What Makes a Good Car “Good”?

 

What are the makings of a well-thought-out, well-built, well-performing car? Forward-thinking design. Precision tooling. Skilled workers and quality workmanship. Structural integrity and functionality. Quality parts and components. A great car has them all. A good, or really good car, has some or most of those inputs and attributes in equal quantity.

The average car is made up of thousands of parts–some large composite ones, like the engine, itself made of thousands of individual pieces, which is then installed as a unit, others discrete or truly singular things like nuts and bolts. Every piece needs to be machined, inspected and connected to another piece–welded, bolted, glued, screwed or snapped on by people, by robots, by people manipulating robots–generally on an assembly line that can roll out many hundreds of finished automobiles in a day. There are “bespoke” cars, too, many parts of which are handmade and hand-finished, and which are priced accordingly. How well each of the steps is accomplished, how much attention paid to ‘tolerances’ (how tightly the windows and doors close), paint and trim finishes, and overall consistency, determines a car’s quality and long-term, reliable serviceability.

The manufacturing/assembly stage of virtually ever car starts out at the basic building-block level, what’s known as “body in white”–that point where a car body’s sheet metal components have been welded together, before painting and before moving parts (like doors, hoods, and deck lids), components like the engine, chassis sub-assemblies, and trim elements (like glass, seats, and electronics) have been assembled in the frame structure. According to Wikipedia, “In car design, the Body in White phase refers to the phase in which the final contours of the car body are worked out, in preparation for ordering of the expensive production stamping die.” CR012K14-AUTO-CC-Ford_Fiesta_14_2793_FConsiderations including crash worthiness, manufacturability, and aerodynamics are studied and evaluated at this stage, before a clay model from the design studio can become a Body in White ready for production.CR072K15-Made in America Cars

 

                                                               . . .And Where Are Cars Really Made?

Where a car is actually  2015-subaru-outback_600x400 acurardxinfinitiqx60produced, its “nationality,” is ever harder to specify, given globalization and the fact that automakers and suppliers trade in parts from all over the world, then build, assemble and sell different components and the finished vehicles anywhere and everywhere (with manufacturers continually refining new designs and technologies, Korean, European and Japanese automakers all have assembly plants in America). So “foreign” versus “made in the U.S.A.” gets a bit blurry. According to Consumer Reports.org, “In 2014, about 11 million vehicles from a dozen brands were built in the U.S. But they vary considerably in the percentage of U.S.-manufactured components they use.” New cars have to display a parts-content window sticker (required since 1994 by the American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA) that shows the final assembly point, source of the engine and transmission, and which countries supplied 15 percent or more of the vehicle’s equipment. But the Act does count parts from NAFTA member Canada with those sourced in the U.S. Everywhere else is “foreign,” including even Mexico, also part of NAFTA.

“You’re never going to get a car made 100 percent in one country anymore,” says supply chain expert Eric Fedewa, Global Market Intelligence at Eaton. “What you’ll typically see instead is larger components made near the point of sale, to save shipping costs, while small components like electric motors and actuators will be brought in from anywhere.”

SUVs: The Evolution of A Driving Favorite

The SUV family tree includes station wagons, estate cars, light pickup trucks, minivans, large sedans, and even some standout forebears like the WWII-era Willys MB (or Jeep). SUVs began their more modern, widespread, popular presence in the 1990s, peaked in appeal because of high oil prices, then got hot again, especially when gas started getting cheaper and prices more stable. According to Wikipedia, “At the end of 2016, sales of SUVs and light duty trucks had surpassed traditional car sales for the year by over 3 million units.” Buyers like the bigger passenger and cargo space, safety features, towing possibilities and off-road capability.2017_Honda_CR-V_3 2017_Honda_CR-V_82016_land_rover_range_rover_angularfront2017_Jeep_Grand_Cherokee_13

 

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What Is It?

Although there’s no single, inclusive definition, an SUV is definitely not a sedan. Edmunds, the everything-about-cars resource, uses the term to describe a vehicle with “a tall body, a hatchback and an elevated ride height,” and built on either a car platform (in which case, marketers are usually talking about a “crossover”) or a truck platform. A “car-based” design may give you better handling, better fuel economy, and a smoother, roomier ride. “Truck-based” SUVs are heavier, can tow more, and generally score better off-road.

