Auto Outlook: Ford pushes driverless car tech, minicar crash tests

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer
The 2014 Chevrolet Spark was the only one of 11 minicars to earn an "acceptable" rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's tough front small-overlap crash test. (Photo Courtesy of General Motors Co.)
The 2014 Chevrolet Spark was the only one of 11 minicars to earn an "acceptable" rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's tough front small-overlap crash test. (Photo Courtesy of General Motors Co.)

Ford is joining forces with Stanford University and MIT to improve the technologies of autonomous vehicles that "see" around objects and detect other cars and people.

"Our goal is to provide the vehicle with common sense," Greg Stevens, Ford's global manager for driver assistance and active safety, research and innovation, said in a statement. "Drivers are good at using the cues around them to predict what will happen next, and they know that what you can't see is often as important as what you can see. Our goal in working with MIT and Stanford is to bring a similar type of intuition to the vehicle."


The brainy folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will develop scenarios for driverless cars involving pedestrians and other vehicles -- like when and how a vehicle should pull over to the side of the road to give an emergency vehicle the right-of-way.


Stanford researchers will explore how sensors should peek around obstacles like when a driver's view is blocked by a large truck or when a closing lane requires a quick or a gradual merge into traffic.

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The University of Michigan has been working with Ford to develop technologies capable of letting driverless vehicles analyze roads, buildings and other structures to construct a 3D model of the surrounding environment.

The Detroit News says researchers at UM are processing a massive stream of data collected by Ford's automated Fusion Hybrid vehicle that uses four LiDAR laser radar sensors to build a real-time 3D map of what's around the vehicle.

Ford's Blueprint for Mobility is the U.S. automaker's road map to get to advanced driverless technologies that may be common by 2025.

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"To deliver on our vision for the future of mobility, we need to work with many new partners across the public and private sectors, and we need to start today," said Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president, Ford research and innovation. "Working with university partners like MIT and Stanford enables us to address some of the longer-term challenges surrounding automated driving while exploring more near-term solutions for delivering an even safer and more efficient driving experience."


Safety a "dark side" of smallest vehicles

Minicars are popular and sales are up. The tiny vehicles sip gas, can maneuver around obstacles and are great if you have to find street parking in the city.

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But they don't hold much comfortably beyond a couple of passengers and groceries, and of course, because they weigh less than other vehicles they are at a distinct disadvantage in a collision with a larger vehicle.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found 10 of 11 minicars in its small overlap crash test -- in which 25 percent of the front of a vehicle is driven into a 5-foot barrier at 40 mph -- failed. The test simulates crashing the corner of a car into a tree or utility pole.

None of the small cars earned a "good" rating in the crash test.

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The Chevrolet Spark was the only subcompact tested to earn an "acceptable" rating. Four others -- the 2014 Ford Fiesta, 2011-14 Mazda2, 2012-14 Kia Rio and the 2012-14 Toyota Yaris -- were rated marginal.

The 2013-14 Hyundai Accent, 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage, 2012-14 Nissan Versa sedan, 2012-14 Toyota Prius C, 2013-14 Fiat 500 and 2009-14 Honda Fit all were rated "poor," with the Fit and the 500 the two worst-performing vehicles in the test. The Fit was redesigned for 2015 and debuted at the Detroit Auto Show.


IIHS, an Arlington, Va., group financed by the insurance industry that crash tests vehicles and reports to the public, noted small cars have fared much better than minicars in its testing.

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"Small, lightweight vehicles have an inherent safety disadvantage," said Joe Nolan, IIHS' senior vice president for vehicle research. "Unfortunately, as a group, minicars aren't performing as well as other vehicle categories in the small overlap crash."

Of 17 slightly larger compact cars tested so far, five earned good ratings in the small front overlap crash and five were acceptable. All of the minicars tested, including the Spark, had issues with the vehicle's structure, which should protect occupants from injury in a crash.

The head of a crash test dummy in both the Fit and 500 did not stay in contact with the front airbag and the Fiat's driver's side door was knocked open after the hinges tore. The impact pushed the vehicle's structure into the passenger compartment of both cars and the steering column was pushed back toward the driver.

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The Spark received an acceptable rating because the movement of the crash-test dummy was fairly well controlled and injuries would have been low for all regions of the body, including the lower leg and foot.


However, the IIHS report said: "Consumers should remember that the Spark, while offering more small overlap protection than other minicars, weighs less than 2,500 pounds and doesn't protect as well as a larger and heavier vehicle with a comparable rating."

General Motors said the Spark, which is 12 feet long and has a short 93.5-inch wheelbase, uses high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels to beef up front-end protection and maintain integrity in a rollover. The Spark also has 10 standard air bags.

Chrysler Group "100 percent" Italian owned

Italian automaker Fiat SpA last week said it had gained total ownership of Chrysler Group LLC.

Fiat announced agreement with the UAW trust to buy the 41.5 percent of shares it did not already own for $4.35 billion Jan. 1 and Tuesday said Chrysler "is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Fiat."

The UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, which provides healthcare benefits to more than 777,000 UAW retirees and their dependents, was paid $3.825 billion of that Tuesday. Fiat agreed to pay the UAW trust $1.75 billion in cash, $1.9 billion in contributions and make $700 million in payments over four years, the New York Times said.

"We reached a successful conclusion that will benefit the trust's retirees," Robert Naftaly, chairman of the committee that runs the UAW trust, said in a statement. "This was always our goal. As a result, the trust is stronger."


The Detroit News said the merged company is expected to have both Fiat and Chrysler in its name.

Fiat's board of directions will decide the new name, where to register the combined company and where the stock will be listed, either on the New York Stock Exchange or in Milan, Italy, at a Jan. 29 meeting.

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