VLF Automotive unveiled its Force 1 super car in Detroit this week. The vehicle features a completely carbon fibre body.

By Jeff Sanford

Toronto, Ontario -- January 14, 2016 -- Welcome to our latest round-up of interesting, unusual and occasionally worrying stories from the last week. This time around we bring you the news on Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s Exotic Car Collection, why Elon Musk knows Apple is working on a car and Ford’s attempts to build an autonomous vehicle that can handle snow.

- Enterprise Rent-A-Car's Exotic Car Collection is expanding rapidly across North America. The company's new service offers renters the ability to get behind the wheel of a Maserati, Jaguar or Mercedes Benz. The company has announced seven new Exotic Car Collection locations, including the first branch in Canada.

"This rapid growth is evidence of the strong demand we continue to see for luxury rentals," said Brice Adamson, the Senior Vice President at Enterprise who oversees the Exotic Car Collection. "We now have nearly 30 branches in operation and we're particularly pleased to expand our reach into whole new regions of North America, including our first Canadian location."

The Exotic Car Collection was created in 2006 to meet customer demand for luxury vehicle rentals. The Collection offers more than 70 makes and models of fully loaded luxury and high-end performance cars, with rentals starting at $175 to $200 per day. Enterprise has more than 450 neighborhood and airport locations throughout Canada. The company says it now operates “not only as a key provider for insurance replacement, weekend getaways and special occasions, but also as a local transportation alternative.”

- Elon Musk of Tesla says that Apple's unannounced car project is an "open secret." Musk was asked how he knew Apple was working on a car. His response: "Well it’s pretty hard to hide something if you hire over a thousand engineers to do it.” Apple has not disclosed its plan publicly. But the well-respected UK paper, the Financial Times, reported that Apple was hiring automotive experts to work in a "top-secret research lab." The Wall Street Journal claims the company is "creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle" under the codename Project Titan. The most recent rumour: Apple wants to unveil its electric car by 2019.

- US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox addressed the North American International Auto Show Thursday. He discussed government efforts to boost self-driving cars. President Barack Obama will make his first visit to the convention in Detroit on January 20. In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, Obama noted the "auto industry just had its best year ever" and took credit for the rescue program that guided Chrysler and General Motors through structured bankruptcies in 2009. "That's just part of a manufacturing surge that's created nearly 900,000 new jobs in the past six years," Obama added in his speech.

- Speaking of the State of the Union Address, in the 2011 version Obama called on auto manufacturers to get 1 million plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2015. Sales of electrics have been far slower than expected, however. Only about 490,000 vehicles have been sold. The low price of gasoline has dampened interest in EVs, sales of which were off 6 percent in 2015 as compared to the year before. The average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States has improved over the past few years, hitting 24.9 mpg in December.

- GM Introduced the 2017 Chevrolet Volt this week. The car has an expected operating range of around 200 miles on a charge and a sticker price at around $30,000, including the one-time $7,500 federal tax credit. According to one media report, “Originally conceived a few years ago back when gasoline was a budget buster and EVs were considered the salvation, $1 a gallon gasoline unfortunately makes the aforementioned Chevy Bolt look more like an overpriced small car than a high-tech zero-emissions money saver.” Sales of hybrids and EVs dropped by around by 17 percent last year.

- Automated vehicles (AVs) and connected cars are the big trend at the auto shows this year. The Toronto show will have a dedicated AV space. In Detroit the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mark Rosekind, met with Google and auto industry representatives to "discuss specific actions the department will take to enable and accelerate vehicle automation technologies that can transform vehicle safety and sustainability,” according to a press report. Apparently, the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class will offer “so many advanced driver assistance technologies that with just a few software changes the car could be allowed to drive itself hands-free,” according to a media report quoting company executives.

