The Washington Auto Show: DC is All-In on Autonomous Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 25, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC—Certain things concentrate the mind. The prospect of being hanged in the morning, of course, and being inches away from flipping a Range Rover is another. We weren’t on some mountain trail, but in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the District of Columbia. The somewhat extreme “off-road” track had the feel of a Disney ride, but infinitely scarier, since it was a real car, and I really was driving it.

Car Talk blogger driving a bit like my brother, on the off-road track. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I survived, but since my mind was concentrated I had time to think about the meaning of this Washington Auto Show 2018. As usual, the show was policy oriented. Last year the Trump Administration was newly elected, but this year they’re settled in, and the speed is full ahead when it comes to autonomous cars. Several speakers from the EPA and Department of Transportation made that clear—their priority is clearing a path through the red tape and getting the cars on the road.

Inside Toyota's futuristic, fuel-cell FCR. The seats swivel. (Jim Motavalli photo)

More on them later. First, the cool cars. The star of the show, for me, was the Toyota Fine-Comfort Ride, or FCR for short. This vehicle is the future of the minivan. Everything about it was fanciful, and it’s not headed for production, but the basic shape points a way forward.

The FCR points the way forward for minivans. And the way forward for minivans looks a lot like a shiny bicycle helmet!  (Jim Motavalli photo)

As unveiled (first time on the east coast), the FCR is a 400-horsepower, all-wheel-drive, hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle with up to 600 miles of range and three-minute refueling. According to Tom Stricker, Toyota’s vice president of product regulatory affairs, it is set up to aid people with physical handicaps, and incorporates artificial intelligence displays, fully adjustable seating, and electric motors in all four wheels. There’s also an autonomous driving mode, though it’s unlikely that’s actually onboard the show car.

“This car is a personal mobility assistant on wheels,” Stricker said.

Turn over the new Leaf and you get a car with 150 miles of range. But 225 miles is coming. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We got a close-up look at the 2018 Leaf electric car, which goes on sale this week. As you’ve probably heard, it has both more power (147 horsepower from the 110-kilowatt motor) and greater range, as well as improved styling (more in line with Nissan’s other vehicles), and a host of tech (including Alexa integration). I dug the floating roofline, layered blue crystal grille (it changed colors depending on your angle to it), and boomerang taillights.  

Range is now 150 miles, and Nissan’s Brian Muragno told me that an upmarket version—with 225 miles of range—is coming next year. That will help keep the Leaf competitive in a world where several 300-mile battery EVs are promised for 2019.

"This is not the ground transportation you're looking for." (Jim Motavalli photo)

Nissan has sold 300,000 Leafs worldwide since the 2011 model year, and 114,000 in the U.S. Muragno said the company has experienced “zero serious battery failures” since introducing the car. I was surprised that Nissan retained the Japanese CHAdaMO system for fast charging (80 percent in 30 minutes), since most other manufacturers are switching to the U.S. SAE standard.

Cherokee fanatics don't want to see major changes. Or any changes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 2019 Jeep Cherokee gets a refresh. Cherokees always look the same to me, but we were told that they now have a “bolder appearance.” The cautious updates are in line with customer feedback. Cherokee fanatics live in fear that Fiat Chrysler is going to turn this rugged off-roader into an effete electric car, or end the body-on-frame construction, or ditch the folding windshield. So all of that is still present and accounted for, but there’s more power. No one complains about that.

Jeep conspiracy hounds take note! A mild hybrid system is optional and the company does plan a plug-in hybrid Wrangler for 2020. Is this the beginning of the end?   

Speaking of Chrysler trucks, we also heard many superlatives about the all-new Ram 1500, which can carry 2,300 pounds. “This was the best year ever for the Ram brand,” said Jim Morrison (not that Jim Morrison), head of the Ram brand.

Note the Ram Laramie Longhorn edition's tooled leather seats and barn wood inserts. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Engine options are a V-6 or the 5.7-liter Hemi. People love that word—Hemi. It sells a lot of big V-8s. I was fascinated by the truck on the stand, which was the Laramie Longhorn edition. Kind of a dude ranch truck, y’know? There was fancy tooled leather seats embossed with the Longhorn logo, “real barn wood” accents, and an overall western theme. “It would be like driving a pair of cowboy boots,” said one industry wag.

