Can Volvo’s Polestar performance unit capture that Tesla magic?

Volvo Cars is embarking on the tough task of launching a new brand, spinning off its Polestar performance line to sell high-performance electrified cars.

The move could force Volvo to make flashier cars than its current lineup of stylish but practical and safe vehicles. The new Polestar brand will compete in an emerging market that includes Tesla Inc. and BMW’s i brand.

“The Volvo brand itself has a very, very good reputation, but it is a very practical reputation based on safety,” said Rebecca Lindland, an executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The Polestar name is emotional. In some ways you need to have this kind of separation.”

Volvo has said it will produce its first fully electric vehicle in 2019, and the spinoff of Polestar signals it wants to be a major player in a flashier field. Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson said he’s confident the automaker is up to the task.

Volvo has intended to turn its Polestar unit into a stand-alone brand for high-performance electrified vehicles since taking over the company in 2015, Samuelsson told Automotive News Europe.

“We want to redefine the brand, moving it away from having gasoline-powered cars to offering electrification and something that we call progressive performance,” he said.

Polestar reputation

Though the upcoming Polestar vehicles will share some resources with Volvo, they will no longer include the Volvo name — a move that could help the new brand shed Volvo’s practical reputation, with the risk of taking away the credibility the Swedish name lends.

“Launching a new brand is really tough, it’s a lot easier to do an association,” Lindland said. “Just ask [Hyundai’s] Genesis.”

However, Volvo is banking on Polestar’s racing reputation to carry its own weight. Polestar and Volvo began working together in 2012, when Volvo started offering Polestar-tuned variants of the V60 station wagon and S60 sedan under a cooperation agreement. Volvo bought Polestar in 2015 to start a performance line to rival Mercedes-AMG and BMW M models.

The Polestar arm has operated with its own management team, and with the goal of contributing 15 percent to Volvo’s overall sales within five years of the acquisition. The performance line has also been considering electrification since its early days under Volvo.

“We have the order to push our electrification efforts forward, to make it more sexy,” Niels Moeller, Polestar’s COO at the time, told Automotive News Europe in 2015.

New market

Though “sexy” electrification has always been a tenet of the Polestar badge under Volvo, the reshuffling of the brand, and its leadership team, indicates Volvo sees opportunity in the high-performance electric vehicle market.

“We have to recognize that Tesla has managed to offer such a car for which people are lining up,” Samuelsson told a German newspaper in May. “In this area, there should also be space for us, with high quality and attractive design.”

Tesla has been the dominant player in the luxury electric vehicle market thus far, while BMW has been offering its own variants with the i brand, and new startups such as Faraday Future and Lucid Motors are also trying to enter the space.

Volvo is tapping inside talent to ensure Polestar will be competitive. Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo’s senior vice president of design, will be the CEO of the Polestar brand, with Jonathan Goodman, Volvo’s senior vice president of corporate communications, serving as COO. Ingenlath has been credited with the sleeker and sportier designs of the scalable product architecture models, which includes the new 90 series vehicles and the recently launched XC60.

“If Volvo can leverage their practicality while making the new brand more emotional, they could do very well,” Lindland said.

Douglas A. Bolduc contributed to this report.

More conventional shape for Nissan Leaf

The 2018 Nissan Leaf, the second generation of the five-door battery-powered hatchback, is losing some of the dramatic styling on the original model.

The deeply sloped hood on the first-generation EV has been scaled back a bit, and the first-gen’s bulbous rear end is less pronounced on the latest version, which is expected to arrive late this year.

The Leaf’s interior also gets a heavy makeover. The first-generation car conveyed information in three areas — two on the dash and one in the center stack. The 2018 Leaf gets a navigation/infotainment screen in the center stack, while driving information is displayed on a screen behind the steering wheel. The shifter has been redesigned and looks simpler to operate.

It’s not clear from recent spy photos if the new Leaf will retain its nose-mounted charging port above the grille. The biggest upgrade will be to the car’s driving range. It will have to be able to travel farther than 200 miles on a charge to be competitive with the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3.

It’s possible, like Tesla, that Nissan could offer the new Leaf with a choice of battery packs and price levels.

Nissan says the new Leaf will be available with ProPILOT Assist, a suite of technologies active on the brakes, steering and electric motor that provide a degree of driver assistance at highway speeds.

