Auto Outlook: Is the driving boom over; domestic cars quality up

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  May 19, 2013 at 5:30 AM
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New models from Chrysler, Buick, Chevrolet and Ford are at the top of their respective segments in Strategic Vision's "Best 2013 Total Quality" awards.

The research consultancy annually acknowledges what it considers the best vehicles in 21 categories using a concept called "total quality" and the showing of the Detroit Three may be a surprise for some. Domestic vehicles were judged the best in 12 categories.

The 2013 Dodge Dart was the top quality Small Car; Ford Fusion and Chevy Volt, top Mid-Size Car; Chevrolet Corvette Coupe, top Premium Coupe; Chrysler 200 Convertible, best Convertible; Chevrolet Traverse, best Mid-size Crossover Utility; Dodge Durango, best Midsize Traditional Utility; GMC Yukon, best Large Utility, Buick Enclave, top Near-Luxury Utility; Chevrolet Avalanche, best Full-Size Pickup and Ford F-250/350 best Heavy-Duty Pickup.

"There's no questioning domestic car makers want to lead," said Alexander Edwards, President of San Diego-based Strategic Vision. "For the first time in over a decade our comprehensive and complete study of quality resulted in more domestic winners than imports."

Strategic Vision began the survey in 1995 and measures 155 specific aspects of quality and more than 442 variables based on the opinions of nearly 17,600 buyers who purchased 2013 vehicles from September to November.

"The Dodge Dart's win in the small car segment is extraordinary when you consider how much focus, design and competitive engineering exists within this important segment. Dart is essentially 'proof of concept' that when you mix super exceptional versatility motivating exterior styling, and a strong array of high quality performing components and concepts, customers respond," Strategic Vision Vice President Christopher Chaney said.

Other Total Quality winners were the Kia Soul, Small Multi-Function vehicles; Honda Accord Crosstour, Mid-Size Multi-Function; Volkswagen CC, Large Car; Hyundai Genesis Sedan and Auto A4 Sedan, near Luxury Car; Lexus LS, Luxury Car; Mini Cooper Hardtop, Specialty Coupe; Porsche Boxster and Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, Premium Convertible/Roadster; Volkswagen Tiguan and Toyota FJ Cruiser, Entry Utility and Porsche Cayenne, Luxury Utility.

Volkswagen was the best brand in overall Total Quality for the eighth straight year, Ford was second and General Motors and Hyundai tied for third. Audi and Lexus tied for best individual brand followed by Mini, Cadillac, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, Jaguar, Infiniti and Buick.

Cost may slow development of connected cars

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says advanced technology connecting vehicles on the road will save lives, but he's concerned about the cost.

"We know it's going the save lives," LaHood said in Ann Arbor last week after opening the University of Michigan's Symposium on Connected Cars. "We know this technology is going to help people avoid accidents."

LaHood, who is leaving the administration after four years, said it's up to automakers to figure out how much a connected car system will cost.

DOT has been experimenting with nearly 3,000 connected "smart" vehicles on the streets of Ann Arbor since August in a $25 million project with eight major carmakers. Sensors installed in the vehicles provide information to other vehicles on road and weather conditions and vehicle-to-vehicle communications could someday help avoid collisions.

"Cost hasn't really been a factor at this point," he said. "But ultimately, it will be."

The watchdog National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has requested $2 million for a new office to study self-driving cars and to ensure vehicles electronically connected to traffic networks, and to each other, can't be hacked.

"NHTSA recognizes the challenge and the growing onboard potential for remotely compromising vehicle security through software and increased onboard communications services," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday. "With electronics systems assuming safety critical roles in nearly all vehicle controls, we are facing the need to develop general requirements."

In Ann Arbor, LaHood also touted the National Transportation Safety Board's proposal to lower the legal blood alcohol limit for drunken driving to 0.05 from the current 0.08 limit and raise the drinking age from 18 to 21.

For a 130-pound woman that's about two glasses of wine consumed within an hour and for an average size man that's about three drinks.

"I think everybody knows that 0.08 is the standard," LaHood told WWJ-AM, Detroit. "I think there will be a big debate over whether to go to a different standard or not."

The NTSB voted 5-0 to recommend lowering the DUI standard to reduce the nearly 10,000 drunken driving traffic fatalities each year.

"It's going to happen. We don't know how long it will take, but it will happen," NTSB development division head Robert Molloy told The Detroit News. NTSB estimates drunken driving -- blamed for 31 percent of all traffic deaths -- costs society $130 billion a year.

NTSB says a driver with a 0.05 blood alcohol level has a 38 percent higher risk of being in an accident compared to a driver who has not been drinking. The current blood alcohol limit for commercial drivers is 0.04.

The recommendation does not have universal support, including that of the Obama administration and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland said there's insufficient data to support the NTSB's proposal for dropping the blood alcohol content limit to 0.05.

"At this point, we don't have any data on 0.05 BAC," he told reporters. Strickland said more data is needed before his agency can make a recommendation to Congress.

"Moving from 0.08 to 0.05 would criminalize perfectly responsible behavior," Sarah Longwell of The American Beverage Institute, a trade group representing restaurants, said in a release. "Further restricting the moderate consumption of alcohol by responsible adults prior to driving does nothing to stop hardcore drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel."

The Governors Highway Safety Association says states should ensure drivers convicted of DUI have to blow on an alcohol ignition interlock device to prove they are sober before they can start their vehicles. NTSB wants all 50 states to require the interlock devices in vehicles of all motorists convicted of driving under the influence.

Is the driving boom over?

A study by U.S. Pirg, the non-profit federation of state groups, finds total miles driven by Americans peaked in 2007 and will decline as baby boomers retire and millennials -- age 16 to 34 -- drive less.

The average number of miles driven is expected to be down for the eighth consecutive year, the report said.

"The driving boom is over," said U.S. Pirg Education Fund senior analyst Phineas Baxandall, who co-wrote the report. "The constant increases we saw in driving up until 2005 show no sign of returning. As more and more millennials become adults, and their tendency to drive less becomes the norm, the reduction in driving will be even larger."

The report found millennials drove 23 percent fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001 and are far more likely to prefer walkable urban neighborhoods and public transportation than their parents and grandparents.

The study, which looks out as far as 2040, said the generational shift will make it hard to justify massive spending on new and improved roads and infrastructure as spending on public transportation falls.

"America's transportation leaders need to wake up to the momentous changes that have taken place over the last decade," Baxandall said in a release. "The infrastructure we build today will mainly be used and paid for by the millennials who are leading the trend away from driving."

The report projects by 2040, U.S. motorists will use about half the gasoline and other motor fuels they use today -- lowering motor fuel taxes as much as 74 percent -- traffic congestion will ease, toll roads will be less financially viable and public transit will become a better investment.

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