- A Barclay's bank analyst said forecasts “for the widespread adoption of autonomous cars range between five and 20 years away,” and that “their advent could lead to a fresh crisis for traditional automakers and their employed.” The analyst suggested that if self-driving and shared cars become the norm there could be “60 percent fewer vehicles on the road, and a one-third reduction in the number of auto-assembly plants by 2025 or 2030.”

- Forecasts suggest that by 2030, 15 percent of the cars will have been driven autonomously. Volvo is showing off its new C26 self-driving concept, which comes with "relaxation mode" setting: “… when you're stuck in traffic you just press a button and have the car which drives autonomously take over.”

- One commentator suggested the Detroit auto show is obsolete “because the newest models and the newest trends were just presented at CES in Las Vegas … the Detroit car show is the first major fair of the year, but we have already seen the new car trends in Las Vegas. That's not surprising because consumer electronics and car industries can no longer be separated."

- Ontario government minister Brad Duguid and federal minister Navdeep Bains were in Detroit recently for a series of meetings with Canadian and global automotive executives. “We want to make sure Ontario is part of their future investment decisions, both for today’s vehicles, today’s consumers but also using Ontario’s strength as a centre of excellence for information, communication technology, artificial intelligence, the connected car and for clean tech, which is an area of strength in Ontario today,” Duguid was quoted as saying. “That’s the message we will be delivering to auto executives throughout the show.”

The North American auto industry has been posting record-breaking sales over the last few years, but Canada’s share of North American auto production has been declining. Duguid also said the Chrysler Pacifica, built in Windsor, is the “Coolest van ever built.” The generally lacklustre sales for the product suggest most auto buyers don't agree.

- Two big names in the car industry, designer Henrik Fisker and General Motors veteran Bob Lutz, have teamed up to form a new luxury brand, VLF Automotive. The new company unveiled its Force 1 supercar in Detroit, just a week after its designer filed a $100 million lawsuit against luxury British auto brand Aston Martin. The Force 1 features a lightweight carbon fibre body.

- Gaurav Bansal, a senior researcher at Toyota's InfoTechnology Center USA, spoke on a panel about connected cars. He was quoted as saying that “drivers will still likely need Bluetooth to connect their phones to their cars. But, they will also need Wi-Fi for downloading high-definition maps ... I would need cellular for some real-time updates that I need for when I’m on the road and I can’t connect to cheap Wi-Fi.” He also said a modified version of Wi-Fi for dedicated short range communications will also have to be developed that would let “vehicles communicate with other similarly equipped vehicles to exchange safety messages to prevent crashes.”

- Also coming in Detroit: The Blessing of the Lowriders. Community pastor Victor Villalobos has organized the event to give the local kids some direction and a sense of identity outside of their gang membership. The kids bring their bikes and cars to the church for the ceremony, and get a blessing from the priest.

- Ford is testing AVs in the snow. The University of Michigan said on Monday that they have conducted what they believe are the first tests of autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions, according to a press released. The automaker and university tested the vehicles in Michigan and on the university’s 32-acre Mcity simulated urban environment, noting in a statement that typical autonomous vehicle sensors are useless on snow-covered roads.

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather. It’s quite another to do the same thing when its sensors cannot sense the road through snow, or when visibility is limited by falling precipitation,” said Jim McBride, Ford’s Technical Leader for Autonomous Vehicles, in the statement from Ford. “In Ford’s home state of Michigan, we know weather isn’t always perfect. That’s why we’re conducting testing – for the roughly 70 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions.”

Ford’s AVs rely on LiDAR sensors that can pinpoint lane location with “centimetre accuracy.” LiDAR emits short pulses of laser light to precisely allow the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3D image of what’s around it. But LiDAR cannot see the road when snow obstructs it from view. The solution Ford and U-M are working on involves high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road and what’s above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography. Researchers have developed these maps and Ford’s test vehicles are equipped with them.

“The maps we create contain useful information about the 3D environment around the car, allowing it to localize even with a blanket of snow covering the ground,” Eustice said.


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