The Leaf’s interior also gets a heavy makeover. The first-generation car conveyed information in three areas — two on the dash and one in the center stack. The 2018 Leaf gets a navigation/infotainment screen in the center stack, while driving information is displayed on a screen behind the steering wheel. The shifter has been redesigned and looks simpler to operate.

It’s not clear from recent spy photos if the new Leaf will retain its nose-mounted charging port above the grille. The biggest upgrade will be to the car’s driving range. It will have to be able to travel farther than 200 miles on a charge to be competitive with the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3.

It’s possible, like Tesla, that Nissan could offer the new Leaf with a choice of battery packs and price levels.

Nissan says the new Leaf will be available with ProPILOT Assist, a suite of technologies active on the brakes, steering and electric motor that provide a degree of driver assistance at highway speeds.

How Ford turned around its J.D. Power quality ranking

Upward
Ford’s IQS rank

2017: 4th

2016: 11th

2015: 12th

2014: 16th

2013: 27th

2012: 27th

DETROIT — Earlier this decade, Ford Motor Co. suffered a series of bungled product launches, small-car transmission issues and infotainment nightmares that put its J.D. Power Initial Quality Study scores near the bottom of the pack.

Although it still faces problems, including a massive door-latch recall that was expanded in March and dented profits, the automaker last week hit an important milestone: The Ford brand achieved its highest mark since the study started 30 years ago, placing fourth overall and second among nonluxury makes. It tied for fourth with Ram and trailed Porsche, Genesis and Kia, which again grabbed the top spot.

“They really rolled up their sleeves and improved things across the board,” Dave Sargent, vice president, global automotive at J.D. Power, said in an interview. “A lot of things sort of came together this year.”

Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of global operations, credits the turnaround to a series of moves the company made in the first quarter of 2013, a few months after he took over as president of the Americas.

That year, Ford placed 27th overall in the annual study, with a troubling 131 problems reported per 100 vehicles. The company was facing a host of launches the following year — including the redesigned F-150, Mustang, Edge and Transit — and was eager to get things right, he said.

“It really was about total leadership engagement and commitment to being best in class and allowing people the opportunity to tell us what it takes to get there, and then supporting them to do that,” Hinrichs told Automotive News. “Quality progress doesn’t happen without direct leadership engagement and creating an environment where we can talk about the issues and work to solve them.”


Download the 2017 J.D. Power & Associates IQS report


Monday meetings

Hinrichs instituted a weekly leadership meeting to do just that. Every Monday at 4 p.m., roughly 15 members of Ford’s North American leadership team would gather for a deep dive into each nameplate’s status.

The weekly meetings paid off quickly when executives learned of complaints with the interior and center console of the recently redesigned Fusion sedan and Escape crossover.

Ford hadn’t planned significant interior updates for those products’ midcycle freshenings, but after feedback in the Monday quality meeting, it decided to make significant changes. Those included adding a rotary knob shifter in the Fusion and updating the interior and shifter position of the Escape.

“It was a very important message to the collective organization: We’re going to make changes based on the feedback we’re getting from our customers, and we’re going to do it as quickly as we can,” Hinrichs said.

He also reorganized a once-a-year fall gathering of the entire leadership team for a half-day quality summit to go over that year’s plans for each vehicle. It was a meeting Ford had instituted in the past but had discarded.

“It was about creating an environment where people could ask for help,” he said.

To help catch issues before they became major problems, a group of three people — Hinrichs, Ford’s North American head of engineering Frank Davis and the product launch manager — began bringing a vehicle to Dearborn, Mich., at each stage of that vehicle’s build process so they could sit in it and observe progress.

“All the launches we’ve had have gone much better, and a lot of that had to do with us just having a small team come together and go through the latest builds and see the progress physically, as opposed to seeing data on paper,” Hinrichs said.

The company also listened to its suppliers, who complained Ford was releasing final designs too late in a launch process, creating production issues. To remedy that, Ford began finalizing designs sooner, and it offered suppliers additional engineering and technical resources.

Hinrichs has said there’s added pressure to have the right design from the start because Ford has been consolidating the number of platforms it uses to build vehicles, meaning that a recall could affect much higher numbers of vehicles than in the past.