Within those fairly broad descriptors is a nearly infinite choice of manufacturers, models, trim levels, and bells and whistles.  Subcompact to full-size, with subsets depending on seat layout (“3rd row, seats 8!”). And, of course, a very wide price range (from $20,000-ish to more than a hundred grand for very upscale, luxury examples).

What To Look For

Consider good crash scores (from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) among your buying checklist items (which should also include points like “cost to own” and insurance premiums).

ABS, front-side airbags and stability control are pretty standard, and more high-tech features like rearview cameras, keyless starters, power liftgates, and blind-spot warning alerts are becoming increasingly standard (as they are on more and more vehicles generally). And look for driver- and passenger-friendly features like foldable/removable–or reclinable–rear seats, electronic and entertainment options, plus extra storage bins and cup holders.

Performance

Four-to-eight cylinders, 2WD/4WD/AWD are all options.  Even if “very good” gas mileage isn’t generally associated with SUVs, the most efficient and economical can get you in the mid-high 20 mpg range, with hybrids doing considerably better.

Check out U.S. News & World Report’s Rankings and Reviews of the best 2017 SUVs (based on performance, exterior, interior, safety, and reliability).  They range from the #1 Compact Category Honda CR-V to the tied-for #2 Luxury SUV With 3 Rows–the Audi Q7 and the BMW X5 (the 2016 Tesla Model X won number one in this category).

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Horsepower: The Measure of the Machine

vision-760x506Vroooom! Vroooom! That throaty, low roar generated by a powerful V8 or V12 engine with impressive horsepower–really gets your attention, right?

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There are different standards for measuring different types of horsepower.

For example, there are the mechanical (or imperial) horsepower, approximately 746 watts, and the metric horsepower, about 735.5 watts. Eighteenth century Scottish inventor and engineer, James Watt, of the Watt steam engine fame, used the term ‘horsepower’ to compare the output of steam engines with the power draft horses (work horses) could generate. Of course, the watt, the SI unit of power–The International System of Units, the modern form of the metric system–is named after James himself.

The British Imperial System measures one horsepower as equal to 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute, meaning the power required to lift a total mass of 33,000 pounds one foot in one minute. How does that translate in automotive terms? Horsepower in relation to reciprocating engines is usually expressed as indicated horsepower, determined from the pressure in the cylinders. A reciprocating engine, or piston engine, is what’s commonly called a heat engine that uses one or more reciprocating pistons to convert pressure into a rotating motion–just like under the hood of your car.

 

The challenge:

Getting the power to the ground, quickly and efficiently.

Horsepower, basically how strong your engine is, plus torque (the force that makes things rotate or turn; in this case, the force from the pistons that goes to the crankshaft that makes the axles and wheels turn) are among the critical elements in a car’s design and engineering that contribute to things like acceleration rates, stopping distances and fuel efficiency, in other words, performance and functionality.

Cars can be classified as almost anything between “mini-sub-compacts” to “muscle cars,” “supercars,” and “hypercars,” with horsepower to match in ranges from the low 100s and 300s, to 500, 800, 1,000 1,200, 1,500, and sometimes more (in pure fantasy concept cars). SAE International power and torque certification provides auto manufacturers a way to assure a customer that the engine they’re buying delivers the specs that are advertised.

 

Many top-ten lists of 2017’s best high horsepower sports cars include the Audi R8 5.2 V10 with standard 5.2L V-10 540-hp engine, and 7-speed auto transmission; Cadillac’s CTS-V Base model, including a standard 6.2L V-8 640-hp intercooled supercharger engine, and 8-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, and the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, with a standard list that includes a 6.2L V-8 650-hp intercooled supercharger engine, and 6-speed manual transmission with overdrive.

At another point on the 2017 model year spectrum, the Mercedes-Benz AMG CLA45 Base features AMG 2.0L I-4 375-hp intercooled turbo engine and 7-speed auto-shift manual transmission, the 155-hp, SKYACTIV-G 2.0L I-4 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Club, sporting a 6-speed manual, and the MINI Hardtop John Cooper Works that comes standard with a 2.0L I-4 228-hp intercooled turbo engine and 6-speed manual transmission.

