stack display, and Porsche has an optional LCD for passenger entertainment and control. Tesla has semi-autonomous (Level 2) Autopilot self-driving.

One difference is modernity: The Tesla Model S interior feels dated. It has been around since 2012 with continual improvements and is still the same basic car.

Porsche Taycan cockpit

Why Porsche Did It: The Future Is Electric

From the perspective of the US, the idea of climate change may be still in doubt — in some minds, at least. Thus the comparatively lower interest in electrified vehicles here. The long distances across the US are more suited currently to a combustion-engine cross-country drive: From Stuttgart, home of Porsche, to Moscow is less in kilometers (2,400) than from Silicon Valley to Manhattan is in miles (3,000). But the world’s automakers are convinced they have to electrify, which means more EVs and more charging points every year. And they also know that nothing provides performance like an electric-motor vehicle.

Porsche Taycan instrument panel: 16.8-inch LCD.

Volkswagen last fall said its next generation of combustion engines, rolling out in 2026, will be its last new combustion engines ever. (With modifications, that could still be two more decades.) Porsche is part of Volkswagen.

Since the Taycan price is high, there’s already talk (among analysts and journalists) that Porsche might do a rear-drive model only to bring the price further below $100,000. To some, that would be the ideal commuter car, since it’d be eligible for an HOV sticker.

Tesla legitimized the EV market. Porsche adds an honored nameplate. Interest in high-performance EVs may grow the market and help those automakers already with great vehicles that haven’t yet caught the public eye, particularly the Jaguar I-Pace. With Porsche coming to market along with Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW can’t be far behind.

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Hurricane Bonus: Tesla, GM Unlock More Range, OnStar Services

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Legend had it that cool, rainy weather made dad’s carbureted car run smoother. In 2019, there is one automotive advantage to rainy, stormy weather: Automakers are unlocking or freeing up features to customers affected by Hurricane Dorian.

Tesla will unlock free Supercharger access, unlock the software-limited range ceiling on some cars, and force-charge PowerWall batteries to full power. General Motors will provide enhanced OnStar services for anyone with a digital-technology OnStar system (2006-present), and give lapsed OnStar customers free service for the duration of the storm. And now that OnStar is no longer the only telematics game in town, others will probably match GM and OnStar crisis assistance programs. Based on past hurricanes, automakers will likely offer discounts of, say, $1,000 if you have to replace a storm-damaged vehicle.

Assuming your car still has power, the car’s rooftop antenna and more powerful radio transmitter allow for better call quality and more distant connections in case the most current cell tower isn’t functioning. Cars with Wi-Fi hotspots allow owners to email or text relatives to show they’re safe and then turn to social media to show everyone how bad the storm is where they live.

Tesla Powerwall. (Does your garage look like this?)

“Why Is Tesla Crippling My Range?”

Hurricanes lead Tesla to take a multi-point approach to owner assistance. This hurricane — Dorian, the one that stalled over Bermuda before turning its attention (as of Tuesday) to the US coastal seaboard as far north as the Carolinas — is getting a similar response.

First, Supercharger stations are unlocked in storm areas. You don’t pay for electricity during the storm, as long as there is electricity at the Supercharge site. This may lead to longer lines as Tesla people flock to top off their vehicles. Our advice is simple: If have power at home, charge there! It’ll cost you a couple of bucks, but if you own a Tesla, even a Model 3, it’s a rounding error on your lease or purchase payments. Leave the Supercharger stands to apartment dwellers, or those fleeing north or inland. See Elon Musk’s shortest-ever tweet, below (shortest unless he ever told someone No in a tweet):

In addition, Teslas with a more powerful battery embedded than buyers actually paid for, will have the full power and range available for the duration of the storm. For instance, Tesla Model S and Model X 60D vehicles were sold at a price commensurate with having a 60-kWh onboard. But it’s actually a 75-kWh battery software locked down to 60 kWh. Similar, standard range Tesla Model 3s have had a software-locked 220-mile range while the Model 3 Standard Range+ has a 240-mile range. They’ll get the additional range for the storm duration. Think of it as a short-term superpower. This software-capped-capability situation annoys Tesla chuckleheads who miss the point: You paid for 60 kWh (Model S, X) or 220 miles (Model 3), so be happy you’re getting 8-24 percent more range for a week, to let you outrun the storm. The correct response to Tesla is “thank you, Saint Elon,” not “class action lawsuit.”

Finally, if you have a Tesla Powerwall at home, Tesla remotely enabled the Powerwall Storm Watch feature. Basically, it makes sure the batteries are fully charged at all times. A home with solar that charges Powerwall might use power-company electricity at night to ensure the batteries are full. People with new Powerwall systems should — in a power-failure condition — not treat them as they might a backup generator with an assured supply of natural gas or propane. A US home on a normal day uses (roughly) 10 kWh to 25 kWh of power. Powerwall 2, $5,900, is rated at 13.5 kWh. Tesla marketing says it’s good for a week … if it’s hooked to a solar array. In reality, it’s good for 1-2 days if you want to use air conditioning, an electric stove or an electric dryer. Using only the bare minimum of lights and appliances, doing without A/C, shutting off the garage refrigerator, you might get 3-5 days.

Some automakers such as Nissan have reverse charging with EVs. In Japan, a Leaf can supply power to the Leaf that most of the year drew power from the Leaf. So far, it’s not a feature in the US. When it happens, the emotional value of EVs will increase. So long as you have a full battery when the storm hits.

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2020 GMC Sierra Review: The Pickup With X-Ray Vision for Trailering

Federal mandates require one camera for backing up in all vehicles. The 2020 GMC Sierra full-size pickup truck matches and raises the feds. You can have cameras on all four sides, looking down into the pickup bed, another inside your trailer, another looking behind the trailer — as many as fifteen camera views of the trailer alone. The most fascinating is an X-ray view that effectively sees through your trailer and shows the view. GMC has finally solved the blind-spot problem with trailers.

Add in the carbon fiber bed liner and six-way MultiPro folding tailgate introduced last year, more efficient and more powerful gas and diesel engines, and the ability for a pair of the heaviest-duty Sierras to carry the payload of an 80,000-pound 18-wheeler, and it shows GMC more than matches the competition in new features.