J.D. Power 2017 U.S. Initial Quality Study

Nameplate IQS ranking Problems per 100 vehicles
Kia 72
Genesis 77
Porsche 78
Ford 86
Ram 86
BMW 88
Chevrolet 88
Hyundai 88
Lincoln 92
Nissan 93
Volkswagen 93
Mini 94
Buick 95
Toyota 95
Industry Average 97
Lexus 98
GMC 99
Chrysler 102
Mercedes-Benz 102
Acura 103
Cadillac 105
Honda 105
Dodge 106
Infiniti 107
Jeep 107
Subaru 113
Audi 115
Mazda 125
Land Rover 131
Mitsubishi 131
Volvo 134
Jaguar 148
Fiat 163

Sync 3 investment

One of the biggest changes Ford made was to its much-maligned infotainment system. The previous MyFord Touch had been lambasted by independent studies and gave customers, including Ford’s top executives, trouble when it would freeze or crash mid-drive.

In early 2013, executives gathered to approve the spending plan for Ford’s next-gen system: Sync 3. Hinrichs said there was talk about scaling back the number of vehicles in which they offered the system to avoid more dents in Ford’s quality scores, although the company ultimately chose to forge ahead.

“The data was very strong: The customers wanted the technology; they just wanted it to work,” he said last week. “Instead of backing off on the penetration rates, we decided to spend our money, energy and time on developing an even better system.”

That included moving much of the work in-house and switching partners from Microsoft to QNX, although Hinrichs noted that Microsoft was a big part of making progress in fixing the MyFord Touch system “in areas that really were not their fault.”

The resulting Sync 3 system has scored well. Sargent said last week that infotainment is now a competitive advantage for Ford.

“They’ve also made a lot of other strong improvements in terms of powertrain and other features on the vehicle,” he said. “Honestly, I would say Ford was probably the strongest improvement because it’s across such a wide product line.” Ford’s Lincoln brand, meanwhile, ranked ninth, ahead of most of its luxury rivals.

Ford has the opportunity to improve again next year, Sargent said, because it doesn’t have many vehicle introductions. According to the annual Bank of America Merrill Lynch “Car Wars” report, only 4 percent of its volume will be replaced. But a 50 percent volumereplacement looms in 2020, according to “Car Wars.”

“When you launch that much of your volume, there are always inherent risks,” Sargent said. “There’s no doubt that will be a real test for them.”

Ford believes it can meet that challenge.

“We’re working hard to make sure we keep improving,” Hinrichs said. “The competition is not stopping, and we won’t stop either. We want to be best in class.”

Top three models per segment

Segment Highest ranked Others ranked
Small Car Chevrolet Sonic Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit
Small Premium Car BMW 2 Series BMW i3, Lexus CT
Compact Car Kia Forte Chevrolet Cruze (tie), Toyota Corolla (tie), Volkswagen Jetta (tie)
Compact Sporty Car* Mini Cooper
Compact MPV* Kia Soul
Compact Premium Car BMW 4 Series Lexus ES, Cadillac ATS
Midsize Car Toyota Camry Kia Optima, Nissan Altima
Midsize Sporty Car* Ford Mustang Dodge Challenger
Minivan* Chrysler Pacifica Dodge Grand Caravan
Midsize Premium Car Lexus GS Lincoln Continental, Audi A7
Midsize Premium Sporty Car* Porsche 911
Large Car Kia Cadenza Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima
Small SUV Kia Niro Kia Sportage, Buick Encore (tie), Volkswagen Tiguan (tie)
Small Premium SUV* Mercedes-Benz GLA BMW X1
Compact SUV GMC Terrain Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox
Compact Premium SUV Porsche Macan BMW X3, BMW X4
Midsize SUV Kia Sorento Toyota Highlander, Buick Enclave
Midsize Premium SUV BMW X6 BMW X5, Porsche Cayanne
Midsize Pickup Nissan Frontier Chevrolet Colorado, Honda Ridgeline
Large SUV Ford Expedition Chevrolet Tahoe, Toyota Sequoia
Large Premium SUV Infiniti QX80 Lincoln Navigator, Mercedes-Benz GLS
Large Light Duty Pickup Chevrolet Silverado Ram 1500, Toyota Tundra
Large Heavy Duty Pickup* Chevrolet Silverado HD Ford Super Duty
*No other model in this segment performs above segment average.
There must be at least three models with 80% of market sales in any given award segment for an award to be presented. The Large Premium Car segment did not meet criteria to be award eligible, thus no awards will be issued.

Upward
Ford’s IQS rank

2017: 4th

2016: 11th

2015: 12th

2014: 16th

2013: 27th

2012: 27th

Senators’ cybersecurity push may tie up autonomous-car legislation

WASHINGTON — Consensus is growing on the need for national legislation to govern autonomous-vehicle development, but cybersecurity protection for connected vehicles looms as a potential area of conflict.

