Auto Outlook: Automakers, feds tackle drunken driving, Tesla rebounds

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer
2014 Ford Mustang. (Photo Courtsey of Ford Motor Co.)
2014 Ford Mustang. (Photo Courtsey of Ford Motor Co.)

Drunken driving and the holidays, unfortunately, go together like fruit and nuts. The holiday period can be a dangerous time to get around.

On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reached a multimillion-dollar agreement with 15 major automakers, including GM, Ford and Chrysler, to continue work for five more years on technology to keep drunks from getting behind the wheel.


The government is cooperating with carmakers on a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety that can detect alcohol on a driver without him or her blowing into an ignition interlock system.

The non-invasive system will measure blood-alcohol content based on touch or breath and not allow a vehicle to be started when the driver is above the legal alcohol limit of 0.08 adopted by all 50 states and in U.S. territories. While such a system is still in the laboratory, officials hope to road test a prototype in a few years.


"In this age of innovation, smart technology may be the breakthrough we need to prevent drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel and endangering the safety of others on our roads," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

More than 10,300 people were killed in auto crashes involving drunken drivers in 2012, compared to 9,865 in 2011, the first increase in six years. Eight-hundred-30 people were killed in crashes involved drinking during last year's holiday season.

Tesla attracting suitors?

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Despite bad jokes comparing the Model S to a barbeque cart on wheels, California's Tesla Motors has apparently weathered the storm and is attracting suitors as well as new car buyers.

Regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week retained the five-star safety rating for the all-electric sedan after three of the $71,000 cars were totaled when batteries overheated and caught fire after road accidents.

NHTSA launched a review of the rechargeable car's rating for crashworthiness after Model S fires occurred in Washington state and Tennessee. Both cars hit road debris that damaged the battery compartment. The third fire involved a Tesla that hit a concrete barrier in Merida, Mexico.

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Tesla has passed the test with investors, with Wall Street pushing its stock to $151.38 near year's end -- rebounding from a 26 percent dip after news of the battery fires in October and November.


Tesla began selling the Model S in Germany where the country's federal transportation regulator cleared the sedan of any safety defects.

Those developments triggered speculation that other manufacturers might be interested in acquiring the fledgling car maker led by billionaire Elon Musk. Tesla has a market capitalization of more than $18 billion.

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Veteran trader Yra Harris of Praxis Trading said in an interview on CNBC General Motors -- which makes the plug-in hybrid Volt -- may try to acquire Tesla. GM has sold fewer than 19,000 Volts in three years while Tesla sold a record 5,500 Model S sedans in the third quarter and hopes to sell 21,500 cars this year.

Tesla is expanding stores, service centers and its network of Supercharger fast charging stations, plans to introduce the Model X sport utility vehicle next year and is working on a cheaper all-electric car for the future that would sell for about $40,000.

The more affordable Tesla could hit the market in 2016 or 2017.

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Musk wrote in a 2006 post: "The strategy of Tesla is to enter the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium. The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan [just between you and me]. Then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model."


Tesla also plans to test the market in China in 2014.

Older vehicles keep rolling

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New car sales are finishing the year at a torrid pace but the average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is the oldest in history, 11.3 years.

Five years ago the average age of U.S. vehicles in service was 10, but the economic downturn led to a 4 percent increase in average vehicle age from 2002 through 2007, and a 10 percent increase since then as many motorists chose to skip new car purchases, IHS Automotive reported.

The automotive research firm expects the average car or truck on the road to hit 11.5 years through 2018 as consumers who buy new cars hold on to them longer.

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One reason the average vehicle age is expected to keep rising is people with the oldest vehicles often buy a newer model used car rather than pay the premium for a brand new car.

U.S. car exports hit record

More than 2 million U.S.-built cars could find new owners in foreign countries this year.

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IHS Automotive says nearly half of those exports are vehicles made by the Detroit Three. Forty-nine percent of the exports head to Canada or Mexico.


Ford, which exported 370,000 U.S.-built vehicles in 2011, sells F-150 pickups built in Dearborn, Mich., and Kansas City, Mo., in 49 countries and the new 2014 Mustang will head to 100 countries.

Chrysler ships U.S.-built Jeeps to China and GM exports a Michigan-built version of its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, called the Opel Ampera, to Europe.

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Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Nissan and German automakers, including Mercedes Benz, are sending more of their U.S.-built cars around the world.

Because of the strong yen Japanese automakers want to export more U.S-made vehicles and reduce imports from Japan.

"The growing number of exports has everything to do with plant retooling and this new product onslaught, with an eye toward meeting global demand, IHS manager Mike Jackson told the Detroit News.

Michigan legalizes driverless cars

Michigan last week joined Nevada, Florida and California among the U.S. states permitting testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads.

Measures permitting driverless cars easily cleared the state Legislature this month and Gov. Rick Snyder signed it Friday. A licensed driver will have to be in the driver's seat during all road testing and have the ability to take the wheel in case of emergency.


"By allowing the testing of automated, driverless cars today, we will stay at the forefront in automotive technological advances that will make driving safe and more efficient in the future," Snyder said in a statement.

Robotic vehicles in Michigan will get license plates with an "M" before the number to identify them.

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