To put those above specs in perspective, consider the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, called the fastest road car and most powerful production car ever (launched in 2010): 1,200-hp, maximum torque 1,500 Nm, acceleration from 0 to 100 km/h in 2.5 seconds, top speed of 415 km/h.

Now comes ‘son of Veyron,’ the world’s newest “most powerful, fastest, most luxurious and most exclusive production super sports car: the “quintessential ultimate super sports car” (Bugatti’s descriptor), Bugatti Chiron: 1,500-hp, 16 cylinders, 4 turbochargers. $2.5 million.

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Challengers, anyone?

Four? Six? Eight? Twelve–And Beyond??

How Many Cylinders Do You Need?

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If you open your car’s hood to do more than replenish the windshield washing fluid, you’re probably familiar with the engine block, cylinders, pistons and other parts usually seen only by mechanics.
So what are they, these usually kept-in-the-dark components, and what do they actually do?

Very simply described, a cylinder is the main working part of an engine, in this case your car’s reciprocating engine, an internal combustion or ‘heat engine’ that converts pressure into a rotating motion that makes the axles and the wheels go ‘round and ‘round. Each piston is inside a cylinder, where fuel and air mix, expand in the heat, and push that piston up and down to provide the engine’s power. The number of cylinders, and the volume displaced by the engine (this refers to the “swept volume” of all the pistons inside the cylinders in one movement from top to bottom; usually measured in cubic centimeters, or CCs) are factors which determine how powerful your engine is, how big it is, its performance specs, and more. Generally, the more cylinders, the more CCs, the bigger the engine, the more horsepower. (Some cars are engineered to produce more horsepower out of a smaller engine, so the rule isn’t inviolable.)

According to Wikipedia, “The inline-four engine or straight-four engine is a type of inline internal combustion four-cylinder engine with all four cylinders mounted in a straight line, or plane along the crankcase. . .(and) the inline-four is the most common engine configuration in modern cars, while the V6 engine is the second most popular.”
Many bigger and more powerful V8s and 12s occupy supercar and race car territory.
(The crankcase houses the crankshaft, which converts the piston motion into rotational motion, to make the car move.)

If you’re new-car shopping, consider engine size and number of cylinders, along with MPG estimates, to determine the kind of driving performance you can expect. A test drive, including at highway speeds, can help you decide what’s best for you.

**These makes are among the best four-cylinders according to recent evaluations by U.S. News & World Report

The compact Mazda3 (available in 155-hp and 184-hp models), the compact hatchback Kia Soul (with engine choices ranging from a 1.6-liter, 130-hp to a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter version), and the Honda Civic, offered in a 2.0-liter,158-horsepower model and a 174-hp, 1.5-liter turbo for the upper trim levels.
Although many top-ranked four-cylinder cars are compacts, four-cylinders are also used to power larger cars, like the Chevy Malibu (the best-rated midsize sedan in the magazine’s rankings). The Malibu’s top-tier 250-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is paired with a nine-speed automatic transmission.

Styles. Shapes. Sizes. Coming To Terms With What A Car Is Called

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BMW-5series-sedan-imagesandvideos-1920x1200-10What’s In A Name?

Cars are classified according to basic descriptions, specifications, common standards (among countries and manufacturers), insurance data, safety requirements, other regulations (to determine tax amounts, e.g.), within a wide range of naming and defining categories. Some terms and descriptors are very common and easy to recognize, others a little more arcane.

Whether you’re shopping for a car, collecting cars, or if just reading the latest car news gets your engine fired up, here’s a brief refresher course.

Convertibles and Retractable Roofs

Historically, the French cabriolet (where the word “cab” or “taxi cab” comes from) defined a light 2-wheeled one-horse carriage, drawn by a horse, that featured a folding leather hood (the word originally meant a jumping or leaping goat, appropriate for the carriages that had springy suspensions). Today, it’s a bit of a fancier word that refers to an auto body style that can go from open-air to all-enclosed. . .in other words, a convertible.
Depending on make and model, a convertible can have a rigid frame covered with a flexible, folding fabric, a retractable hardtop, a completely detachable roof, or removable panels. There’s also the ‘semiconvertible’ design, called a cabrio coach, with a retractable or removable top. In this case, the coach retains fully framed windows on its doors and side glass.