High-profile Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee are pushing for mandatory federal standards to defend against hackers taking control of vehicles or interrupting wireless communications and deliberately causing accidents.

Automakers say they share the objective of keeping malware out of self-driving vehicles but need a more flexible approach to deal with the risk.

“We think the best way to realize your objective is to have a dynamic approach,” Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, testified at a Commerce Committee hearing this month. “Our fear is that standards would become obsolete very quickly.”

Millions of vehicles on the road today are already vulnerable to hacks by virtue of their connectivity technology, but the huge number of interconnected components in autonomous vehicles could offer bad actors many more opportunities to infiltrate driving systems. Self-piloting cars will wirelessly exchange information among themselves, with cloud-based computers and with public infrastructure, such as traffic lights, to sense their environment and determine how to navigate.

“Once a vehicle connects to the Internet, it is hackable,” Yoni Heilbronn, chief marketing officer for Argus Cyber Security in Israel, said in a phone interview. “A vehicle has multiple penetration vectors, with 100 million lines of software code and an average of 10,000 known software bugs in it when it rolls out of Detroit or Stuttgart.”

An additional concern is that cybercriminals may try to penetrate a vehicle system to steal personal information or determine a driver’s location, technology experts say.

Cybersecurity was one of the principles for autonomous vehicle legislation announced two weeks ago by Commerce Committee leaders, who said protections must be an integral feature of self-driving vehicles from the inception of development. A comprehensive bill is expected to be introduced this summer.

Last fall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released voluntary recommendations for developers to focus on during the design process, such as secure development practices, information sharing, disclosure of vulnerabilities, incident response and self-auditing.

No middle ground

During the hearing this month, John Maddox, president of the American Center for Mobility, a federally designated autonomous vehicle proving ground in Ypsilanti, Mich., said voluntary industry standards would likely be more effective at keeping up with rapidly changing risks than a federal standard.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., made clear during the hearing he doesn’t see a middle ground when it comes to cyberdefense for autonomous vehicles.

“We should not have to choose between being connected and being protected,” he said, adding the federal standard should be dynamic and keep being raised.

In March, Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reintroduced the Security and Privacy in Your Car Act to establish federal standards for securing cars, protecting driver privacy and instituting a rating system that informs consumers about how well the vehicle protects drivers beyond those minimum standards. The bill would require technology to be engineered into the design, allowing the vehicle to detect, report and thwart attempts to intercept driving data or control the vehicle itself.

‘The worst players’

Markey challenged Bainwol and Maddox over voluntary standards, saying strict rules are needed to account for industry laggards.

“History shows that with airbags and with seat belts, unless there’s a mandate it’s just not [happening],” Markey said. “Unfortunately, the industry moves slowly. The best players move voluntarily, the worst players don’t. And the worst players are the ones that cause all the damage out on the highways.”

“You can’t just leave it up to any one manufacturer to do it,” Markey added. “You need to have every one of the players accepting that as a responsibility. Otherwise the streets won’t be safer. These vehicles will be hacked.”

To highlight that risk, the senator cited the pair of “white hat” hackers who were able to remotely take control of a Jeep Cherokee by exploiting a software flaw and shut down its engine on the highway. The 2015 incident led Fiat Chrysler to recall 1.4 million vehicles.

A better approach, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, is to combine voluntary standards with limited liability requirements for automakers in the event of an accident caused by a security breach.

“This should help provide that a minimum standard is met and that the tech firms self-police,” the think tank said in an autonomous-vehicle action plan for governments published in May. “As new updates to software become available, manufacturers should be allowed to update over the air or require vehicles to be serviced immediately for safety concerns, or they could disable the semi- or fully automated features until the consumer updates or fixes the vehicle.”

Automakers contend they already take cybersecurity seriously, pointing to the January 2016 establishment of an Information Sharing and Analysis Center for the auto industry, where cybersecurity experts run simulations against hypothetical threats and serve as a clearinghouse for threat information, as well as security best practices.

Can Amazon talk its way into the auto industry with Alexa?

Automakers are pairing up with Amazon to bring Alexa, Amazon’s voice-enabled intelligent personal assistant, into your car, despite the technology being far from widely accepted.

Amazon has made it easy on the automakers, charging nothing for the partnerships except the charges associated with developing the software for each car. That makes it a low-risk tech play for carmakers, who are competing to show consumers and investors they are technologically savvy.

