Auto Outlook: Smart keys vs. smartphones; new car mileage a record 24.5 mph

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  March 17, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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As a new car owner I can tell you about the hassle of carrying a smart key as big as a tube of lip balm around to open, close and start the vehicle.

The so-called "smart key" is becoming standard with most new vehicles, but already some auto watchers are touting smartphone apps to run your car instead of a traditional or electronic key. A popular Chevrolet Cruze commercial features two guys entranced by one guy's wife's ability to start their car and open and close its doors remotely from her smartphone after she boarded a flight at the airport.

"Would you mind doing it again," the husband implores, and she obliges starting the car and opening and closing the door locks.

AAA said it assisted more than 4 million members who locked themselves out of their vehicles last year even as more manufacturers adopted transponder fobs that allow key-free entry and starting.

"Traditional car keys will likely become obsolete and be replaced by technologies offering even greater security and convenience," said John Nielsen, AAA's director of automotive engineering and repair. "Motorists will need to adapt with the technology to avoid the hassle and expense of smart key replacements."

When my service manager handed me the remote start fob for my crossover SUV he warned it would cost $300 to replace if I lost it. It's also important you remember never to start remotely a vehicle that's in a closed space like a parking garage where engine exhaust gases can build up.

The batteries in the fob also have to be changed periodically, although the operator's manual describes an emergency procedure for starting a vehicle with a dead key fob after using the auxiliary key to get inside the vehicle.

Most key-less entry and remote start fob batteries last at least a year and the devices warn of low power before they die. But it's up to the motorist to keep the fobs away from pets and the elements, especially water.

"The cost to replace a transponder key runs around $100, and replacement smart keys can cost several hundred dollars depending on the make and model," Nielsen said. "Many newer keys must be programmed by a dealer or locksmith with special electronic equipment and accesses to highly confidential codes that are required to service the vehicle security system."

Automatic Labs, a San Francisco start-up is taking pre-orders for a $69.95 device that plugs in a vehicle's on-board diagnostics port and links via Bluetooth 4.0 to a smartphone. It then reads and grades a drivers' habits, tracks road trips and monitors fuel-efficiency and other metrics.

The dongle-type data device -- called The Automatic Link -- also can warn motorists of vehicle problems, turn off a warning light on the dashboard and remember where you parked the vehicle. The device uses GPS to cross-reference filling stations, collects gas prices and reports how much fuel remains in the tank.

A crash alert system uses an iPhone 4S or 5's accelerometer and data connection to report a crash to 911 relaying the user's name, location and a vehicle description.

"Smartphones and the Internet have transformed our day-to-day lives, but our cars and how we drive them have been left behind," Automatic co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Thejo Kote said in a statement. "We believe that the smartphone can, in effect, upgrade millions of cars on the road today, and offer drivers features only available in high-end cars with expensive service plans."

The device ships in May.

Mileage improves for new vehicles

Buyers of new cars invariably mention better mileage as a major reason for their purchases and that requirement pushed average fuel economy of all new vehicles sold in the United States in February to a record 24.5 mpg.

That's an improvement of 4.4 mpg since the University of Michigan began monitoring average fuel economy of new vehicles in October 2007.

Sales of gas-sipping smaller cars jumped 5 percent in February as more buyers selected crossovers and small SUVs, which go much farther on a gallon of gas than mid-size cars and full-size SUVs. Sales of the Toyota Prius were down 13.5 percent in February but are up 4.5 percent for the year with 17,812 of the gas-electric hybrids sold last month.

The Prius was the best-selling vehicle in California in 2012.

Infiniti adding another hybrid

Nissan's luxury Infiniti brand is adding a hybrid version of the seven-passenger QX60 crossover to the mix at the New York International Auto Show.

The 2014 QX60, formally known as the JX35, is scheduled to make its debut at the Jacob Javits Center March 29 as one of three Direct Response Hybrid models for 2013. The three-row crossover, which goes on sale this summer, pairs a 15 kW electric motor with a 2.5-liter supercharged, four-cylinder gasoline engine to generate a combined 250-hp.

The $42,000 hybrid will be available with either front-wheel or all-wheel-drive with a continuously variable transmission, and expected combined city/highway mileage of 26 mpg, the best for any large luxury SUV.

Infiniti showed the all-new Q50 hybrid and Q70 hybrid at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

Infiniti is rebranding all its sedans and coupes with the letter "Q" and crossovers with the letters "QX."

The New York Auto show runs through April 7.

Ford sued over hybrid mileage claims

Two California law firms have consolidated lawsuits accusing Ford Motor Co. of "false and misleading" claims about mileage of 2013 C-Max hybrids and Ford Fusion hybrids.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates both of the vehicles at 47 mpg, but some owners say they've averaged 10 mpg less in real world driving. Consumer Reports said it got 37 mpg during testing of both vehicles.

"There's a lot of really unhappy people," attorney Rich McCune of McCuneWright in Redlands, Calif., told The Detroit News. "We've received hundreds of calls from the few newspaper stories that have been around."

The law firm, which previously filed suits accusing South Korea's Hyundai Motor Co. of exaggerating mileage of some of its vehicles, is consolidating hundreds of lawsuits with Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd of San Diego in a class-action.

Treasury continues to divest GM stock

"Government Motors" was less owned by the federal government at the end of February.

In a report to Congress, the Treasury Department said it raised $489.9 million last month when it sold some 17.2 million shares of General Motors Co. stock it has held since the 2009 auto industry bailout after selling at least 22.6 million GM shares in January.

Treasury reported it had recouped $29.8 billion of its $49.5 billion bailout of GM so far. The government still owns about 19 percent of the company, down from 61 percent. Citicorp Inc. and JPMorgan Chase are managing the sale of the government's common shares.

At current prices, Treasury would lose about $12 billion on the GM bailout.

Tesla delays Model X crossover

U.S. electric carmaker Tesla Motors confirmed that it has pushed back production of its all-wheel-drive Model X crossover until late 2014.

The company based in Palo Alto, Calif., said it would bring the crossover to showrooms this year when it introduced Model X in February 2012.

Tesla has a hit on its hands with the Model S sedan and has ramped up production. The company reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $81.5 million but said it expects to become profitable this year, The New York Times reported.

The Model X crossover is built on the same platform as the Model S sedan and features "falcon doors" that open upwards like wings.

Prices of the Model X are expected to be similar to pricing of the sedan with a 60 kW hour version for $69,000 and a 85 kW hour model for $79,900.

Tesla said in its annual report it has approval to complete repayment of $65 million in loans to the U.S. Department of Energy by the end of 2017, five years ahead of schedule.

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