Real Wheels Live (May 12)

May 12, 2017

The Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown and guest Lou Ann Hammond discussed what they're seeing in the auto industry. Plus, they gave purchase advice to readers.

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Good Morning Warren and Friends,

Are you concerned about autonomous driving? If so, which aspect, the intelligence behind autonomous driving or the lack of driving? Do you think autonomous driving will lead to a lack of design or better design? If your car were autonomous would you be more interested in exterior or interior design?


This week Stretch and I went to a technology conference hosted by Nvidia. It was The Big Bang Theory meets Star Trek. I was listening to a Ph.D. guy as he put some code on a monitor and he said, "now this is the easy part." 


The news that brought it down to earth is that Nvidia is collaborating with Toyota to deliver artificial intelligence (AI) hardware and software technologies that will enhance the capabilities of autonomous driving systems. 


Toyota will use the NVIDIA DRIVE PX AI car computer platform to power advanced autonomous driving systems. It is the same platform that Tesla has in its cars already. 


What does it mean? It means that car companies are already putting the hardware in the cars and slowly integrating small autonomous capabilities to the car. I think of blind spot monitoring, where you are given cues (an orange light, a sound) when you put your blinker on to go to the next lane, and there is a car in that lane. Or if you don't put your blinker on and the car pulls you back into your lane because it thinks you're drifting. Those capabilities are in cars now and are very helpful. They are also teaching us what autonomous cars will be like in the future. 


Last night we watched "Abstract: The Art of Design" Ralph Gilles: Automotive Design on Netflix. Ralph is one of my favorite designer and Global Head of Design for Fiat Chrysler. Innovation and design drive Gilles. In the last bits of the film, he says he is concerned about the intersection of autonomous driving and not being able to drive a car. 


Gilles was going through the design of the Chrysler Portal concept that was shown at CES in January 2017. It was interesting to watch in retrospect. I highly recommend it. 


This week I drove the John Cooper Works MINI Cooper S Countryman ALL4. The car, out the door, was $37,750 and the EPA fuel estimate was 22 city/31 highway/26 mpg.

Let's chat about cars 

If they can give us adaptive cruise control, is it too much to ask for a car with dome lights that turn themselves off after fifteen minutes? I’m tired of buying new batteries.

LOL - It is funny how some things have changed so much, and yet some things haven't changed at all. The dome light is the epitome of having to get up and change the channel on the television while your neighbor is using a gesture control (not even a remote!) to change channels. 

One of the Post's competitors yesterday reported that dealers are offering huge discounts on new sedans. For example, new Nissan Altimas are going for $6000 to $8000 below sticker! See.  Have you seen this around the DC area?

Good story by NEAL E. BOUDETTE. Yes, it is a sign of the times, too many cars being 

produced and not enough buyers. This is how the industry got 

in trouble before and their economists and futurists need to 

look at this manufacturing before it gets them in trouble again. 

I really want to buy a Mazda Miata for driving fun and use it as a daily commuter, but I keep going back and forth between Used (save money) and New (newer safety features and complete knowledge of the car's ownership history). Do you have any advice on overcoming indecision between buying new versus used?

Not a problem. First, check you bank account, debt load and credit. Then, decide. Used might makes more sense. Lots of advanced electronic safety stuff is optional, install after market. Check.

We have two VW TDIs we simply love - a sedan and a sportwagon. We are so disappointed to have to search for new vehicles. The VW buyout will be hard to pass up, plus we are worried that whatever fix VW comes up with would really diminish gas mileage and performance. The price and performance of the TDIs fit us perfectly, so we are really suffering in our quest for new vehicles. We are considering a KIA hybrid, maybe a Prius, but nothing wows us. You may have touched on this already, but we would really like your opinions on potential replacements. Note we have been spoiled by the good gas mileage. Thank you!

Sadly, you are going to have to give the TDI up. It is a great driving vehicle with great mileage, but... :( 

I like the Kia Niro. Have you driven it? Also, try the Toyota C-HR. It's not going to get the mileage you are getting with the TDI but the driving capability is spot on. 

It's not just the mileage, it's the combination of the mileage and the driving capability that is hard to beat. 