And if Amazon really has dreams of worldwide domination — something that seems more likely given the company’s announcement it will acquire Whole Foods — having a device that acts like a personal assistant and routes people to Amazon’s products seems to make sense.

“Our mission is pretty clear, pretty simple: We’re here to bring Alexa into as many automobiles as possible over the upcoming years,” John Scumniotales, general manager for Amazon Alexa Automotive, told Automotive News.

Amazon wants to capitalize on a growing demand for connectivity by consumers as well as automakers looking to improve current in-vehicle voice recognition systems, many of whichhave harmed quality and reliability ratings for a decade or more.

“Given the automobile and some of the safety concerns, we think it’s the ideal experience for the car,” Scumniotales said. He referred to some current voice-enabled infotainment systems as “quite frankly unsafe.”

Consumer demand for virtual assistants such as Alexa remains a niche, but growing, market.

Not waiting

Automakers have traditionally waited to install emerging technologies such as Alexa until they become mainstream, as better technologies could emerge and consumers would be stuck with outdated systems.

But unlike installing hardware such as 8-track players into cars during the 1960s, installing Alexa is done through writing and updating software. That arguably costs automakers more time than money and is far less risky than installing a physical component.

At home, Alexa devices allow owners to use voice commands to play music and ask questions ranging from weather forecasts to store locations and hours. They also can control other “smart” home devices such as a Nest thermostat or their vehicles, among other things.

Right now, Alexa can be used outside the car to operate some basic vehicle functions such as locking the doors. Later this year, Volkswagen and Ford will let drivers use Alexa’s assistant functions while inside the car. A handful of auto brands have already launched “skills” for owners of Alexa-enabled devices. Hyundai last year became the first mainstream automaker to create a “skill” for Alexa-enabled, hands-free speakers such as the Amazon ​ Echo and Amazon Dot.

Owners of the devices and a Hyundai vehicle equipped with its second-generation Blue Link infotainment system can simply say “Alexa” to prompt the in-house system, followed by a command to remote start or lock and unlock their vehicles.

Manish Mehrotra, director of digital business planning and connected operations for Hyundai Motor America, said Hyundai sees this as a growing market.

A “few thousand” owners routinely use Alexa commands each month, he said. That number is expected to continue to grow as the devices become more popular.

“I see the future as integration between your home and car,” Mehrotra said. “That’s exciting.”

Others such as Ford, Genesis, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have announced similar functions for many of their vehicles.

Alexa-enabled devices have grown quicker than many industry onlookers expected since their launch in 2014 due to their hands-free convenience, connectivity and functionality.

EMarketer forecasts 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated-assistant device at least once a month in 2017. That’s a 129 percent jump over last year.

The competition

“We are really bullish on how quickly this technology is going to be adopted,” said Jaimie Chung, an eMarketer forecasting analyst based in New York. “People are definitely ready for this and as the technology keeps improving, people are just going to keep adopting it faster and faster.”

Despite new in-home devices with virtual assistants released or announced by Google, Apple and Microsoft, eMarketer predicts Amazon will remain the dominant player in the category for the foreseeable future.

Amazon faces competition from current automotive suppliers. Speech-recognition tech company Nuance recently demonstrated its “Dragon” personal assistant with a Chrysler Pacifica minivan at a mobility and tech trade show near Detroit. The system has six microphones that can identify which person is speaking. It can learn voices and adapt vehicle settings based on personal preferences.

“Every carmaker has plans to do this,” said Eric Montague, senior director of product marketing and strategy, automotive business for Nuance. “The goal really is to create an emotional connection between the brand and the users.”

Fully integrating Alexa into vehicles poses risks if a better technology comes out or the software cannot be quickly updated. That’s why many automakers — beginning with Ford — are expected to use easily upgradable smartphone apps as conduits to bring Alexa into the vehicle.

“Consumers want this seamless transition from home to car,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Autotrader. “They don’t want to have to learn totally different technology.”

Volkswagen is expected to be the first automaker to embed Alexa into its vehicles, but owners of Ford vehicles with the SYNC 3 infotainment system will be the first to be able to use Alexa, as early as this summer, by plugging their smartphones into a USB outlet.

To use Alexa, drivers tap the voice recognition button on the steering wheel, then say “Alexa,” followed by a question or command, including directions that will appear on the vehicle’s infotainment screen. Ford has received extensive criticism in recent years from consumers and third-party rating organizations such as J.D. Power for glitches in its previous-generation infotainment systems.