Upscale Brand, Great HUD, Not Afraid to Get Dirty

GMC is the upscale pickup truck and SUV brand to Chevrolet, as Lincoln would be to Ford if Lincoln did more than dabble in the pickup business (Blackwood 2002, Mark LT 2006). For now, GMC has several innovations — they are more than gimmicks — that make its pickups a viable alternative to the similar Chevrolet Silverado that hasn’t yet gotten GMC’s technology. The 2020 models tested here are GMC’s heavier duty pickups, the Sierra 2500 HD and Sierra 3500 HD, both of which are beefier than the mainstream GMC Sierra 1500 LD (light duty) introduced a year ago. The HD pickups are for people who tow big boats or trailers or want a full-size heavy-duty pickup (Sierra AT4) to go off-roading. “Light-duty” is a relative term; the Sierra 1500 LD can tow up to 9,300 pounds, versus 4,000 pounds for a midsize GMC Acadia SUV or 8,100-8,500 pounds for the full-size Yukon Denali SUV.

Here’s what I found driving various GMC heavy-duty pickup trucks on the highways, country roads, and hilly/muddy off-road areas of Wyoming and Idaho: These are serious trucks. The new features, such as the cameras, multi-way tailgate, and carbon fiber bed liner, are all useful. The crew cab cockpits are roomy, there are plenty of USB jacks, the cupholders are sized for Big Gulp cups, the diesels really haul yet one gets 30 mpg on the highway, and the competition should figure a way to work around any patents GMC has on its camera system. The head-up display provides the biggest image I’ve seen, and one of the most useful. The one tech downside is the eight-inch center stack display looks positively tiny in a truck that fits three NFL linemen side-by-side in the crew cab row.

GMC Sierra’s Transparent Trailer Rear Camera View. Software working with the cameras identifies the edges of the trailer box, outlines them, and makes the inside transparent so the center stack LCD shows the view as you had an X-ray camera. The software also has to do some parallax corrections since the trailer box camera could be 30 feet behind the truck bed camera.

Amazing ProGrade Trailering Camera System

Rear side camera view when turning left.

No surprise: Full-size pickup trucks are big (213 to a whopping 247 inches long for the Sierra HD). Possible surprise: Not every driver is 100 percent comfortable driving a pickup and a trailer. Maybe the owner feels savvy, but less so the spouse/partner or young adult family member, who has to share the driving. The ProGrade Trailering System cameras give normal people a chance to drive more safely and confidently. With the multi-camera package, you have these views:

  1. Front view
  2. Front top-down view
  3. Front side view
  4. Rear view (with a trailer, you’d see the hitch and front of the trailer)
  5. Rear top-down view
  6. Rear side camera
  7. Rear trailer view (looking back from atop the trailer)
  8. Picture-in-picture side-view camera (rear side views and the view behind the trailer — the view that cries out for a Ram 1500- or Tesla-size LCD)
  9. Bowl view (looking back showing the truck and trailer, using realistic icon imagery, as if a drone flew 10 feet in front of your truck)
  10. Transparent trailer rear camera
  11. Bed view
  12. Hitch view
  13. Rearview mirror camera (the optical inside mirror that flips to a wide-angle LCD camera view)
  14. Rear surround view (wide-angle)
  15. Inside trailer view

The camera system can switch views automatically, or when you flip the turn signal blinker. Say you’re driving and start to make a turn. The system switches to cameras on the turning side and you get a wide-angle view of the truck, trailer, roadway, and possible hazards such as center berms, curbs, or vehicles possibly within the arc of your turn. I found this most helpful making wide turns (the only kind possible here) with a 30-foot trailer and 14,000 pounds of cargo. Sometimes you don’t always see things, like say a Suzuki Samurai that is but a blip in the side mirror otherwise.

Currently, ProGrade Trailering works with box trailers (the ones that haul stuff, or horses) or camping trailers up to 32 feet long. Boat trailers are currently not compatible.

Land Rover’s Transparent Bonnet concept of 2014 shows what’s under the hood when driving off-road.

X-Ray Vision: Good Idea, Finally in Production

Samsung Transparent Truck

Others have shown X-ray concepts over the years. Land Rover five years ago demoed a Transparent Bonnet, which uses the forward-facing camera plus time-lapse to show off-roaders the rocks and hazards under the hood (bonnet). It also showed a concept Transparent Trailer which does exactly what GMC’s ProGrade Trailering system does.

In 2015, Samsung showed an even-more conceptual Samsung Transparent Truck. The rear of the truck box would show a video image of the road ahead, useful for showing cars behind when it’s not safe to attempt a pass on a two-lane road as in the image (right).

Hauling Big Loads

The point of a heavier-duty pickup is the ability to haul bigger loads, or be ready to haul them should the need arise. To wit, a recent Ford survey of big-SUV intenders said virtually all wanted to tow trailers. But only a handful actually towed anything their current vehicles. GMC may tell you that’s SUVs and not pickups, or Ford and not GMC. But still: People often buy vehicles for the most extreme use they might have over their years of ownership or lease.

A pair of GMC Sierra HD 3500 pickups, suitably equipped, can haul nearly as much as an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer. A gooseneck trailer (with the hitch in the truck bed) can be 35,500 to 43,500 pounds. Watch your mirrors, Peterbilt.

There are four-, six-, and eight-cylinder gasoline engine choices, at least if you include the Sierra 1500 LD along with the 2500 and 3500 HD. For hauling, diesels are the choice since you want to maximize torque. Torque, not horsepower, is what gets a truck and 10,000-pound trailer up a 6 percent grade, and torque is an attribute of diesels (also electric motors). The base diesel for Sierra is a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder with 277 hp and 460 pound-feet of torque, allowing a tow load of 9,100 pounds or a cargo load of 1,830 pounds, which is less than the sibling Chevy Silverado, the Ford F-150, and Ram 1500, all rated for 10,000-pounds-plus towing. GMC says it wanted a 30-mpg highway rating for the 1500 LD. For those who dislike pickups because they’re big and therefore fuel-inefficient, the light-duty diesel is an elegant rebuttal.

Anyway, GMC says, people who want to haul more than 10,000 pounds typically go for the HD trucks. They did this knowing competitors will beat up on GMC for selling a diesel that hauls less than 10,000 pounds.

For the HD Sierras, there’s a gas-engine 6.6-liter V8 with 401 hp and 464 pound-feet of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic. An optional Duramax 6.6-liter diesel produces 445 hp (not much more than the gas engine), but with 910 pound-feet of torque and connected to a 10-speed Allison automatic transmission. That’s a $9,500 upgrade. Add a second-wheel (still one axle) on each side in back, the big Duramax, and you have a regular cab Sierra HD DRW (dual-rear-wheel) that has a gross combined weight rating of 43,500 pounds, a fifth-wheel hitch tow rating of 32,000 pounds, a gooseneck trailer rating of 35,500 pounds, and a max payload of 6,532 pounds. Every Sierra HD, gas or diesel, 2500 or 3500 HD, tows at least 14,500 pounds.

