Five Thoughts about the Auto Industry for May 27, 2011

It’s Friday again, and time for a quick edition of my five thoughts about the auto industry.

1 – A Seven-Passenger BMW X7 On The Way?

My first response was, sure, why not?  BMW has gone far enough down the path to expanding its lineup (M-badged SUVs and upcoming front-wheel drive compact cars) that brand dilution is no longer really an issue.  In fact, at this point BMW almost seems to have adopted an attitude where they are throwing various models at the wall just to see what sticks.  Automobile Magazine seems to think that there is still some life left in the X7 rumors of just a few years ago, and if the company can fit the vehicle into is corporate overall fuel economy calculations, then we could see it on North American roads in just a few years.

2 – BMW 5 Series GT Considered a Failure

Not every new BMW product is well received, and the automaker does stumble from time to time.  A perfect example of an experiment that just won’t “stick” is the BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo.  Also known as the 5 Series GT, this mid-size hatchback replaced the BMW 5 Series Touring (read: wagon) a short time ago, and dismal sales have led BMW executives to question the wisdom of the decision, as well as the future of the vehicle.  While it’s not necessarily true that the next-generation 5 Series will regain a wagon body style (which was also a slow seller, although expectations were far lower), the lackluster performance of the 5 Series GT means that the 3 Series Touring is in no danger of similar replacement.

3 – Black Boxes Around the Corner?

Wired is reporting that the NHTSA is hot to order the installation of “black box” data recorders in new vehicles as early as this year.  Current sticking points include the standardization of exactly what type of data is collected by the devices, as well as a legal framework for who would have access to the information, and when.  Many drivers are no doubt unaware that a wide range of modern cars and trucks already have this type of technology lurking in their computer systems as part and parcel of their airbag safety systems, and that the use of collected data is largely unregulated.

The implications of insurance companies, law enforcement and other entities having unfettered access to a driver’s on-road habits and comings and goings is a touchy subject in the United States.  This means that the NHTSA will have to tread lightly when coming up with fair legislation that makes clear what, if any, safety advantages mandatory black boxes would provide.

4 – New Ford Seat Detects Heart Attacks, Provides Warning to Driver

Ford is pushing the development of medical devices that integrate via a wireless connection with its Sync vehicle interface.  One such device would be a seat that can detect cardiac irregularities and then warn the driver that they might be about to have a heart attack.  Presumably, this is meant to give Ford owners time to pull over and avoid having an accident due to a cardiovascular issue.

In practical terms, there are numerous regulatory barriers that could prevent this type of technology from becoming economically feasible, not to mention the safety issues surrounding inaccurate readings.  Is Ford over-reaching?  I think so.  That being said, look for continued integration of medical device apps with high tech vehicle systems as medical device manufacturers seek out new markets.

5 – Mazda To Develop a Hybrid Rotary Engine

The Wankel rotary engine is not known for its fuel efficiency, but Mazda hopes to change that by co-opting Toyota hybrid technology and creating a gasoline / electric rotary motor that sips fuel at a more frugal rate.  The intended recipient of this hybrid rotary drivetrain would be the upcoming RX-9 sports car, which is pegged to replace the thirsty RX-8.

The question becomes why doesn’t Mazda simply go with a more conventional and fuel efficient engine for the RX-9 instead of an undoubtedly expensive hybrid rotary that very few sports car enthusiasts would actively seek out as a desirable feature?  If the RX-9 is intended as a low volume halo car, then this type of engine might make sense.  If volume is more important than prestige, it becomes more difficult to understand Mazda’s logic.

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