Consumers can be very vocal when technology doesn’t work the way they expect it to. But Krebs said the automakers face risks if they don’t embrace emerging technologies.

“People know there will be glitches and they know technology is changing fast,” she said, mentioning Ford’s early voice-recognition and infotainment systems as examples. “They know it will evolve and get better.”

Dealers, third parties

Amazon, according to Scumniotales, sees use cases for Alexa in dealerships and other third parties.

“It’s of interest to them,” he said. “There’s a lot that we’ve been talking about how we could enhance that showroom floor experience.”

Edmunds earlier this year became the first third-party car shopping and research site to launch an Alexa skill. Information via its Alexa skill includes about 24 topics such as vehicle reviews, recalls and other shopping and ownership tools.

“We look for these type of up-and-coming trends,” said Greg Shaffer, senior director of product management at Edmunds. “This is a pretty clear-cut case. We saw the voice-assistant rise coming about a year ago and started efforts in this space.”

Scumniotales said: “When we look at automotive and we look at what we’re doing with Alexa, we firmly believe that voice is kind of the future.”

Fiat Chrysler tweaks trim levels on 300, Charger and Cherokee

DETROIT — Fiat Chrysler will shake up trim levels this fall on three of its vehicles — the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Jeep Cherokee — to freshen the look of its lowest-end versions of those cars.

The trim-level changes are detailed in ordering documents distributed to U.S. dealers earlier this month and obtained by Automotive News.

A spokesman for FCA declined to comment on the changes for the coming model year. However, U.S. sales of all three vehicles are down sharply. The changes are also taking place as FCA makes tweaks to its lineup, such as introducing new features and paint colors, to keep consumers interested in what is the oldest product lineup of any major automaker, according to Morgan Stanley.

For 2018, the Chrysler 300 will go from four trim levels to five, and will mix up the order.

In the current model year, the base-model Chrysler 300 is a Limited trim level, with the S and C trims above that geared toward either a sportier or more luxurious experience, respectively, and topped by the C Platinum trim.

For the 2018 model year, the base model — complete with cloth seats — will be the Touring trim, followed by the Touring L, S, Limited and C. The new trim walk more closely aligns with the Chrysler brand’s only other vehicle, the Pacifica minivan.

Similarly, the bottom end of the trim lineup for the Dodge Charger will undergo a makeover for the 2018 model year, eliminating the current base-level SE model.

According to the ordering guide given to dealers, the Charger SE trim will be consolidated with what is now the next-highest-level trim, SXT, for 2018.

All-wheel-drive versions of the Charger’s lower trim levels will be sold under the GT AWD trim level and will feature cloth or leather seats.

All of the altered Charger trims are powered by the base-level 3.6-liter V-6 engine.

Cherokee trims will be altered within the Jeep lineup for 2018. The brand is eliminating the bottom-end Sport trim level, making the Latitude trim the new base and adding a new Latitude Plus trim.

In its communications with dealers, FCA said that the Cherokee Latitude would come with a “significant price reduction” of the 2017 price of $25,645, with the new base Cherokee to start at $24,395, though it is unclear if the features of the base model Cherokee will remain the same with the name change.

Both prices exclude delivery. The dealer ordering guide also indicates the Cherokee’s higher-end Limited and Trailhawk 4×4 trims would also see “reduced pricing” in the 2018 model year but did not specify the new pricing levels.

Through May, sales of the Cherokee are down 18 percent in the U.S. to 69,473, while sales of the 300 are down 16 percent to 22,918 and Charger sales are off 12 percent to 36,774.

Honda engineer debunks own claim about cause of Takata airbag failures

DETROIT — Honda Motor Co. released a 2013 email in which one of its engineers suggested that he knew some hidden truth about “the root cause” of Takata Corp. airbag failures, but the engineer later said he was mistaken.

The engineer’s email was disclosed in a statement from Honda as part of its defense in a class action suit in Florida, where plaintiffs are seeking compensation for the lost value of vehicles due to defects in Takata airbag inflators.

The inflators can explode with excessive force, launching metal shrapnel at passengers in cars and trucks.

The inflators prompted the automotive industry’s largest ever safety recall and have been linked to at least 16 deaths worldwide. Nine of the 11 U.S. deaths have been reported in 2001-2003 model Honda and Acura vehicles.

The engineer’s email from July 18, 2013, originally written in Japanese and translated by Honda, is part of an exchange with a colleague at the automaker.