Fans of Ford and Ram will note that depending on configuration, their brand has more of X-feature. Ram’s Cummins HD diesel is rated at 1,000 pound-feet of torque, most notably. All this shows that no one has a clear or long-term advantage in the specs wars, which makes GMC’s newest features – ProGrade Trailering (the cameras), the MultiPro tailgate and the carbon fiber bed so compelling.

The GMC Sierra AT4 off-roading and kicking up dirt in the Rocky Mountains. It makes for great photos. Note the photographer mired in the mud, getting in-close for a great shot …

Off-Roading: Why Not?

GMC has a solid, midsize off-road capable truck in the GMC Canyon, sibling to the Chevrolet Colorado. Now there’s an all-new 2020 GMC Sierra Heavy Duty AT4 with off-road suspension, Rancho shocks, skid plates, an Eagon locking rear differential, an off-road mode for the traction selection system, hill-descent/hill-start assist, an off-road inclinometer in the optional head-up display, and a surround vision system with low-speed views showing vehicle surroundings such as big rocks and ditches.

… The same Sierra AT4, this time splashing through the mud. Note the photographer (NOT the author) suffering for his art. He stepped back for this lap. But not far enough.

I toured an off-road course GMC set up for the AT4 and would have happily spent the entire day there. There is nothing like getting dirty a truck you don’t own, and giving it back in the same condition, with no repercussions.

If you’re an off-roader, you already know this: Big pickups are fine for off-roading in wide-open spaces. On narrow trails, a smaller vehicle is better. It’s one reason the Jeep Wrangler sells and sells.

The GMC Sierra pickup ranks fourth in 2019 sales among full-size pickups. (The Tacoma is a midsize.)

Should You Buy?

The GMC Sierra full-size pickups trail Ford, Ram, and Chevrolet in sales. But GMC is ahead on features, especially for towing. (Ford has one useful feature that hasn’t been matched: Pro Trailer Backup Assist, a dashboard knob that turns the whole truck and trailer in the direction you want, without fear of jackknifing or figuring which way to turn the steering wheel.) The fourth-generation Sierra launched in 2019 with the 1500 LD; the 2500 HD and 3500 HD are new for summer 2019.

From low to high, the GMC Sierra trim lines are SLE, Elevation, SLT, AT4, and Denali. The carbon fiber bed comes standard in the top three trim lines, optional in the others. There are regular and long cargo boxes, and single cab, double cab, and crew cab seating configurations.

If you want the most flexible towing options, GMC is the go-to brand. The camera system is outstanding and should be put on 18-wheeler trucks as well, to improve safety. GM has improved the state of the art, and vehicle safety, with its ProGrade camera system. It’s a gem.

The carbon fiber bedliner definitely protects against dents and damage. Some of GMC’s comparative-advantage claims use extreme tests cases such as sharp objects dropped from 25-50 feet up. Lots of pickup trucks survive extreme daily use with many small dents and never a puncture. A spray-on bedliner minimizes cosmetic damage, while GMC’s CarbonPro bed virtually stops cosmetic and puncture damage. If you’re into a pickup for $60,000 or more, $1,000 for a carbon bed isn’t unreasonable.

The Sierra 1500 now gets adaptive cruise as an option, but the best you can get with the 2500 and 3500 HD is cruise control. ACC on the big pickups would be a benefit, suitably modified so ACC’s minimum following distances are modified relative to the cargo you’re carrying. A pickup with 10,000 pounds of cargo takes a longer time slow or stop.

There are only a couple downsides you should know about the GMC Sierra series. The Sierras you want cost a lot, same as pickups from every maker. The higher-end AT4 and Denali trim lines are quite nice, but overall Ram and F-150 have nicer interiors at comparable trim lines, even when GMC is the one premium-nameplate, pickup-truck maker.

If technology matters, GMC has a lot to offer than no one else: the great head-up display, the unmatched camera system, the carbon fiber bad, and the multi-way tailgate.

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Nissan Develops Self-Steering Golf Ball for ‘Stress-Free’ Perfect Putts

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Nissan is finding new uses for its ProPilot Assist self-driving technology. Right nows, it’s ramping up for the September debut of the Nissan Skyline, the Skyline being, effectively, the Infiniti Q50 in the US. And so Nissan-Infiniti developed the ProPilot golf ball with self-guiding technology embedded. Seriously. On the green, you putt the ball more or less in the direction of the hole, and it finds the way.

The intelligent golf ball also makes use of a camera in a drone overhead that tracks the ball’s progress and issues corrections to an internal motor that can change the ball’s path of progress. Cars don’t have drones to track their progress, but they do have cameras in the car, sometimes also radar, lidar, and sonar, to make sure the car stays on-course and reacts to potential hazards.

Innards of Nissan’s ProPilot golf ball. Try not to lose it in a water hazard.

Nissan explains ProPilot and the ProPilot golf ball this way:

Similar to the Skyline’s ProPilot 2.0 advanced technology, the ProPilot golf ball supports golfers by following a predefined route to its goal. Players can feel confident that they will reach their target effortlessly on each putt. Using technology influenced by Nissan Intelligent Mobility – the company’s vision for how cars are powered, driven and integrated into society – the ball navigates its way across the green and into the cup on the first putt, providing a stress-free golf experience.

An overhead camera detects the position of the ball and cup. When the ball is hit, a monitoring system calculates the correct route based on the ball’s movement and adjusts its trajectory. Combining sensing technology with an internal electric motor, the ProPilot golf ball stays on route until reaching the cup – making even novice golfers, of all ages, feel like pros.

Imagine what the Nissan golf ball could have done for Rodney Dangerfield’s game in Caddyshack (1980), still one of the finest sports movies ever. Also, the source of one of the finest pieces bits of golf advice, from Al Czervik (Dangerfield) to a slow-playing partner: “Let’s go — while we’re young.” (Photo: Warner Home Video)

Nissan’s ProPilot 2.0 driver assistance technology will be part of the Skyline. Nissan says ProPilot 2.0 is “designed for on-ramp to off-ramp (ramp-to-ramp) highway driving … [and] engages with the vehicle’s navigation system to help maneuver the car according to a predefined route on designated roadways. The system is the first in the world to combine this with hands-off driving capability while cruising in a single lane.”

