Opinion: Turning the tide at Toyota?

The fear that some mysterious electronic gremlin was quietly at work could have been the coup de grace. Even a company that had, in the words of former Ford Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour, “more money than God,” might have been hard-pressed to handle the potential repair bill, never mind the litigation.

Toyota could still face billions of dollars in legal costs from the various lawsuits erupting out of the unintended acceleration scandal. But there’s no question the maker got a big boost from the U.S. government earlier this month with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declaring, “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas.” It was a stunning reversal. At a breakfast meeting a year before, LaHood told reporters he’d consider parking his Toyota if he owned one.

No wonder Bob Carter, the head of the Toyota brand, told me, “There’s a spring in my step,” when we discussed the results of the study, conducted by space agency NASA for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “We’re exceptionally well-positioned going into a growing market,” as the U.S. economy recovers, Carter continued.

The sales numbers to be released at the beginning of the month will be a telling indicator of whether he’s right. Carter readily acknowledges 2010 was “not a year we were satisfied with.” Despite some of the biggest incentives in Toyota history – and from a company that used to deride Detroit rivals for needing to bribe customers – sales took a sharp plunge during the last quarter of 2010. A pure coincidence considering the maker kept adding to its recall list, ultimately reaching a total of 11 million vehicles? Probably not.

The sales numbers did rebound in January, but everyone was up. After years of steady gains, Toyota has now slipped behind Ford to the third spot in the U.S. automotive market. And the Detroit maker is suddenly earning the mantle of quality leader and the brand to beat.

But there’s a lot working in Toyota’s favor. Like the new line of Prius-badged hybrids that will attempt to multiply the power of the world’s best-selling hybrid-electric vehicle.

And there’s the NHTSA study – but has it truly brought redemption? Toyota will likely continue announcing recalls more readily than in the past. After paying record fines totaling $48.8 million last year for stonewalling on safety issues, the maker needs a proactive stance in a toughened regulatory environment. “If we’re ever even slightly on the edge” when it comes to deciding how to respond to a possible problem, “we’ll announce a recall,” asserts Carter. The maker can only hope its competitors will be driven to take a similar approach.

There is a mix of studies you can pick and choose from to tell whichever story line you’d like about what comes next. Toyota, not surprisingly, insists its data show both owners and potential buyers regaining their trust in the brand and ready to forgive it the sins of the past year. But other studies, from the likes of CNW Marketing, raise caution flags, chief researcher Art Spinella suggesting Toyota will struggle to fully rebuild its now-tarnished reputation.

Aaron Bragman, automotive analyst with IHS Global Insight, is equally skeptical. He warns “the damage was done” to Toyota’s reputation, and while “loyalists” may be quick to forgive, others will be slower to re-embrace the Japanese maker. More concerning, Toyota “still doesn’t have momentum behind it while other competitors have been catching up and even passing it.”

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the “green space.” True, Toyota may have an assortment of new hybrids coming for the Prius brand-within-a-brand, but it won’t have a pure EV to rival the Nissan Leaf until 2012, nor a plug-in to fight the Chevrolet Volt, and the Prius version will get only about a third the battery range when it does arrive, which Toyota officials admit may force them to reverse roles with GM, pushing price over technology.

One can only question the timing of Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s plan to reduce by nearly 40% the number of board members, while also slashing the ranks of the rest of his senior management. It’s a much-needed consolidation likely to clear out those who not only created the crisis of the last year, but those who have resisted his vision for change.

Toyota has long been the company to beat, its vaunted QRD and hyper-efficient manufacturing system copied by desperate competitors. Now, however, it’s Toyota that has to re-think how it operates to avoid repeating the mistakes of the recent past. It can only hope enough of its reputation has survived to carry it forward. Otherwise, the price could be enormous.