“I am a witness in the dark who knows the truth about Takata’s inflator recall,” the engineer, whose name is blacked out in Honda’s statement, wrote in his email.

“If I say something to NHTSA, it will cause a complete reversal in the auto industry which adopted Takata inflators,” added the engineer, who told his colleague he had been taken off airbag-related work by Honda because of his supposed inside knowledge.

In a sworn affidavit filed with a federal court and dated June 1, 2017, the engineer acknowledged he had been mistaken, however.

When he wrote email to his colleague, he was referring to an Oct. 16, 1999, event in which a prototype Takata airbag inflator ruptured, the engineer stated.

“I believed that the root cause of the October 16, 1999 rupture related to the root cause of the Takata inflator recalls,” the affidavit stated.

Based on later findings by the NHTSA, “I now understand that I was incorrect and the root cause of the field events is not related to the root cause of the October 1999 rupture.”

Honda did not name the engineer but said in a statement that he was still employed by the company and had refused to testify in the Florida case.

Takata bankruptcy would cloud auto industry’s biggest recall

The expected bankruptcy of troubled airbag maker Takata Corp. isn’t just a crisis for its employees and suppliers. It also throws a wild card into one of the biggest and most complicated recalls in automotive history.

The Japan-based auto supplier has pledged to recall and replace tens of millions of defective airbag inflators used by 19 automakers around the world, from Tesla Inc. to Toyota Motor Corp. A filing to restructure in U.S. bankruptcy court, which could come as early as Monday according to people familiar with the matter, doesn’t relieve a manufacturer of recall responsibilities.

However, should its financial assets be exhausted before all the work is done, carmakers may have to cover the difference.

U.S. bankruptcy laws permit a would-be buyer to acquire Takata’s desirable assets, but not necessarily assume unwanted liabilities — including recall obligations, according to Robert Rasmussen, a University of Southern California law professor specializing in corporate reorganizations.

Funds raised by an asset sale would go toward funding Takata’s production of replacement parts, Rasmussen said. U.S. law treats a manufacturer’s recall obligations in bankruptcy as a claim of the U.S. government and they receive priority “to ensure that consumers are adequately protected from any safety defect” in a manufacturer’s products, according to statute.

“The big risk,” Rasmussen said, “is how much are the assets worth versus what’s the cost to do the replacements.”

Scott Upham, president of Valient Market Research, estimates that automakers and suppliers globally face $5 billion in future costs tied to the recalls, about $2 billion of which can be tied to Takata. He estimates a Takata asset sale will generate about $1.5 billion to $2 billion.

“There’s not enough money,” Upham said. Automakers may have to cover any shortfall, he said.

The car companies have already shifted business away from Takata and toward rivals for about 70 percent of the parts to repair the millions of vehicles recalled for the company’s defective airbag inflators, which can explode with too much force and spray drivers and passengers with metal and plastic shards. That should assure enough new inflators for the estimated 100 million defective ones forecast to be replaced worldwide.

Only 38 percent of the 43 million airbag inflators under recall in the U.S. had been repaired as of May 26, according to data on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website. In Japan, 73 percent of the close to 19 million airbags under recall have been repaired, a spokesman at the country’s transport ministry said this month.

At least 17 deaths have been linked to the devices worldwide. Mounting liabilities associated with the faulty airbags have forced Takata to seek a buyer that would see it through a costly restructuring process. A Takata steering committee has recommended Key Safety Systems Inc. — the U.S. airbag maker owned by China’s Ningbo Joyson Electronic Corp. — as the preferred bidder, and bankruptcy filings would bring the Japanese company a step closer to a sale.

The challenges for the acquirer are manifold.

Takata posted its third-straight annual loss even without including the full costs of repairing millions of airbags, which automakers are now paying for. It faces a talent exodus and auto industry distrust.

“It would be hard for Key Safety Systems to put in huge amounts of money if there’s no guarantee against unexpected liabilities, after any deal,” said Mitsuhiro Harada, a researcher at Tokyo Shoko Research. “Takata is making money in non-airbag operations, so if they can drastically cut recall-related debt through bankruptcy, they can surely revive soon.”

Replacement suppliers

Automakers have avoided supply disruptions by sourcing replacement parts from Takata competitors Autoliv Inc., ZF-TRW and Daicel Corp. Autoliv, for example, has already provided 15 million replacement inflators and has orders for another 15 million into 2019, company spokesman Thomas Jonsson said.