This would put the Skyline at the high end of Level 2 autonomy, which other automakers have reached as well: Audi Traffic Jam Assist, BMW Personal CoPilot, Cadillac Super Cruise, Ford CoPilot Assist+, Tesla Autopilot, and Volvo Pilot Assist, among others. The next step, Level 3, allows hands-off driving and the car, not the driver, is responsible for monitoring the world around him or her. But the driver must be able to take over on short notice. It’s not clear if Nissan will target Level 2 or Level 3 driving.

Some say the path to full autonomy (any time, any place, any weather) may skip Level 3. The difference between L3 and L4 is that L3 requires the driver to resume driving on short notice, short notice not being clear as to whether that’s in two seconds or half a minute.

Here’s a Nissan video of a four-year-old making short work of the green with the Nissan ProPilot ball.

Inspiration comes from many sources, and vice-versa. The NASA space program of the 1960s made the Tang artificially flavored orange drink a household name. Now Nissan is finding new uses for its Intelligent Mobility self-driving and self-parking, including the self-correcting golf ball. Combine the two and you have an Apollo 14 astronaut hitting a golf ball a mile, more or less, on the reduced-gravity, zero-wind-resistance Moon in 1971.

Nissan has found other uses for its vision and driver-assistance systems including the Intelligent Parking Chair, in the video below. Now all we need is a robot that picks up the juice bottles, coffee cups, and pizza boxes after a staff lunch.

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2020 Volvo XC60 Polestar Review: the PHEV Path to High Performance

The new Volvo XC60 Polestar Engineered is how other future performance cars should be propelled, as long as we have combustion engines: with help from electric booster motors in addition to turbochargers and superchargers. That is the case with the 2020 Volvo T8 XC60 eAWD Polestar-Engineered, a compact SUV with a big name, meant to compete with the Audi SQ5, BMW X3 M, Mercedes-AMG GLC 43, and even the Porsche Macan S.

For $70,000, you get a car that’s fast, safe, roomy for four, and tastefully appointed inside. This plug-in hybrid EV is good for about 17 miles on battery alone, with the battery caching enough electricity to take you from zero to 60 mph in as little five seconds. The XC60 PE runs $30,000 more than the entry XC60, much of the extra cost from equipment made standard and the rest from PHEV technology and go-fast parts.

XC60 PE on the Road

The XC60 Polestar Engineered retains much of the ride smoothness, cabin amenities, and driver assists of the second-generation XC60 that debuted a year ago. It is a lot faster, the PE’s 11.6-kWh battery lets you drive electrically in HOV lanes without the burden of carpool passengers, and the optional 22-inch wheels and 35-series tires will be pothole magnets outside Florida and Arizona. This test drive, however, was scenic Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Canada, apparently, has built a border wall that keeps out American-style potholes.

When you tromp the throttle to pass, the XC60 responds very quickly. Volvo cites the 5-second 0-60 time; I was able to get down to 6 seconds on a private airfield made available to Volvo, but had to abort the last and seemingly best run because a private plane was landing at the other end. (The cars, the plane, and the makeshift tower were in radio contact.) On slalom and emergency braking courses, there was very little body roll in testing, and the Akebono brakes hauled the car down from near-double-digit speeds while maintaining a straight line. Under the hood are user-adjustable Swedish Ohlins shock absorbers you can dial in to 20-some settings by opening the hood and turning the gold-colored knob at the top of the shock tower. In doing this Volvo stepped back from adaptive suspensions that adjust the ride and handling multiple times a second. I’m not sure this is an improvement for most drivers.

There are six drive modes accessed by a shiny console roller wheel (that is a bit slippery) and that controls engine, transmission, steering, brakes, stability control, and auto start/stop functions, including Hybrid, Pure (prioritizes battery operation), Power, AWD, Off-Road, and Individual. A Hold-and-Charge button maintains the current battery level for later use (Hold) or brings the battery up to a fixed level (Charge). The PE model also has the crystal starter knob but not the Orrefors crystal shifter that, to some, brings ostentation into the cockpit (and then got copycatted by BMW).

Volvo put a lot of work into smoothing the transition from electric to gas-only driving and back, as well as to the braking transition from power regeneration to friction.

Back-seat passengers have reasonable room and supportive seats. They only thing they might wish for is their own USB jacks, an oversight on any 2020 car, let alone one at this price point.

Unlike a lot of sporty cars and SUVs, the XC60 Polestar Engineered never rides harshly.

Tech and Safety Features

It’s a Volvo. It’s safe. End of discussion. If you must know, safety includes the following:

Volvo On Call (telematics), roll stability control, electronic stability control, lane keeping aid, drowsy/distracted driver alert control, oncoming lane mitigation, road sign information, automatic braking after collision, run-off road mitigation, run-off road protection, collapsible steering column, safety belt pre-tensioners, safety belt load limiters, automatic unlocking after collision, collapsible brake pedal, city safety (includes accident avoidance or mitigation with 37 mph speed difference), intersection auto brake, pedestrian, cyclist and large animal detection with auto brake & brake support, energy absorbing seat cushions, front, side & knee airbags, inflatable curtain airbags, anti-submarining protection in seat design, forward collision warning (including short brake pulse. audible warning signal, warning in driver display or head-up display).

Volvo’s semi-autonomous Pilot Assist system is very good, keeping the car centered while maintaining a set speed or pacing the car in front. A Level 2 autonomous car by definition must have adaptive cruise control and lane centering assist.

Other driver assists include lane centering assist and blind-spot detection (blind-spot information system) with steer assist that provides counter-steering when trying to merge into a nearby vehicle’s path and oncoming lane mitigation that tries to avoid a collision if you drift in the path of an oncoming vehicle, at anywhere from 37 to 87 mph. Basically: It reacts before you might, you can always overcome the force, and you don’t have to arm-wrestle the wheel the way you do with BMW’s over-active steering corrections.

The instrument panel is a 12.3-inch LCD (“Digital Driver Display,” now standard at Volvo), and the 9-inch center stack, portrait-orientation center touchscreen (“Sensus Connect”) continues. Some owners and reviewers ding Sensus Connect for complexity. The main trick to Sensus karma is remembering if you don’t see what you want, swipe left or right for two additional screens.

Seventy large gets you gold seatbelts with the XC60 Polestar Engineered.

Polestar: How You Beat Volvo’s 112 mph Cap

The XC60 Polestar adjuster knob on the Ohlins shocks is also gold.