Audi A8 L Security blends serious protection with luxury and style

High-security version of the Audi A8 soon to be launched
* Audi A8 L Security meets strictest security guidelines
* Roughly 450 hours of work go into the making of the armored luxury sedan
* Fuel consumption reduced by three liters compared with predecessor

Audi is introducing a new, exclusive model – the A8 L Security. The long-wheelbase high-security version of the A8 meets the strictest guidelines in force for civilian vehicles, with a host of special security features available in addition to its heavy armoring. At sales launch Audi will offer the W12 engine, with another unit to follow in 2012. Both engines combine superior power with high efficiency.

At 5.27 meters (17.29 ft) in length, the Audi A8 L Security is a large, representative luxury sedan, hardly distinguishable to the eye from the production version. The LED headlights, which use light-emitting diodes for all functions, lend a striking expression to its front. They are part of the standard package in the A8 L Security W12.

When developing the basic design for the A8 model line, Audi engineers already had the high-security version in mind from the very outset. The result is a totally integrated concept far superior to any retrofit solution currently available on the market. All of the major components were analyzed with regard to their deformation properties, giving the A8 L Security an excellent crash performance that is also mindful of the other party involved.

The armored sedan’s custom security modifications are performed by hand in a small, well-guarded workshop – on a production floor with specially secured doors, where the use of cellular phones is strictly prohibited. The basis for the high-security car is a previously modified aluminum production body constructed at the Neckarsulm plant as per the Audi Space Frame (ASF) principle. Specially trained technicians put in roughly 450 hours of work to incorporate the security features – in the uncompromisingly high quality Audi is known for. When this stage of the process is complete, the car returns to the factory for final assembly.

The A8 L Security has been officially certified by a German-government ballistics testing facility in Munich for compliance with the class VR 7 ballistic protection standard (tested as per BRV 2009 guidelines). The abbreviation BRV stands for Bullet Resistant Vehicles. The car’s resistance to explosions was tested as per ERV 2010 guidelines (ERV = Explosion Resistant Vehicles). Class VR 7 ballistic protection imposes the strictest standards on civilian high-security sedans. The sheet metal and glazing in the passenger cell must withstand firing with NATO hard-core ammunition. In certain areas, the armoring on the Audi A8 L Security even complies with the criteria for class VR 9 and VR 10.

Integrated as a unitized component of the body, the high-security sedan’s safety cell features a convergence of extremely tough, resistant materials – hot-formed armored steel, aramide fabric, ceramics, special alloyed aluminum and multilayer glass. Overlapping protective materials at the joints provide the utmost level of security throughout the occupant cell. The interior armoring weighs approximately 720 kilograms (1,587.33 lb).

The aluminum side sills have solid steel sections built in. These provide increased protection against explosive weapons – an area that has seen a marked stiffening of requirements in recent years. Made of an innovative aluminum alloy, the car’s armored floor serves the same purpose. The Audi A8 L Security is capable of withstanding an attack with a military hand grenade.

Even an explosive charge defined from the test program does not pose a lethal threat to passengers, as demonstrated by measurements taken during testing on dummies.

The side windows, windshield and rear window are all made of special glass with a polycarbonate coating in the inside to prevent spalling. Optional electromechanical window openers operate the side windows, allowing them to be lowered nearly all the way. The excess weight of the windows amounts to just over 300 kilograms (661.39 lb). A closing assist feature comes standard for the doors – which weigh an additional 360 kilograms (793.66 lb) altogether. A door-stop function holds each door open in any desired position.

A key area in the A8 L Security is the “communication box” in the luggage compartment. In addition to the control units for the vehicle and communications electronics, it holds the optional components that further enhance the passengers’ safety, along with the additional battery. The heavily armored communication box is novel in another way: It has comparatively light ceramic doors, and its frames are made of aluminum. Customers can also request special protection for the battery and the fuel tank.

A standard two-way communication system allows passengers in the A8 L Security to communicate with the outside world when the windows are closed. The system makes use of a speaker in the single-frame grille as well as microphones for the cabin and exterior.

Despite the high level of security it offers, the A8 L Security is a relatively light armored car. As is always the case in an Audi, the lightweight design plays a central role here. Outfitted with the W12 engine, the A8 L Security is the lightest vehicle among its peers.