“We are working with suppliers to ensure a steady supply of replacement inflators for our customers,” said Kelly Stefanich, a Toyota spokeswoman in Princeton, Ind. “We don’t anticipate any supply disruptions at this time.” Honda CEO Takahiro Hachigo said at a June 16 media briefing that the automaker hasn’t heard any specifics about the Takata bankruptcy plan.

The Japanese government has said it’s focused on completing the recall process and ensuring there’s no disruption of the supply chain.

In the U.S., NHTSA has been coordinating the pace of recalls and the flow of parts under a legally-binding 2015 agreement with Takata and 19 companies. That pact, NHTSA said, “is designed to deal with future contingencies, including the possibility of additional recalls, new information about the cause of the ruptures, or interruptions in the supply of replacement inflators.”

“The automakers, the government, Key Safety Systems and Takata will come to an agreement to keep supplies flowing,” Upham said. “The No. 1 priority is the safety of the driving public, and I think everybody realizes that.”

Honda impact

Honda first started recalling Accord and Civic models in 2008 due to the flaw that may end up being Takata’s undoing. The supplier’s inflators use ammonium nitrate propellant that can be rendered unstable after long-term exposure to heat and humidity. That same year, Takata began adding a drying agent to its propellant formula in an attempt to fix the problem. It has until the end of 2019 to prove to U.S. regulators that those airbags are safe.

Honda now uses no Takata-sourced inflators for recall repairs in the U.S., and none of the company’s new vehicles in mass production worldwide use Takata inflators with ammonium nitrate propellant, said Chris Martin, a Honda spokesman in the U.S..

Opting for bankruptcy protection in Japan and the U.S., as opposed to a court-led restructuring, should ensure there’s “minimum negative impact to the airbag supply chain for automakers,” said Takeshi Miyao, an analyst at Tokyo-based market researcher Carnorama. He predicts the procedure would take two months in a best-case scenario, but would more likely need half a year.

GM settles with 203 plaintiffs over ignition switches

NEW YORK — General Motors agreed to settle federal lawsuits by as many as 203 plaintiffs over defective ignition switches in its vehicles, a Friday court filing shows.

Settlement terms are confidential, but the accord could also resolve hundreds of state court claims, as well, lawyers for the automaker said in the filing in Manhattan federal court.

Lawyers for the settling plaintiffs could not immediately be reached for comment. A GM spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

GM has been defending against hundreds of lawsuits over faulty ignition switches that could cause engines to stall and prevent airbags from deploying in crashes.

The defect has been linked to 124 deaths and 275 injuries, and prompted a recall that began in February 2014.

GM has paid about $2.5 billion in penalties and settlements related to the defect.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that blocked GM’s effort to scuttle many private lawsuits.

The company had argued that its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization excused it from addressing earlier defects.

GM’s lawyers said they are working with the plaintiffs’ lawyers to complete documentation within the next month for the settlement, whose terms “will take some time” to implement.

Tesla rolls through Michigan towing an Airstream

Tesla Inc. is touring Michigan with an Airstream trailer towed by the new Model X crossover — a way to showcase its vehicles where they are unable to be sold.

The automaker, barred under state law from selling cars in Michigan, is making its way north after the trailer was stationed in Detroit earlier this month.

The road trip aims to expose more consumers to the electric crossover, which offers a 5,000-pound towing capability and upswinging “falcon wing” doors. The Model X starts at $83,700, including shipping.

Also outfitted as a design studio, the mobile display began its journey around Michigan this month. Six other Model X crossovers have been towing Airstreams in cities across North America since January — landing along the East and West coasts as well as in Chicago and Atlanta.

In Detroit, Tesla representatives declined to comment on details of the tour.

The Silicon Valley electric car maker sells through a direct-to-customer model, rather than using franchised dealerships. In September, Tesla sued Michigan after being denied a license to sell directly to consumers. The suit is pending.

Under a Michigan law that restricts vehicle sales to franchised dealers, Tesla can’t give browsers the exact price of the vehicle, pass out business cards or pitch specific car specs.

The trailer will be stationed in Acme, Mich., at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa on June 29-July 9, then move to Crystal Mountain resort in Thompsonville, July 11-17. After its stint in northern Michigan, the Model X and Airstream will roll south to Ann Arbor, July 20-23, and Grand Rapids, July 27-31.

Remaining stops on the summer road trip include New York City; Bridgehampton, N.Y.; Greenwich, Conn.; and Park City, Utah.