Polestar is Volvo’s performance sub-brand, a joint venture of Volvo and Volvo parent Geely. Polestar will be an electrified performance brand. Its first two vehicles are Polestar 1, a “low-volume electric performance [plug-in] hybrid GT,” with 600 hp and a battery range of 93 miles (150 km), and Polestar 2, an EV-only vehicle competing with Tesla Model 3. Polestar Engineered will apply performance techniques to new Volvos such as the XC60 PE here, but also as performance and software tweaks for existing Volvos. And there is a related Polestar Racing team.

When Volvo announced would cap top speeds at 112 mph (180 km/h) in 2021, in the interests of higher safety and lower energy consumption, Polestar was not subjected to the mandate. Otherwise, Volvo would be competing with one hand tied behind its back against the performance models from Acura, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche. The SQ5 and MB-AMG GLC top out at 155 mph, the Macan S at 157, and the X3 M at 174, for instance. The XC60 Polestar Engineered will reach 140 mph. Close enough.

Volvo XC60 Models and Trims

The XC60 Polestar Engineered sits atop the XC60 food chain. Except for the XC60 PE, there are three four-cylinder engine choices: T5 turbocharged with 250 hp, T6 turbocharged and supercharged with 316 hp, and T8 turbocharged, supercharged plus an electric motor, with 400 hp, or 415 hp for the Polestar Engineered.

The trim lines and variants are:

XC60 Momentum, $41,790-$55,590 base prices (plus packages and options). On all trim lines, front-drive is for the T5 only and AWD adds $2,300, T6 AWD adds another $3,500, and T8 eAWD adds $8,000.

XC60 R-Design, $48,490-$62,290 base prices for the four engine/drivetrain variants. This is the sporty model. The T8 R-Design comes pretty close to the Polestar Engineered model.

XC60 Inscription, $48,490-$62,290 base prices. This is the luxury model.

XC60 eAWD Polestar Engineered, $70,495. The is the high-performance sport model (reviewed here) and comes standard with all-wheel-drive, the T8 engine, and the features optional on other XC60s. The only options are 21- or 22-inch wheels instead of the stock 20s, and $645 for most paint colors.

Should You Buy?

While the Volvo XC60 T8 Polestar Engineered runs $30,000 more than the cheapest XC60, it runs a more reasonable $8,205 over the R-Design T8 PHEV and is in line with what the competition charges for its highest-performance compact SUVs. Recharge time at a Level 2 charger is a decent 2.5 hours. The same supplied cable also does 120 volts at home.

Among premium compact SUVs, if you want the efficiency of a plug-in hybrid, or you want the ability to get in HOV lanes with only you in the car, the XC60 Polestar Engineered does the trick, as do the mainstream Momentum, R-Design, and Inscription with the T8 PHEV powerplant.

If you want all-out performance, then look also at the BMW X3 or X3 M, arguably the best premium compact SUV on the road today, along with the Audi Q5 / SQ 5, and the Porsche Macan / Macan S. Most of them will be getting plug-in hybrid variants over the next year or two, both because it’s one way to wring more power from four-cylinder engines, and because it helps the automaker’s corporate average fuel economy numbers. Also, buyers in this demographic want efficient cars. The Lexus NX is interesting because it offers a hybrid version, though critics say it’s not as refined as other Lexus hybrids.

Shop and test drive the new XC60s as well. The famous names have trackable SUVs and now Volvo does. If you want performance, definitely look to the Polestar Engineered version, as well as the T8 version of the XC60 R-Design, which is effectively Polestar Lite and $8K cheaper, but you don’t get gold seatbelts or brake calipers.

Do not buy the 21- or 22-inch wheel option unless you also spring $1,000 for tire/wheel damage insurance, or you live in a state that doesn’t see snow. The twenties are good enough.

In addition to the usual buy-or-lease choices, check out Care by Volvo, a subscription service (yes, CBV sounds like an extended maintenance and warranty program, but it isn’t) that lets you get a new Volvo for a year, swap for a second Volvo for a year, then end the program, or continue with another car. Care by Volvo covers all costs outside of gas and tolls, including insurance. If the carrier (Liberty Mutual) approves you, you pay the same as everyone else does for the car, for instance, $750 a month for an XC60 Momentum. You can do most of your shopping online and only see the dealer for paperwork and delivery.

One final buying tip: Before seeing the 2020 Volvo lineup, I was not a fan of light-colored interiors because they’re a bear to keep clean if you have kids or pets, if you eat in the car, or if you do Subaru-like things (kayak, camp, mountain-climb) that track in dirt. But Volvo SUVs with blonde interiors – light-colored seats and interior trim – are dazzling, worth a look (especially the XC90 with second-row captain’s chairs), and worth the extra cleaning.

Who knows blonde better than the Swedes? The light upholstery (here in the six-passenger XC90) makes the cabin light and airy.

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Bring More Tech (and Amazon Boxes) Into the Garage With a Smarter Opener

Most every premium garage door brand these days has a Wi-Fi remote that lets you check the status of your garage door from your smartphone and open or close the door remotely. Increasingly, Wi-Fi remotes tie into home control services including Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant and let you monitor who comes in and when. They all beat the old clip-on open-close remotes that attach to your car’s sun visor. Some do more than others.

After researching what to do to improve the garage of our 40-year-old house with 20-year-old openers, I decided the best technology to control garage access is the Chamberlain myQ Smart Garage Hub.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce It’s a $50 device that connects virtually any opener of the past 25 years, regardless of brand. If your opener needs replacement, you can get the same myQ technology built into many openers from Chamberlain and sister company LiftMaster, which sells the practically identical WLED Belt Drive Wi-Fi Garage Door Opener (click to read PCMag’s full review of that model). The best feature of myQ is the Amazon Key partnership, which lets Amazon deliver packages inside the garage and monitor the delivery person with a video feed.

Read on for more on how to decide on a smart garage door opener — and if you’re game, how I also updated the rest of my garage, which cost a heck of a lot more than $50.

Ryobi’s traditional belt-drive opener, with a twist: power backup using a Ryobi power tool battery.

Choices in Garage Door Operators

Wi-Fi lets you control your garage door from anywhere. Some of the companies that have Wi-Fi operators, the industry term for a garage door opener, include:

  • Chamberlain / Liftmaster / Merlin (same company: Chamberlain Group)
  • Craftsman / Sears
  • Genie
  • Mighty Mule
  • Ryobi (a slick design lets you attach a Ryobi One+ portable tool battery to the opener for battery backup; see photo above)
  • Skylink

The cheapest operators, such as the Skylink Atoms AT61611 ($125), won’t have Wi-Fi. There are Wi-Fi-equipped openers for $175 and up that let you control and monitor the garage door remotely. If Wi-Fi is not built-in, there are more than a dozen third-party adapters that make virtually any opener accessible from the web or smartphone. These adapters work via wired or wireless signals to the opener, and by Wi-Fi to your home access point; they may require a sensor on the door.