Convertibles do provide good visibility, besides that SoCal wind-in-your-hair, sun-on-your-face experience, but there are some convertible ‘cons’ too, including potentially reduced structural rigidity and aerodynamics, potentially less cargo and/or interior space, and reduced safety considerations (not to mention difficulty hands-free talking on a cell phone when the top’s down).

As an example, the 2017 Mercedes-Benz C-class Cabriolet (based on the C-class coupe; see below) is a family of models ranging from base design, four-cylinder C300, available with either rear- or all-wheel drive, to the all-wheel-drive, six-cylinder C43 AMG, and two rear-drive, eight-cylinder iterations, the Mercedes-AMG C63 and C63 S. All C-class cabriolets are turbocharged with automatic transmissions.

Sedans and Such

The French also gave us coupé (from “cut”; a coupe is shorter than a sedan), a body style recognizable by its two doors and fixed roof.
Manufacturers have come up with a dizzying list of names to describe features and details, and to market these sleeker, sportier cars (“club coupe,” “business coupe,” “berlinetta,” “quad coupe” and more). Their popularity may have dwindled in competition with SUVs and trucks, but there’s no denying coupes can be very cool. See the 2017 Ford Mustang array for examples.

Sedan is the name for a closed car design that has two or four doors and a front and rear seat (continuing our pattern, it’s also the name of a French city). A “sedan” can sound stodgy, but they are popular because they’re practical–for required seating situations–comfortable and efficient. They’re available in small, medium and large, with or without luxury features, even in the ‘high performance’ range. Sedans are represented by the smaller (‘subcompact’) Ford Fiesta and Honda Civic, the midsize range (Ford Fusion, Kia Optima), and premium, luxury nameplates like BMW.
Finishes, features and of course, prices, are appropriate to what you like and what you’re looking for–from basic transportation on up.

SUVs, Crossovers

Built to transport big groups of people, lots of cargo, or both at varying times, four-wheel-drive Sport Utility Vehicles are constructed on a truck chassis (body-on-frame), are similar to a station wagon, can go on or off-road, and may have towing capacity.

A crossover is built on a car platform (unibody construction) and combines in varying configurations, features of an SUV and a passenger vehicle.
Both designs have become so popular, and “interchangeable” as marketing terms and in consumers’ minds, that Wikipedia says, “SUV” is used to describe nearly anything with available all-wheel drive and raised ground clearance.” Today’s front-, rear- or all-wheel drive configurations are sought after for their sportiness, passenger room, cargo capacity, and general spirit of go-anywhere adventure. The Ford Explorer, Toyota RAV4 and Jeep Cherokee are just a few of the dozens and dozens of makes and models available.

Speaking of “subcompacts” (see above), the list of car classes
(largely determined by curb weight and cubic feet of cargo volume for passenger vehicles), further includes compacts, mini-compacts, mid-size, station wagons, and more (more than there’s room for here). If you are in the market for a new, or gently-used car, study up before buying to make sure you get exactly what you want, need and are comfortable with.
And keep watching this space for anything, everything wheels- and car-related.

Sizzlers: (Some of the) Hottest New Cars For 2017

 

What makes a “hot” car “hot”? Styling? Speed? Safety features? Super cool color?
Sedans, sports coupes, or station wagons (yes, station wagons!). . .conventional gas engines, electrics, or hybrids. They can all be hot, each for specific reasons.
Lists of the “best-of”, “hottest” cars for the young year include these makes and models, some brand new, some updated.

Do you have your eye on one (or have you bought one already)?

Lexus launches a new sports series with the rear-wheel-drive LC 500, the company’s first model built on a “premium luxury platform” that Lexus says delivers “enhanced dynamic capability and performance.” The LC 500 features a 467-hp 5.0-liter V8 and a new 10-speed automatic, said to propel it from 0-to 60 in under 4.5 seconds. Watch for hybrid and convertible versions to come. Tagged at about $100,000.