High-security features
For A8 L Security customers, a multitude of special options are available for enhanced security. Among these is the emergency exit system, a technology patented by Audi. When the driver or rear passenger presses a tamperproof switch and pulls one of the inside door handles, pyrotechnical separating screws in the hinges detach the door from the body. The door can then be knocked out with a slight push.

Another security feature is the fire extinguisher system, which is activated via heat sensors or by pushing a button. The extinguishing agent flows from two canisters installed in the luggage compartment through two tubes running along the underfloor. Nozzles spray the agent into the wheel arches, onto the underfloor, onto the tank, and into the engine compartment.

The emergency fresh-air system operates with two oxygen cartridges housed in the protected area. At the push of a button, the system supplies fresh breathing air to the interior via vents in the roof lining. The supply lasts long enough for the car to pass through a danger zone or get out of a danger zone it is currently in. The system works by generating positive pressure in the vehicle interior to prevent toxic gases from penetrating the cabin. Yet another option is what Audi calls security start – a feature that allows the driver to start the engine remotely via a radio signal.

Numerous additional solutions round out the offering: a smoke extractor for the passenger compartment, an LED signaling system for convoy travel, flashing lights, a siren, a preparation for professional mobile radio systems, a flag holder, a permanently installed telephone, an accident data recorder, an additional rearview camera and a heated windshield plus partially heated side windows. Going beyond all of this, Audi will also ensure customers’ special requests are taken care of an individual basis.

The interior of the A8 L Security is captivating, with its spacious design and workmanship on a craftsman’s level. The comfort on board is first class – the standard package includes a four-zone climate control system with an ionizer to freshen the air, electric rear blinds, the sonorous Bose surround sound system and a TV tuner. In the rear are two individual, seats with power adjustment. Also featuring a versatile adjustment range, the front comfort seats offer heating as well as optional massage and ventilation functions. In addition, the A8 L W12 Security comes with a standard full-leather package.

On request Audi will install the “relaxation seat” – a widely adjustable right-hand rear seat with a power-adjustable footrest, heating and massage. Also available is a full-length center console with large storage compartments, complemented by the rear seat entertainment system with two 10.2-inch displays. Optional features such as a folding table, a refrigerator and a parking heater make the time spent in the car even more pleasant.

Assistance and multimedia systems
For the high-security version of the A8 L, Audi offers virtually the entire gamut of advanced technologies available for the production version. The standard MMI Navigation plus system works with a large hard disk, a high-resolution eight-inch monitor and a fast 3D graphics processor. Its groundbreaking feature, however, is the touchpad – the MMI touch. It gives the driver intuitive control of many functions. The navigation destination, for example, can be entered by tracing the letters on the pad with a finger.

MMI navigation plus is tightly integrated with the assistance and safety systems in the Audi A8 L Security. It reads the road ahead and provides the data to the control units for the automatic transmission, the headlights and the optional adaptive cruise control with stop go function. With their increased intelligence, these systems can recognize complex scenarios and predictively support the driver.

The Audi pre sense safety system can reduce the severity of accidents and their consequences in many cases. The A8 L Security comes equipped with the pre sense basic version of the system, combined with the pre sense rear feature, which is coupled with the Audi side assist lane-changing system. Other optional systems enhance safety and comfort even further. These include Audi pre sense front as a component of ACC stop go, night vision assistant with highlighting of detected pedestrians and Audi lane assist, which detects boundary lines on the roadway.

A standard high-end feature is park assistance plus with Audi Top View – a system consisting of four cameras mounted on the car to monitor its surroundings. A computer compiles images from the cameras and presents them in various views on the onboard monitor. The Cornerview function gives the driver a glimpse of traffic crossing in front of the sedan – a practical aid when maneuvering through narrow exits, for example.

Audi also offers many attractive multimedia modules. The Audi A8 L Security is outfitted with the Bluetooth car phone online as standard.

A complete, fast connection to the Internet is established via an integrated UMTS module, and a partnership with Google endows the car with innovative, intelligent functions. Passengers can connect their mobile terminal devices to a WLAN hotspot. For discreet telephoning, separate telephone handsets are available as an option.