Remote software lets the happy homeowner see a package delivered, safely, inside the garage. And the UPS person doesn’t worry about being chased back into their truck by a protective canine. In real life, the process is pretty much foolproof, and you quickly stop worrying about the safety of the stuff in your garage.

Choices in Garage Door Software

Third-party remote Wi-Fi openers (used here in the industry sense) comprise software and hardware that open the operators (the physical motor and drive chain/belt or gearing). They all can control the doors from afar. That means you can manually open the door for a service person, a neighbor, or non-driving idiot family member who again forgot the house keys (consider a keypad door lock).

Many Wi-Fi openers work with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant/Google Home, the incredibly useful IFTTT (If This, Then That) protocol, Apple HomeKit, and Samsung SmartThings. They typically show door status (open, closed) on your phone, and e-mail or text you when the door opens or closes. They may automatically close the door at a set time at night in case someone left it open. Most use the 2.4-GHz frequency of your access point or router, not 5 GHz.

Most vendors include a list of operators that aren’t compatible. Beyond that, don’t expect them to work with garage door openers — sorry, operators — pre-1993, which is when the Consumer Product Safety Commission mandated automatic reversers. In the 1980s, about five children a year were killed by automated garage doors that closed on them. No more, and nobody seems to complain the government is too intrusive.

Opener software (and necessary hardware) include:

Alcidae Garager 2, $130.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce It’s a 1080p Wi-Fi camera with night vision and two-way audio that attaches, typically, to the bottom of the garage door operator. There’s remote opener software. You can stream audio/video to your phone or tablet. If you want stored video you can recall, up to seven days worth, that’s $5 a month. Select clips can be stored. The Garager 2 works with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Chamberlain myQ, part of many Chamberlain/LiftMaster garage door operator systems, or $50 as a module, the Smart Garage Hub,SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce for most any brand made 1993 or later. myQ is easy to set up, and that alone is enough to recommend it. You can open or close the garage door from anywhere (same as any other Wi-Fi opener system), a family share system that lets three others also open/close/monitor the garage doors and control up to 16 myQ accessories, typically in-house lights using wall-plug modules. myQ is compatible with Apple iOS and Android, Google Assistant / Google Home, and IFTTT (If This, Then That).

myQ supports Amazon Key for delivery inside your garage door. Oddly, support for Amazon Alexa has been lacking although some third-party workarounds have been published. Chamberlain has abandoned, at least for now, the $1 a month subscription fee for IFTTT. Some installations will also need the myQ Home Bridge ($70) to work with Apple HomeKit and Siri voice control if the system doesn’t have built-in WiFi.

Garadget WiFi Smart Garage Door Controller, $80.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce It’s easy to install and avoids most wires by using a laser sensor pointed at some reflective tape on the garage door. It is compatible with, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, IFTTT, and SmartThings, among others (remember the Pebble smartwatch?).

Genie Aladdin Connect, $55.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce It’s useful for multi-door garages, includes hardware for one garage door and supports up to three, and if your house has four or more, you can probably afford to pay someone to create a way to control that many.

Gogogate2, $140.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce One controller supports up to three garage doors. It works with Apple and Android devices, supports third-party cameras, and uses IFTTT apps to expand its functionality, including for voice control. Setup is more complex than, say, myQ. It wires into an existing operator and uses a sensor mounted to the garage door.

Nexx Garage Remote Garage Door Opener, $100,SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce that has a difficult setup offset by a simple-to-use app, customizability, and compatibility with both Amazon Alexa and Google Home / Assistant, as well as Samsung SmartThings and others. It can be programmed to open automatically when the car approaches the garage. You must run a low-voltage wire to a garage door-sensor.

Amazon Key for Garage: Packages delivered inside your garage, protected from the weather and the odd thief, with delivery information via the Chamberlain/myQ app. $100 shop jack, left, stands in for the author’s hoped-for $5,000 post lift.

Amazon Key: myQ’s Best Feature

If you want packages delivered inside not outside, hassle-free, look into the Amazon Key apps, part of the Amazon Prime subscription.

For inside-the-house delivery, Amazon Key for Home, you need a smart lock kit from Kwikset, Schlage, or Yale. (Note Amazon agreed to three partners.)

For in-trunk delivery, you need Amazon Key In-Car, a 2015 or newer General Motors vehicle with OnStar, or Volvo with On Call telematics, and a currently active telematics subscription.

For Amazon’s in-garage delivery system, Amazon Key for Garage, there is currently one compatible technology, the myQ / Smart Garage Hub system, either as a $50 module (a physical hub) attached to any brand of compatible operator, or integrated in a $200-$500 Chamberlain / Liftmaster operator, and for video with the Amazon Cloud Cam (Key Edition) camera, which adds $120. Many, but not all, Amazon packages are eligible, and occasionally I found in testing Key delivery took one day longer than normal two-day Amazon Prime. Key for Garage is in 50 cities and their extensive surrounding areas as of mid-2019 (complete list).

As for security: You have to believe (and should) that your driver is not going to rip you off – really, is anybody looking to grab a broken lawn chair, a 350-pound snowblower, or smelly hockey gear kept outside the living area? As a practical matter, a delivery person wouldn’t last long stealing things, just as a hotel maid wouldn’t because a theft pattern would quickly show up (one package a month lost on each of 10 driver routes, 10 packages a month on the 11th route). If you’re a little (if not a lot) paranoid, Key for Garage is nice versus Key for Home because you might like that access is to the garage only and then you can deadbolt the access door to the house.

So far over two months, the Amazon Key for Garage system has worked perfectly for me. We get a notification delivery is about to happen. The package shows up, in the garage. We get a notification delivery took place, and when. With the Cloud Cam, we can see the delivery taking place. After you see this happen two or three times, you’re satisfied it all works according to plan. The Cloud Cam sends you a snap of the delivery and lets you watch event clips of the past 24 hours.

Premium storage, three plans, for 3-10 Cloud Cams and 7-30 days storage runs $7-$20 a month extra. You cannot currently swap in a non-Amazon video camera, although you could rig a third party camera that captures every garage-door-open event, working outside the Amazon Key app. I found after the first two weeks that the UPS guy was going to deliver, he did, the video was boring, and no packages got wet.