Good morning! In the market for a new wagon and the VW caught my eye. I drove the Sportwagon SE and really, really liked it. BUT it seems no local dealership (DC area) has any of the colors I want. Then I see the Alltrack and there are a lot more color options to choose from, since there are a LOT more Alltracks at dealerships. I don't need a 4x4, as I have an F150 4x4, so I hesistate to purchase something I don't necessarily need. Is there more of a benefit for the Alltrack over the Sportwagon that I'm not seeing? I've gotten two proposals for them, $5292 and $6,691. off list price, respectively.Then to confuse the situation, a local dealer has a 2015 diesel Sportwagon SE; VW is offering $5000 off the MSRP (and it's the exact colors I want). I've never owned a diesel before, but this vehicle is alluring and I'm going to test drive it today. Even with the $5000 off MSRP, it is still about $2500 more than the gas Sportwagon SE. With that said, can the dealership offer off more on the diesel? Oh and along with the $$ off, interest free finance for 72 months is being offered and the emissions warranty is 12 years. Choices, choices, choices.....Can you give me any insight into these three that might help? BTW, as a gearhead 55 yr old woman, love the chat - thank you!

Yes. The dealersho\ip can offer more on the diesel, which now is getting in    the way of VW sales. You have the power here.

Hello - among the top three German luxury brands, is it your sense that Audi is still widely seen as #3 trying to catch up, as a dressed up VW? Or are they - as brands - pretty much on equal footing now?

I think Audi is on equal footing, besting the other two in some cases. 

The thing that has held them back is getting caught up in the diesel fray with VW group. As time passes people will let that go and realize how wonderful Audis are to drive. My favorite is still the Audi A7 for drivability and design. 

Audis are pretty much equal with the competition. I'd love an A$ and not give a tinker's damn about the competition, or what spectators thought about my ownership. It's a good car.

In 1965 I and 2 others with supplies, including food, for a 34 day backpacking trip drove from Berkeley, CA to the Columbia River in a VW bug. But I was younger then. preston

As we all were. Shopping remains the same. Use coomon sense. Don't look for money-saving magic.

There are many different entities, e.g., Costco, that offer programs that claim to save money for persons purchasing a new automobile. Do most buyers save money by using these programs? My understanding is that you have to pay their fee before getting the details on price, etc. Is this true? Thanks.

I don't think any one group can beat the price Costco gives, but I'm not sure whether you have to pay a fee to get the details of the price since you are already a Costco member. You might have to put your membership number in or talk to their call center. 

I'm working on the pros and cons of installing solar panels right now and Costco has the best price with the best panels for the money right now. And that doesn't include the $600 Costco card they give after the purchase. I am witing till next Thursday when there is another announcement of a better warranty from Costco to seal the deal (breaking news!) 

Lou Ann, last week you recommended this site for information about car sales numbers. I checked it out and it is the best source that I have found so far. I am having a little difficulty navigating it, but I will keep trying to learn it better. Thanks to you and Garey.

Great, I'm glad you like it. 

There's another site, that does a serious analysis (I forgot about Wayne Gerdes' site last week) 

Look at that one and let me know what you think of it. 

Wow, that new Countryman gets pretty bad fuel economy. Frankly it's one of the reasons I left MINI and bought a Hyundai. Not only was it a lot cheaper, offers more space, plenty of tech, but it gets better gas mileage. ABC hyped a big story yesterday about BMWs spontaneously combusting. Coincidentally a friend in England posted a photo of a BMW at the side the road engulfed in flames earlier today with no outward sign of other damage (i.e. it wasn't in a crash as far as I could tell). It's not clear to me how widespread this issue is for BMW or for cars in general.

Frankly, you made the right decision. After owninng Mini and spending more on fuel (less efficient and demands premium) and other items, I turned toward Hyundai/Kia and have been happy ever since,

Once upon a time (likely either 2004 or 2009), I had found a website which had a nifty search tool where one could select the features one needed on a car and the search tool would produce a list of vehicles with only those criteria. I can't find it again. I thought it was one of the big names - Edmunds, KBB, etc., but am striking out. Now, the closest search I can find only allows major features, such as type of car, MPG, gas/diesel/hybrid, AWD/FWD, rather than the more granular features, such as leather seats, memory power seats, etc. Can you recommend a detailed search like I previously used?