Another new rear-drive entry displays the Jaguar logo: the XE compact sports sedan goes light with lots of aluminum, and features styling drawn from the larger XF model, plus three engine options. A 2.0-liter 240-hp four-cylinder is standard, with an available 3.0-liter 340-hp supercharged V6 and a 180-hp “Ingenium“ turbodiesel. Tech specs include a new ‘All-Surface Progress Control’ system to navigate slippery roads with better traction, an adjustable suspension, blind spot monitoring, and semi-automated parallel and perpendicular parking.

Hyundai says its new “Ioniq” will be the first car in the world to debut in hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and full-electric versions. The Ioniq hybrid has a six-speed dual-clutch automatic; The hybrid and plug-in produce the equivalent of 139 hp, powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor/generator. The Ioniq Electric offers a cruise control system for smart, smooth stop-and-go driving.

Toyota took what was the sporty FR-S (previously sold under the Scion brand) and created the Toyota 86, a 205 hp 2.0 liter coupe with ‘Hill Start Assist Control’, a bolder exterior design and various cosmetic interior upgrades. The automaker says the ‘86’ is “Track-proven. Street ready.” with pricing starting at $26,255.

The Corvette Z06’s 6.2-liter 640-hp supercharged V8 and a standard six-speed manual transmission (optional 10-speed automatic) power Chevy’s latest track-ready Camaro ZL1, available in both coupe and convertible versions. Aerodynamically fit, Chevy says it’s the most powerful Camaro ever produced, with a supercharged 6.2L LT4 V8 and Eaton supercharger that delivers 650 horsepower and 650 lb.-ft. of torque.
Starting MSRP $61,140.

Even a reliable, competitive subcompact makes some critics’ lists:
GM’s Chevrolet Bolt all-electric hatchback, new for 2017 with a reputed 200 miles to the charge from its 60 kWh battery system (around double the range of most current electrics). Run it at top speed of 91 mph (or within the local limit) for about 50 miles, then fully recharge in less than two hours. A navigation system that can locate charging stations is available. The reinvented Bolt EV was named Motor Trend’s 2017 Car of the Year.®

Keep cruising by here for more car news and views.

Magnesium, Exotics and More: Mixed Materials Drive Auto Design

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Today’s Ride Is Faster, Lighter, Cleaner, Better

Back when. . .cars were made largely with conventional steel (heavy), outsize details (e.g. tail fins–again, heavy), lots of chrome, big grilles and big headlights. That was then. . .today is lighter, more aerodynamic, more fuel-efficient vehicles, with designers and engineers paying attention to every component and to which manufacturing material will make it best and best-performing. Today’s cars, from wheels to roof, are an amalgam of lightweight metals (magnesium, aluminum, titanium) and their alloys, carbon fiber, high-strength steel, and other materials. The formulae are designed to provide sleeker, lighter products with better mechanical properties and corrosion resistance, and that will use considerably less fuel.

Magnesium is the lightest known metal and has a high strength-to-weight ratio, so it’s used in common applications like wheels (for cars and motorcycles). “Many. . .automotive companies (Audi, Ford, Jaguar, Fiat and Kia Motors Corporation among them) have. . .replaced steel and aluminum with magnesium in various parts of their products. Magnesium is currently being used in gearbox, steering column and driver’s air bag housings as well as in steering wheels, seat frames and fuel tank covers,” according to the International Magnesium Association (IMA).
“Steel components in vehicles can be replaced by a single cast piece of magnesium adding to the strength of the material and allowing for housings to be cast into place. This castability also requires less tooling and gauges which lowers manufacturing cost.” (IMA)

Forged magnesium wheels (like the ones produced by SMW Wheels) are one-third lighter than comparable aluminum ones. The weight of a vehicle’s wheels affects dynamics (magnesium wheels help achieve faster acceleration and help reduce stopping distance) among other performance parameters. Magnesium wheels have excellent damping capacity (that means they’re really good at absorbing shocks and vibrations), and also dissipate heat better, thus preventing brakes from overheating. And forged magnesium wheels, often chosen as an aftermarket wheels upgrade for supercars and racing cars, give a vehicle a distinctive, stylish, more expensive look. (SMW’s proprietary net-shape hot forging process produces top-of-the-line forged alloy wheels and blanks for cars and motorcycles). Magnesium is abundant in nature and highly recyclable, therefore a very sustainable material. With the greatest source of post-consumer scrap magnesium being end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), effective processes for recycling scrap magnesium could lead to a measurable decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon fiber is being used in everything from auto seats and interior trim to major body parts and components (hoods, roofs, trunk lids, door panels, bumpers, spoilers).
Carbon fibers are composed mostly of carbon atoms and are about 5–10 micrometers in diameter; the atoms are bonded together in crystals, and several thousand carbon fibers are bundled together to form the desired end-use material. Carbon fiber is stiff, has high tensile strength, low weight, and high temperature tolerance. Global automakers from BMW to Lexus to Ford are increasingly applying carbon fiber to racing models, street-legals and special editions to achieve significant weight reduction and to offset corrosion issues.