Audi is launching the new A8 L Security with a superb engine – the W12. The direct-injected gasoline engine owes its name to the W-shaped layout of its cylinders – four rows of three cylinders each, merged into two banks. From a displacement of 6.3 liters, the compact, lightweight W12 pumps out 368 kW (500 hp) of power and 625 Nm (460.98 lb-ft) of torque, with the latter readily available at 4,750 rpm.

The W12 is captivating, with its smooth running performance, its subtle, musical sound and its power. It accelerates the A8 L Security from 0 to 100 km/h (62.14 mph) in 7.3 seconds. In consideration of the tires, top speed is limited to 210 km/h (130.49 mph). The high-security sedan consumes just 13.5 liters of fuel on average per 100 km (17.42 US mpg) – by far the lowest figure among its direct competitors (performance and consumption figures are preliminary). Compared with the predecessor model generating 331 kW (450 hp), fuel consumption has dropped by 3.0 liters per 100 kilometers – that’s an improvement of 18 percent.

In the coming year, Audi will offer a second engine version, which will combine outstanding pulling power with surprising efficiency. Its average consumption of 10 to 11 liters per 100 km (23.52 to 21.38 US mpg) will earn it a best-in-class ranking in terms of fuel efficiency.

In both engine variants, power is transmitted via an eight-speed tiptronic featuring a large overall gear spread. Its control system is electronic, operated with an elegant selector lever or rocker switches at the steering wheel. The quattro permanent all-wheel drive system conducts the power from the engine to all four wheels. In the standard configuration, the sporty drive is emphasized at the rear; if the situation calls for it, the drive system redirects a majority of the torque input to the axle with the better traction.

The A8 L Security provides luxurious ride comfort. Audi developed its chassis, brake system and electronic control systems specifically for the increased weight; in the wheel control arms, for example, the tensile strengths, materials and wall thickness have all been recalibrated. The adaptive air suspension with controlled damping is integrated in the Audi drive select system, which enables fine-tuning of a number of parameters. The optional dynamic steering rounds out the range on offer.

The high-security sedan is fitted with standard 19-inch forged wheels featuring a semipolished, two-tone finish. The specially sized 255/720 tires have a high load index of 117. Synthetic rings on the rims allow the vehicle to continue traveling at speeds up to 80 km/h (49.71 mph) even after a malfunction has occurred.

A tire pressure monitoring system that continuously checks the settings is also part of the standard equipment. Audi offers a full-size spare tire as an option.

The Audi A8 L Security W12 will be ready for delivery in late summer. An additional engine will follow in 2012. Audi supports its customers with an extensive range of services and a special training course for drivers and owners.

Study: Average lifetime car insurance costs estimated at $84,000

Dig deep! Car insurance will cost you $84,000

A typical American can expect to pay an average of $84,388 for car insurance over a lifetime, according to an analysis of auto insurance quotes in the Insurance.com database.

How much money is that? Enough to purchase a median-priced home in central Florida city of Ocala – and still have $2,188 in pocket change left over, according to recent home price statistics from the National Association of Realtors.

Insurance.com based its analysis on quotes from drivers who first purchased insurance at age 21, married at 27, briefly insured two teens and stopped driving at age 75. The average premium includes drivers with all types of claims, accidents and other driving histories.

The lifetime cost of car insurance stacks up against other lifetime costs (ages 16 to 75) as follows:

Athletic shoes at one pair annually (ages 16-75): $2,737.01 for males, $2,597.18 for females
Pet insurance for one dog (12 years): $4,766
Trip to Disney World for a family of four: $5,026
Four years of college: $30,420
NYC monthly subway pass (ages 16 to 75): $63,012
New car every seven years (ages 22 to75): $150,065.71
All of the costs are in 2011 dollars and are not adjusted for inflation.

Cutting your lifetime car insurance cost

The thought of shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to insure your car may make you consider trading in car keys for a bus pass. Fortunately, there are relatively easy ways to trim auto insurance costs.