If you ever find it email me at lou at drivingthenation dot com - It used to be but bought them and I don't think they kept it. 

The guy who designed it was Martin Schmitt and he owns which is similar but they are selling that technology to car companies etc. No buying group has bought it from him yet. Expect to see something like that on car company sites, but they will want to keep you on their site. 

Simple solution turn your dome light off! Then you don't need technology. Simple. easy, and cost effective. Its not difficult if a moron like me can remember to do it. Who has never left the dome light on. Clifton, VA

You are not a moron, Clifton. Your ludite suggestion works fine. So does reading the owner's manual and learning how to work the dome light automatically.

Son graduates with a degree (and a job!) in December. Looking for a new car that he expects to keep a while. Currently has Ford Focus which has been good but would like something slightly bigger i.e. Fusion size. Good gas mileage important for commute but don't want it to be underpowered. Safety features also important (to me at least). Seems to prefer sedan, isn't interested in extra cost/weight/gas mileage loss for 4 whee or AWD.. Would like to stay <$30k. Relative reliability and easy access to repair facilities on list, especially if he were to move to less urban area. What would you looking at in addition to Fusion? Not looking to buy until late this year or early next year - is there anything interesting coming out next model year? Think there will be a bunch of 2017's left on lots in December with some excellent deals? THANKS!

Unless he is in forestry or geology, he doesn't need 4wd. Check out Toyota (Camry, Corolla), Chevrolet (Cruze diesel, seriously), Ford Falcon, or Hyundai/Kia offerings. Congrats on getting him through school. You've done enough! His turn. That is what graduation means!

It's a great concept. However the issue that needs to be worked out would be the liability for injury or damage in the event of an accident. Lot of variables there, including the operating corporate entity, the developer of the software, hardware...

Yes, you are correct, but those issues are being worked out as we speak. 

Some car companies have said they would take on the liability for injury or damage, they are that certain of the autonomous vehicle. Remember, the driving force behind this is to have Vision Zero; no fatalities, no accidents. 

It says a lot that everytime there is an accident in an autonomous vehicle we hear about it, but we rarely hear about the 250,000 other accidents. 

My problems is a couple of pint sized passengers who like to fiddle with the switch. Unless you know the dome light is on (hint: daytime), it's hard to turn it off. Fortunately, no batteries drained.

If the worst thing that ever happens in your life with these pint-sized passengers is they fiddle with the dome light your life is golden, my friend. 


Warren, like to go back to the question of driving a Mini. I have had four of them, and my latest is a 2017 ClubmanS, with 2-liter turbo, and all wheel drive. It is one of the most delightful cars I have ever driven, simple fun to drive. And with the new 2-liter engine, it has plenty of power. For fun, I have a 2003 M3 convertible; this Mini is about equal in driving satisfaction. Have you driven this one?

It is a delightful car to drive. I've owned one and routinely used others/ They are fun, but a costly pain in the butt to fuel and re-tire (tires and wheels).

I can't wait! Driving will be much safer and more relaxing

What would you like to see in the interior since you won't be driving? 

I think of all the people over 80 years old that are about to lose their license - what freedom they will still have, that they will be able to stay in their home longer because they will be able to transport themselves. 

I agree, but I am like Ralph Gilles - what about when I want to drive. I like that there is the ability to take the driving back to myself. 

I am cheering for its eventual mass-use arrival, especially if the politicians do the right thing and put in the needed supporting infrastructure ( highway transponders and the like).

As automobiles get more and more efficient, (and smaller and smaller), will automakers take into account that for some of us tall folks over 6 feet, that we're literally forced to make limited choices on what car, SUV or truck to buy based upon sizing. Would be nice if us tall folks would have more options that would also encorporate safety features and fuel economy. Shame many of us tall folks can't fit into a lot of the options being put out there now.

Yes, thee will be models to fit you. You own a part of the market, an important part the industry won't ignore. Something else, prices will stabilize with increaesd use.