Aluminum, although not as light as magnesium, is a go-to metal because it is light (automakers can increase dent resistance by making body panels thicker while still lowering weight), it makes a car strong (“Pound for pound, aluminum can absorb twice the crash energy of mild steel. Larger crush zones can be designed without corresponding weight penalties,” says The Aluminum Association), and recyclable (“At the end of a vehicle’s life nearly 90 percent of the aluminum, on average, is recycled.” The Aluminum Association

High-Strength Steel The lighter-weight, strong, affordable material is finding its way into more new car models every year, to provide a cost-effective, design-flexible solution to the demand for increased safety and fuel economy. High-strength steels have a “carbon content between 0.05–0.25% to retain formability and weldability. Other alloying elements include up to 2.0% manganese and small quantities of copper, nickel, niobium, nitrogen, vanadium, chromium, molybdenum, titanium, calcium, rare earth elements, or zirconium.” (Wikipedia) Advanced high-strength steel used in body and chassis applications can help make a car safer (because of its energy absorbing characteristics) and more environmentally viable. These alloys are used in structures designed to handle large amounts of stress; they have a good strength-to-weight ratio and are resistant to rust.

Significant weight reduction and greater fuel efficiency; better performance and mechanical reliability; lower maintenance costs; more corrosion resistance. These and many more superior characteristics of a variety of advanced, specialty and high performance materials, used alone or in combination in alloys of different proportions, are changing the shape, the style, the speed, the safety of what and how we drive.

Ecosse superbe

Magnesium, Super-Materials and the State of the Superbike

$300,000 for a motorcycle? That’s the price tag for Ecosse Founder’s Edition FE TiXX, from Ecosse Moto Works, Inc. (U.S.) where 15 artisans craft exclusive cycles like the TiXX  that’s fashioned with a hand-brushed titanium chassis, and a 2.1-liter fuel-injected engine that cranks out 200 hp.  And this 15-year-old firm isn’t the only one producing low volume, high performance, absolutely unique and stunning, state-of-the-art motorcycles, also known as superbike, (that are still road-legal) from sometimes exotic raw materials (like ‘raw aluminum’ that needs to be parked in a heated garage to stave off corrosion).  Serious, well-moneyed bikers are driving the market for luxury machines that set them apart from the crowd.  Continue reading “Magnesium, Super-Materials and the State of the Superbike”

choosing the right car for you

Choices.  Choices.  Choices.  Choosing the Right Car for You.

Mr. Businessman/Ms. Exec. Family-on-the-go. Solo mom or dad. Weekend warrior.  Whatever defines you. . .whatever you do for work or play, there’s a car out there with your name on it.  From among the dozens of makes, hundreds of models, and thousands of options–sedate sedans to show-off supercars–choosing the right car can be overwhelming. How do you narrow down the selection to which one’s the best for you and your needs?

Continue reading “Choices.  Choices.  Choices.  Choosing the Right Car for You.”

self driving car test drive

Test Drive A ‘Self-Driving’ Car? Proactive NHTSA Can Help

 

Autonomous vehicles are just around the proverbial corner, and when the technology hits the streets in big numbers it will bring with it revolutionary ideas about mobility, including educating drivers about how self-operating cars work and how to operate them safely.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is getting ready for that day when streets and highways see a mix of autonomous and conventional driver-operated vehicles as the norm, a situation that will require research and oversight on safety issues (for drivers and occupants), drivers’ tests, licensing, regulation, and more.  Continue reading “Test Drive A ‘Self-Driving’ Car? Proactive NHTSA Can Help”