It would be nice, in our opinion, if Chamberlain/LiftMaster extended the garage access app to more vendors than Amazon. The company won’t comment on how long Amazon has Chamberlain locked into an exclusive, or vice versa. But, says Jeff Meredith, Chamberlain’s president and COO, “It’s not hard to imagine a garage being configured for things like home delivery – [a garage] equipped with reserved shelving for various sized packages and a refrigerator to accommodate online grocery purchases, which are set to quadruple between 2018 and 2023.”

Currently, the myQ app allows access by the homeowner plus three guest accounts that don’t have to share passwords. Additionally, the outdoor keypad can be programmed for a controlled number of accesses using an assigned code. Meredith said, “A dog walker, nanny, service person, realty agent, neighbor, extended family or delivery person … could all benefit from myQ.” For that, you might want a dozen limited-access guest accounts.

The Chamberlain Group is the major player in garage door openers (it also does access systems), but there’s big and then there’s big: Chamberlain’s parent, the privately held Duchossois Group, has an estimated $2 billion in revenues; Amazon is two orders of magnitude larger at $232 billion. If Chamberlain remains with Amazon exclusively, makers of competing garage door systems could partner with Walmart, Costco, Sears, pharmacies, or grocery delivery services that Amazon doesn’t own.

A wall-mount garage door opener, here the LiftMaster 8500W, and torsion springs on a shaft over the garage door header. It frees up space over the car for, say, a big storage rack. Yes, Marie Kondo would weep that you’re not throwing old stuff away.

How I Made a $50 Project Become Much More Expensive

Integrating myQ and Amazon Key into our garage was part of an ongoing garage and outdoors automation project with multiple outdoor cameras (brands TBD, see David Cardinal’s in-depth article on outdoor security cams for details), smart lawn sprinklers (Racchio), water leak sensors and auto shutoffs (product TBD), and outdoor lighting (Samsung SmartThings controls). Here’s what I did.

I went the new-opener route. I also added ultra-quiet rollers, weatherstripped the doors, and bought wall-mount openers for a cleaner design and had internal battery backup. And I had the two operators professionally installed because I also wanted the doors and rails tuned up, but mostly because you shouldn’t DIY a torsion bar spring installation. All told, it cost me about $2,000 rather than $50.

This garage-improvement project was launched because I wanted to fully use a two-bay, two-door garage equipped with ancient openers, doors that didn’t keep out the winter cold, a garage filled with one bay of junk, and lots of promise because the inside ceiling rises to 11 feet, enough to allow (until you price them) a shop lift for working on a car. The 160-pound wood doors banged and clanked on the way up or down. The safety reversers sometimes reversed when nothing was in the way.

The full project – in my plans – started with an epoxy or terrazzo-look floor ($1,000-$7,000), and it required shot blasting or diamond-grinding the existing surface for proper adhesion ($500-$1,000). There would be two new doors ($250 to $5,000 apiece, with really nice wood Craftsman-style doors matching the house at least $2,000 apiece). See video below to understand some of the hassles of DIY floors, starting with learning that your concrete has already been sealed and learning the top layer of concrete has to be ground or bead-blasted off.

The garage door operator would mount to the side of the door frame opening and drive a shaft running above the door header, eliminating the drive chain/drive belt above the centerline of the car. New tracks for the rollers would follow the sloped 4-in-12 pitch of the ceiling, allowing for a shop lift ($2,500 – $10,000) in one bay and overhead storage in the other. Ideally, the garage door openers would integrate battery backups in case town power failed and so did our backup generator.

I’d add more lighting in the ceiling, additional AC outlets in the wall, a gas-heater for work on wintry days, and a couple of speakers for music. Finally, a 240-volt transformer ($500-$1,000) would go in to charge the EVs and plug-in hybrids I test. Once there’s 240 volts in the garage, you can bring in a bigger air compressor.

Reality hit hard. Even $10,000 wouldn’t do the full job and “in my plans” became “in your dreams.” New, architectural-series doors were scaled back to the existing doors plus $250 of weatherstripping and insulation. The old floor remains, and even if I chose later to DIY the epoxy painting (carefully) to save money, the surface prep is hot, noisy, and dusty — one of those jobs you want to job out. The two-post shop lift became a $150 two-ton Harbor Freight compact jack, but don’t laugh: In the past year, I saw two professional race shops with HF jacks, okay? I also added four jack stands and wheel chocks.

As for the openers, the myQ technology was the bang-for-the-buck and ease-of-use winner. Because the existing openers were 20-plus years old, I opted for new Liftmaster openers, $500 apiece, with jackshaft drive (attaches directly to the torsion bar roller), integrated battery backup, keypad remote, and one each wired and wireless in-the-garage remote controls. With this opener, there’s no center drive rail, and later I can install the door rollers in a custom metal track that follows the ceiling. That would allow the future shop lift, and in the meantime, the garage looks a little more open. The follow-the-ceiling roller tracks can be added later.

The myQ app works well. I would like the option to the status of both garage doors on one screen, rather than one screen per door. I’d also prefer to get open-close messages as texts, not e-mails. Otherwise, it’s fine.

What Makes a Garage Door Opener Worth $500?

The top-of-the-line Liftmaster opener deadbolts the door every time it closes.

The operators I chose for my garage doors are currently about $500 street, the LiftMaster 8500W (photo right; Chamberlain equivalent, RJO70). It has Wi-Fi and myQ built-in. The wall-mount design frees ceiling space, so you can put a storage rack hanging down between door rails. It’s quiet. The mechanism actually slows the last foot of travel for a softer, quieter touchdown.

An electronic deadbolt auto-engages when the garage door is shut. If the power is out, the integrated battery opens the door, helpful for people who don’t always carry house keys or forget them. Each 8,500W operator comes with four controllers: an outside keypad, an inside wired switch (usually installed next to the door), an inside wireless switch (usually next to the house entry door), and a visor-mount wireless receiver. An included LED ceiling light (quite bright) mounts near any electrical outlet (typically the one used by the old ceiling-mount opener) and is wirelessly controlled.

To see your package being safely delivered, you have one choice: the Amazon Cloud Cam, $120.

If You Want to Do It Yourself

The LiftMaster 8500W operator (opener).

You can add-on adapters that bring Wi-Fi-control-from-anywhere to existing openers. myQ is about as easy as it gets. What’s especially nice is that this is one of the few instances in tech you can retrofit new technology to an existing product without having to buy a whole new device.