Despite the tough image, Rams are going green, or at least more energy efficient. There are active grille shutters and a deployable air dam, a start-stop system that can turn the eight into a four, and a mild hybrid option with a 48-volt battery.

 I had a crew-cab Ram tester this week, and I really appreciate the new parking assist features. Parking this truck in tight garage spaces can be a real challenge. And this year the crew cab is growing—the rear  seats even recline.

That was about it for the products. The real action was elsewhere. Remember, it’s a policy show. I wandered into an actual hearing of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which was hearing testimony on electric cars (including from my friend Britta Gross of GM).  

Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska hold a the Washington Auto Show! (Jim Motavalli photo)

A keynote speaker was Senator John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee (which also held a hearing at the show). Thune is a sponsor (with Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan) of S. 1885, the Senate version of the autonomous car legislation that has already passed the House.

In his speech, Thune made a big pitch for the advantages of self-driving cars—in ending the great majority of crashes that are caused by human error, in giving mobility to the disabled and elderly—and predicted it could become a trillion-dollar industry.

Emory Harrigan with the 1967 Shelby GT500 he restored in a parade of Mustangs is at the DC Auto Show, all owned by area enthusiasts. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Similarly enthusiastic was Derek Kan, former general manager of Lyft and now undersecretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation. He pointed out that ride sharing is eating into America’s traditional love of the automobile. “The car was an extension of yourself, and the make, model and color reflected your personality,” he said. “But will my kids own or share their cars? There’s a breathtaking pace of change, and we have to be prepared for the future”—which includes autonomy and electric, shared cars.

The day’s biggest revelations came from Michael Ramlet, the CEO of a polling firm called Morning Consult. After 2,200 interviews, the firm has come to the conclusion that Americans are relatively bullish on electric and autonomous cars, though somewhat fearful—and lacking much knowledge—on the latter. People who already own EVs or hybrids are most likely to be excited about what’s coming.

For instance, 29 percent say the auto industry is very innovative, but only 18 percent say the oil and gas sector is. Some 58 percent say the auto industry is changing for the better, and 60 percent expect major changes by 2050.

Google will be an autonomous car innovator, say 28 percent, and 26 percent say that about Amazon and Apple. Some 37 percent say the taxi industry is on its way out.

By 2050, two in three adults say the majority of cars will be powered by something other than gasoline, and 57 percent say the vast majority will be self-operating by then. And 51 percent say that EVs will be more affordable, efficient and reliable than internal-combustion vehicles. Sixty percent are somewhat or very excited about EVs.

But only nine percent of respondents say they know “a lot” about autonomous vehicles (AVs), versus 24 percent who know nothing at all. Only 32 percent trust or somewhat trust AVs.

Dan Galves of Mobileye was interesting about what’s coming in AV camera technology, but I’ve reported on what he had to say before. I was intrigued, though, by Austin Russell, heading a new company called Luminair that makes high-tech Lidar guidance systems. A Stanford dropout, the lean and intense young man just spilled his words out, talking about his new product—with orders of magnitude better resolution and performance than standard Lidar. He said that auto OEMs are lining up to buy it, but he didn’t say which ones.

And finally, there was Giles Rhys Jones, the London-based inventor of What3Words, a new way of mapping our planet. It takes every three square meters of land on the earth and assigns it a three-word code, as in dog.early.stand. He said it makes it incredibly simple to find things, places and people, even in the large parts of the world that don’t have reliable addressing now. We were at guitar.sleepy.eagle in the Marriott hotel.  “Nine national post offices are using our three-word addresses,” he said. What can I say, very cool.

The author (left) with Davy Jones, the Le Mans winner, not the Monkee.

Next to the Land Rover death ride was a more sedate one operated by partner Jaguar, and featuring the E-Pace SUV. For that I was driven, which came as a relief. And my pilot was none other than Davy Jones. After I made the usual jokes about the Monkees and Davy Jones' Locker (not to mention David Bowie, whose original name was David Jones), we came around to the fact that this Mr. Jones won Le Mans outright in 1996, driving a Porsche. He was second at Indy that same year. It was a pleasure to shake his hand.


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