I love the idea of autonomous driving, but if I have to be in the driver's seat, hovering over the wheel and watching like a hawk, what's the point? I'd get sleepier than if I were driving. I understand the ultimate goal is to get to the point of no human intervention needed, but that seems much further away than, hovering, jumping in and out of control. I think that would be awful.

Yes, true autonomous driving is putting the steering wheel away and working etc. Think of the things you do when you're not driving. I usually am answering emails or texts; by the time I get to my event I can relax and enjoy the evening because my work is done. 

You are right that is further away, but studies are being done now and autonomous vehicles are in our future. 

Will become the mode of the future, not the only mode, but certainly a major part of it.

As much as I enjoy driving (not commuting) I can recognize the allure of autonomous driving, particularly for those whose mobility may be limited by manually-driven vehicles or for whom the burden of driving extended distances is not acceptable. The challenge for realizing the potential benefits will be coping with what I call the non-ideal or non-normal conditions and circumstances that may require immediate human intervention or even limit the use of the automation altogether. The occupants who become accustomed to the automation will become less adept at recognizing and reacting to emergencies in a timely and effective manner. Roadways with contaminated surfaces which obscure lane identification, signs and markings that have been altered or damaged, malfunctions of one own vehicle or other vehicles which affects their "expected" behaviors. All this concerns me. Not to mention the "experts" of the federal regulatory agencies, who are trying to be (to put it tactfully) "responsive" to their "customers" (not consumers but manufacturers).

We talked about those concerns at the GTC17 Nvidia event. Certainly, the regulatory agencies are going to do their due diligence. How will this affect the insurance industry? Will they be needed? 

The conditions I experienced in Newfoundland in April wouldn't allow for autonomous driving, but the people from Nvidia said the sensors/technology would know that and would be reactive enough to pull over to the side of the road. 

It's still in infancy stages, but they are full steam ahead. 

While I am very much in favor of the current and future safety features making their way to consumers in new cars, I still have significant concerns about near/full autonomous driving. Much of that involves the technology needed to follow the road and lane markings to maintain proper road position. I saw a video online (aside: more and more drivers have dashboard cameras always rolling) where a Tesla went into a Jersey wall on the left hand side when a construction zone was encountered and the roadway went temporarily to the right without much lane marking. I could also see this happening in hard rain and snowy conditions as well. I'm unsure how or if these conditions can be handled by automation and/or artificial intelligence.

I certainly understand your concerns, which is one of many reasons we need better public infrastructure, whihc is the same thing we n eed when we put automobiles on the road to replace horses.

How will these cars handle driving in gravel roads or temporary parking on grass areas? Or even roads with really faded paint lines? One thing if the car still has a steering wheel, but some of these acts have no steering wheel at all!!!

I don't know of an autonomous vehicle that will be produced that will not have a steering wheel at this point. 

Think of it like animals; raccoons that can see in the dark, cats that use their whiskers for sensors. Incorporating those technologies into a car is what is happening through artifical intelligence right now. 

Wondering if automakers have actually given any thought to building transponders directly into vehicles. With more folks using transponders for travel, it would seem if they could put Wi-Fi in a vehicle, they could certainly put in a built-in transponder with an on-off switch.

Yes. Transponders communicate with transponders, including transponders in other vehicles. New world coming.

Has the commenter tried out the 'new' 2015 TDIs. Perhaps they can trade up. I've heard anecdotally both on the plus and minus side, but seen no real test of the fixed vehicles. What is the fix? Do you have to use urea?

Yes. And, yes, you eventually have to replace the urea for exhaust after-treatment.

Thank you al for joining us today. Please return next week. Thanks Lou Anne, Ria and Gene. Eat lunch and, to all of the women helping to beautify our world: Happy Mother's Day!

In This Chat
Warren Brown
Warren Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

On Wheels Archive

Real Wheels Live Q&A Archive
Lou Ann Hammond
Lou Ann Hammond is the founder and owner of the first privately owned automobile website Recently Lou Ann has developed an automotive and energy issues related website,, that covers a broader range of subjects than solely the automotive or the energy industry.
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