The Year In Reverse: The 10 Biggest Car News Stories Of 2015

December 28, 2015

Dieselgate--the VW empire takes an incalculable risk, and a devastating hit

It was unusual when, at their home-court auto show in Frankfurt in September, the world's biggest seller of diesels put such a strong focus on electric cars. All became clear the Friday after press days when it was revealed that the company's diesel engines were part of a vast deception. Engineers had rigged VW's small turbodiesel engines with so-called "defeat devices" that allowed the engines to meet legal standards during official testing--and to flout those standards on public roads. The scandal raced through the ranks in Wolfsburg, taking with it chairman Martin Winterkorn and a slew of chief engineers, including Uli Hackenberg, at the time Audi's head of research and development. Its core brands all were affected, in markets around the world. As of yet, there is no formal plan to resolve the issue completely, but it's clear the numerous technical and legal hurdles will come at an enormous cost. At latest count, the number of vehicles affected has passed 11 million--and the potential pricetag for repairs, buybacks, and lawsuits is estimated conservatively at more than $20 billion.

Chevrolet Bolt EV Concept

Chevrolet Bolt EV Concept

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Electric cars gain critical mass

Dieselgate may have permanently tilted the alternative-vehicle tide in favor of electric cars, despite their infrastructure and cost issues. The prime example of the turnabout? The Porsche Mission E concept shown at the Frankfurt auto show, a pure electric with 300 miles of range, and the Audi e-tron quattro electric SUV. When the world's chief purveyor of diesels makes such an about-face, so quickly, it's clear even the evangelists have lost faith in the ability of diesel to be transformed for a lower-emission future. A not-inconsequential second to that motion? The Bolt EV, in which Chevy drops the electric-car gloves, and raises the bar with a 200-mile battery-electric car priced at about $30,000 after federal incentives. It's a truly terrible name, but a watershed moment for the company that built the EV1, endured the slings and arrows of Michael Moore, and then fought back with the extended-range Volt.

2016 Tesla Model X

2016 Tesla Model X

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The Model X finally makes its debut, and the cult of Tesla grows

After myriad delays, Tesla finally unveiled the production version of its Model X. Throngs of adulating crowds cheered on founder Elon Musk, who regaled potential buyers with gimmicky features like top-hinged doors and a "Bioweapon Defense Mode" while the media were relegated to the sidelines. That's how they roll in TeslaWorld, where troubling undercurrents of sluggish Model S sales, battery-pack recalls, and costly Model X engineering and assembly processes are subsumed by Tesla fervor and the cult-like adoration of Elon Musk. While Model X sales creep up to pace, and engineering ostensibly progresses on the promised $30,000 Model III sedan, Tesla and Musk continue to cater only to the true believers, expanding Supercharging stations, building a battery-assembly facility in Nevada, and moving ahead as if electric cars were a naturally swelling tide about to overtake gas-powered vehicles. It's both a deep act of faith in this version of the future, and hucksterism taken to new heights.

Google autonomous car prototype

Google autonomous car prototype

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Autonomous driving gathers speed, thanks to Tesla and Google

Call it piloted driving, hands-free driving, attention-free driving, or autonomous driving--cars that can drive themselves aren't just coming, they're already here. While automakers from around the world made incremental gains and media hype out of some autonomous features, two auto-related companies dove into the deep end of the driverless-car future. Tesla deployed a degree of autonomous driving on its existing fleet of cars, effectively using owners as beta testers. But it's likely the Google car announcement that will be seen by history as the tipping point for a new era of autos. The tech giant said it would built its own fleet of autonomous vehicles, and showed an egg-shaped prototype that it promised would be on the road by the end of the decade--an announcement followed by rumors that Ford would partner with the company to build vehicles equipped with Google's autonomous-car technology. Automakers are catapulting into the autonomous-driving space; meanwhile, fundamental questions like liability and the degree of self-driving allowed by law, are only now being hashed out in legislatures and in the courts.

2015 Nissan Murano - IIHS small overlap frontal crash test

2015 Nissan Murano - IIHS small overlap frontal crash test

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The NHTSA gets serious about high-tech safety

Our federal car-safety agency might not always be ahead of the game in recalls (more on that in a moment), but it is trying to get a grasp on the larger issue of better car safety through technology. In December, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it would dramatically boost the safety technology required to earn top star ratings applied by the agency to new vehicles. That technology--including everything from rearview cameras to forward-collision alerts and automatic braking--will now roll into new-vehicle fleets in time for the 2019 model year. To earn a five-star rating when the new rules are implemented, cars will have to perform well in tests for crash avoidance and pedestrian protection, as well as new and tougher tests for protection in off-angle impacts and frontal impacts. The net effect will be to make equipment like forward-collision warnings, automatic braking, and rearview cameras all but mandatory.

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