With modest skills, you can DIY install a new garage door opener – operator — with Wi-Fi if it uses a drive belt or chain, which is the most common type. A torsion spring opener calls for a professional installer; the spring needs careful tensioning and if it lets go, you could be hurt or killed. (This is not the usual abstract profession-drive-closed-course warning. That spring is dangerous.) If you put in a new chain- or belt-driver operator, not torsion-bar, with the springs running parallel to the horizontal tracks, make sure the springs have a safety cable running through the middle and if not, add one, because really old springs can break apart.

If the garage is under a bedroom, you want the quietest operator. In order from high to low in quietness and price, the preferred operator is:

  • Wall-mount operator with torsion spring (quietest, costliest).
  • Ceiling mount with belt drive.
  • Ceiling mount with chain drive (least quiet, cheapest).

But: If noise is the problem with a current opener, first replace any existing steel-wheel rollers with ball-bearing nylon rollers, at most $25 for a 10-pack, the number you need for a typical four-section door. Also, replace the pulleys (two per door). Or, get a garage door tune-up for $50-$100. A door that doesn’t close square to the ground makes noise. That alone, squaring the door, plus nylon rollers, made a significant difference with 20-year-old Craftsman belt-drive openers in our old house.

Read up if you’re thinking of doing this yourself. If you want affordable, effective, and simple-to-install, you’ll probably find a myQ system is the way to go, especially if you’re a frequent Amazon shopper. You only need to automate one garage door, which means $50 for the myQ Smart Garage Hub (MYQ-G0301) or $200 belt-drive operator with Wi-Fi/myQ integrated such as the Chamberlain B550. You should also spring for a new set of nylon rollers.

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Bosch Wants 3D Displays in the Car

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Bosch aims to make your car’s instrument panel a 3D display, no goggles required. Crucial warnings would be in 3D; for instance, the forward collision warning — BRAKE! — but not the current fuel level, and perhaps not a low-fuel warning. A 3D warning would visually float above the rest of the instrument panel. The 3D notification could also be used for other time-sensitive warnings such as a sharply curved road, possibly triggered only if the driver’s speed is too high to safely make the turn, or for lane departure or blind spot warnings.

Bosch says the 3D warnings would not require 3D glasses or eye tracking (to determine the location of the driver’s head and sightlines). 3D might also be helpful in rear backup cameras. It will reveal details at the massive Frankfurt Auto Show next month.

“Grasp Important Visual Information Faster”

While there have been so-called 3D products before used in cars, which can be as little as 3D-building shading on 3D maps, Bosch says this is real 3D. According to Steffen Berns, president of Bosch Car Multimedia, “The display’s depth of field means drivers can grasp important visual information faster, whether from an assistance system or a traffic-jam alert. Alerts that seem to jump out of the display are much more obvious and urgent.”

Bosch also sees rear parking and backing being simpler and safer with 3D vision. When parking, the rear-view camera
image is more realistic, allowing obstacles to be detected earlier, and drivers can get an even better idea of how much space they have left between the rear fender and, say, a parking garage wall, Berns says.

Previous Bosch products included 3D vision in factory automation, 3D modeling as part of automated parking solutions, and the mapping of 3D elements in an electronic horizon solution. The announced Bosch technology is for the instrument panel — the one behind the steering wheel, not the center stack display or head-up display. Bosch won’t comment on where else Bosch would or might deploy the technology. It should be noted that the head-up display already lines up well with the driver’s line of sight. At the same time, cars that have important notifications — particularly the Brake Now warnings — are pretty hard to miss in 2D when they’re in the HUD.

“The new 3D display creates a convincing three-dimensional effect that both drivers and passengers can see – without 3D glasses or eye-tracking,” said spokesman Tim Wieland. “This brings an unprecedented sense of depth to vehicle instrumentation and improved visualization to assistance systems, for example the reversing camera.”

To the extent 3D without glasses (glasses like the one you got if you bought a 3D TV 5-10 years ago, except nobody got that excited by 3D except for the movie Avatar) needs the viewer to be more or less on-axis, this might open up the possibility of a separate panel in front of the passenger. Bosch says a single Bosch controller can handle every display in the car, such as the instrument panel, HUD, center stack panel(s), and inside mirror camera; it would be easy to add one more for the passenger. Some cars (non-Bosch-instrumented) have as many as 15 separate video/vision controllers that add weight and complexity, not to mention interconnect cables that could corrode.

3D Better Than the Old 3D

If 3D displays in cars sounds like technology that’s already in cars, it depends what 3D means. Bosch’s 3D announcement here appears to be about the use of stereoscopic vision using both eyes. Nobody’s going to argue that isn’t 3D. What exists already is 3D-perspective navigation mapping on a 2D display. In a zoomed-in view, a building would use shading to appear three-dimensional. To a lesser extent, shading on on-screen buttons creates a 3D effect, and some touch displays actually create a pulse that makes you feel as if you physically pushed a button.

The new version of MBUX, the Mercedes-Benz User Experience, has self-described 3D displays. Gordon Wagener, chief design officer for Mercedes, told Business Insider the MBUX display creates an impression of depth, rather than “popping out” at the user (as the Bosch display does). Mercedes also uses the head-up display to overlay mapping information such as a turn arrow in the line-of-sight between the driver and the physical turn or junction.

Instrument panel displays are quickly shifting from analog to digital, as well as higher quality displays such as OLED. In addition, the consumer demand for music and navigation from smartphones means buyers want to see at least a 5-inch color display in the center stack. Global Market Insights forecasts the demand for will double by 2025, to $30 billion a year (26.7 euros).

Getting Ready for the Frankfurt Auto Show

Now that the Frankfurt Show (also called IAA, for Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung) is just a month out, suppliers and automakers are starting to beat the drum for their cars, SUVs, EVs, and component products. If you’ve been to the January CES show in Las Vegas, multiply the crowds and vendors clamoring for attention by 4x to 5x. Frankfurt runs in odd years only, drew a reported 810,000 attendees in 2017, and hit 1 million twice this century, according to IAA. This year’s show starts with press days Sept. 10-11.

It’s safe to say the show will focus on alternative energy sources (other than the combustion gasoline engine), safety, and technology that makes driving safer, easier, or more productive. The current US price of gasoline, $2.65 a gallon, is about a dollar below the historical peak (reached in the first half of this decade), so the price and supply seem good, but the rest of the world is not as sanguine as we are.

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