Sandra Spann, a spokeswoman for American Family Insurance, suggests one simple rule for driving down your lifetime insurance costs: “Obey the traffic laws and stay ticket-free.”

Most companies give you lower auto insurance rates when you remain accident-free and don’t rack up violations, Spann says. In that way, “they will reward you for good behavior,” she says.

Raising your deductible is another easy way to cut your lifetime auto insurance costs.

However, don’t take this step unless you have enough savings to pay the deductible should you have an accident. Paying a deductible with a high-interest credit card can be costly, Spann warn.

Adding teens to your auto insurance policy

Finding ways to trim auto insurance costs becomes even more important during the years your children are driving.

“Your biggest insurance expense comes when you add your kids to the policy,” says Joann Kraemer, a spokesperson for MetLife Auto Home.

Kraemer says taking advantage of good-student discounts can save parents money on auto insurance.

Kyle Anderson, a spokesperson for State Auto Insurance Cos., urges parents to alert their insurance company once the children head off to college.

“Let your insurer know if your child goes away to school or college,” Anderson says. “Premiums may be lower if the car doesn’t go to school with them.”

Some insurance companies also will offer a lower insurance rate if you’ll agree to install a device in the car that monitors your teen’s driving habits.

Other ways to cut auto insurance costs

Some tips for cutting auto insurance costs may be less obvious than others. For example, your plan to cut car insurance costs should begin the minute you zero in on the model you’d like to buy in your next car purchase, Anderson says.

“Take a look at its track record,” he says. “How is it rated in terms of safety? Does it often make it onto the list of ‘most stolen vehicles’?

Cars with strong safety records are less expensive to insure.

“Safer vehicles save you money,” says Kraemer. “They just have the features that protect people against injuries.”

Experts say other ways to save on lifetime auto insurance costs include:

Alert your insurance company if you are driving fewer miles to work.

Take a driver safety/defensive driving course. (In another recent story, we noted that discounts for classes are generally available only to certain age groups.)

Drop collision and comprehensive coverage on older cars.

Compare auto insurance quotes – using both online insurance tools and going to agents – to zero in on the lowest insurance rates.

Investigate whether bundling your coverages (such as auto insurance, home insurance, and umbrella insurance) with the same provider will give you better value for your insurance dollar.

Consider alternatives such as pay-as-you-drive auto insurance if you don’t have a long commute, and if it’s offered in your state.

Video: Semi Truck + Overpass = Snowpocalypse on the Interstate

Anybody who’s seen the security cam footage of the Minneapolis Metrodome roof collapse knows how powerful snow can be. It was amazing footage, something that rarely gets captured on camera. But in the age of the mobile phone camera, amazing videos are becoming less rare, as this video clearly illustrates.

The driver-turned amateur videographer was cruising down the road when a semi truck saddled with several cubic yards of snow atop the cargo box caught his or her eye. In spite of the inherent danger of driving while videotaping, the motorist couldn’t resist snagging some footage of the oddly tall snow snack. Lucky for us that moment was precisely when an overpass morphed a bad idea (distracted driving sucks) into some amazing footage. As you can see from the screen cap above, the overpass won the battle, but the exploding snow makes the video worth watching. Hit the jump to see for yourself.

[Source: YouTube]

NHTSA investigating Infiniti QX4, Nissan Pathfinder over corrosion fears

NHTSA Action Number: PE11004

Vehicle Make/Model:


Model Year(s):






The Office of Defects Investigation has received 35 reports on the subject vehicles alleging a corrosion related failure of the driver’s side front strut tower. In 18 of the reports there were allegations that the failures affected the vehicles steering, including five that reported the steering “shaft” or “column” broke resulting in a loss of steering. Severe corrosion of the frame/body structure in the area of the driver’s side front strut tower can allow the strut tower to fail. If the failed strut tower contacts the steering column upper joint, or otherwise restricts the rotation of the steering column shaft, it can result in increased steering effort, steering impediment, or a complete loss of steering control.
Date Investigation Opened : January 28, 2011
Date Investigation Closed : Open