Lexus UX: Australian pricing and specifications revealed

Lexus has announced pricing and specifications of the all-new UX crossover prior to its launch in the Australian market later this month. Let’s have a look at how the UX compares to its key rivals:

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It’s clear from the above table that the Audi Q2, rather than the Lexus, offers the best price/performance ratio, with the cheapest price but also the best fuel consumption and second fastest acceleration.

Moreover, whilst the design of the vehicle includes on-trend elements such as a full-width rear light bar, I find the overall design of the car to be distasteful. This is especially the case with the side profile, with excessive creasing and character lines that fail to create any cohesion, and an awkwardly proportioned, excessively wide C-pillar.

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Follow-up: VW to seek partnerships rather than use Audi to develop electric and autonomous vehicles

Edward Taylor and Jan Schwartz, reporting for Reuters (from Automotive News Europe):

“Volkswagen…will explore potential alliances with Ford and others to develop autonomous and electric vehicles. If approved by the board, it would signal a major departure from VW's standalone efforts to build them and diminish Audi's importance as an engineering hub.

The strategy could also deepen existing cooperation with Ford. This could include Ford supplying a pickup platform and some engines to VW, one of the sources said. VW could also buy a stake in Ford's autonomous cars program and give Ford access to its MEB electric cars platform, they said.

Audi has been developing autonomous technology for VW, Audi and Porsche. It built the A8, a car with advanced self-driving features, but its efforts for a fully autonomous car have fallen behind rival companies such as Alphabet's Waymo.

"We want to have access to a self-driving system and we are speaking with relevant players. It is very expensive to develop and others are already well advanced," Chief Financial Officer Frank Witter said in a phone call with reporters on Tuesday.

This ultimately isn’t surprising, and affirms my comments regarding yesterday’s article. Today, the automotive industry is fragmented, and consists of a number of key players, ranging from both traditional automotive manufacturers to those entering with a Silicon Valley mindset. As a result, there is little logic in every company going in-house, and at great expense, to develop technology that fundamentally aims to achieve the same end goal - a fully autonomous, electric vehicle. In this regard, recently departed Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s comments are prescient:

“Auto companies need to quickly separate the stuff that will be swallowed by commodity from the brand stuff”

In this regard, what matters more is the integration and execution of electric vehicle and autonomous driving technologies, with design and usability into a seamless whole - it is this that will differentiate successful automakers from those that are not. When everyone has access to the same fundamental technologies, it is that final, extra layer of polish that will separate the wheat from the chaff, and an average car from one that is great. Of course, whether that extra polish can be achieved through refinement of available, off-the shelf technologies, or only through an in-house, end-to-end development and ownership of the technology stack within a car, remains to be seen.

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Above: The VW brand portfolio. Note that VW Commercial Vehicles is considered to be separate to the ‘main’ VW passenger car brand despite often sharing dealerships and sales channels

$180,000 Tesla Model X lacks autonomous emergency braking

Correction, 9/09/2017: Some readers have pointed out that the Tesla Model X does, in fact, come standard with autonomous emergency braking (AEB). After calling the Tesla Store in St Leonards, Sydney, I can confirm that all new Tesla Model X and S vehicles come standard with autonomous emergency braking and forward collision warning. The system works as follows:

  1. From 0-40 km/h the Forward Collision Warning (FCW) system will warn the driver of an impending collision.
  2. Above 40 km/h, the Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) system will apply the brakes if it detects an impending collision. There is no upper speed limit after which the system will not work, however, the likelihood of the car coming to a complete stop before the potential accident will decrease at higher speeds.

I'm not sure why the particular Model X tested by CarAdvice did not have AEB. Even if the Model X tested was an older model, I would assume that Tesla's fleet of loan/review cars is kept up-to-date with the latest software. I will update this article if I receive further information on the particular Model X used by CarAdvice.

It's important to note that the key point of the article, that essential safety features such as AEB should not be compromised in favour of software development, remains valid. From October 2016 towards the end of April 2017, new Tesla vehicles sold did not have any form of AEB.  

The original article continues below: 

Paul Maric, reviewing the Tesla Model X 75D for CarAdvice:

"But here is the problem. While we had the car on loan, all the data collected by 'Hardware 1' Tesla vehicles is obsolete. Hardware 1 was Tesla's first iteration of cameras and sensors used for AutoPilot, autonomous emergency braking and radar cruise control.

Now that the camera and sensor count has increased, all of that 'self learning' data is wiped and new data needs to be collected. With other car brands, they test this technology first, implement their learnings and release the vehicle to market. Tesla, instead, uses its customers effectively as test pilots until it has enough data to enable those features.

That means our test car didn't have features like autonomous emergency braking, automatic high beam lights, automatic windscreen wipers, side collision warning, lane departure warning, high-speed automatic steering, automatic lane change, semi-autonomous parking and Tesla's Summon self-parking feature.

You read that right – this car, with an on-road price tag of over $180,000 doesn't have automatic windscreen wipers. That's technology standard on a $20,000 Mazda 2 – even the entry-level $14,990 Mazda 2 has autonomous emergency braking as standard.

We don't really care what excuses Tesla has for this technology being non-existent at the moment, it's not good enough. It's not good enough for a $50,000 car, let alone one worth almost $200,000. Even the top-specification Model X P100D worth over $300,000 doesn't have this technology. You're kidding, right?"

It's understandable that Tesla, as a new player in the automotive industry, needs to be seen as technologically ahead of other automakers to differentiate itself. It's also understandable that in order to maintain this lead, the company will frequently trial and test beta software.

However, basic safety features should never be compromised in favour of software development. When a $14,990 Mazda 2 right at the budget end of the market comes standard with AEB, it's fair to say that the industry across the board can and should deem AEB a safety feature as essential as an airbag. For a $180,000 car to not have this feature is shameful.

It doesn't matter whether the Model X will have this feature soon, or has had it in the past, or that this is a temporary problem. AEB is now a feature so essential that there should never be a point in any vehicle's life-cycle where it is not standard. The fact is, if you walk out of a Tesla showroom right now with a Model X, you cannot have AEB. Tesla has compromised on a crucial safety feature today in favour of better autonomous driving at some point in the future. That is inexcusable. 

At this point, I have to reinforce what Paul says in the second paragraph of the quoted excerpt. Tesla may be one of the few (if not the only) manufacturer that delivers seamless, over-the-air software updates to improve their car, much like how Apple updates the iPhone or Google with the Pixel. It should rightly be applauded for this. But other manufacturers also don't remove safety features from their cars and then use the customer as a pawn when developing their replacements. Instead, they take time to develop and throughly test these features to a point where they reliably work well before selling the car to the customer. A comparably priced car from another manufacturer may not have software that will be improved in the future, but it will also come out of the box (so to speak) with essential safety features like AEB that will reliably work well, and won't be removed in the future. 

To compare with the approach of a conventional manufacturer, look at the new Audi A8 that has recently been launched. This vehicle today arguably has a superior autonomous driving ability than Tesla's Autopilot. I'm sure Audi could have launched this car 18-24 months ago without AEB or any self-driving features, and then have progressively implemented those features via software updates as it developed its self-driving technology. Instead, Audi took the development time and resources to ensure that these self-driving features work reliably well from the first instance that customers use them. The company is even confident enough with this technology to accept liability if the vehicle crashes whilst driving itself.

There's little doubt that Tesla's focus on technology and making great electric vehicles has caught the attention of the wider public, and has pushed the rest of the industry to compete. However, putting the customer's safety at risk today, by removing AEB, in order to develop self-driving software that will be available at some vague point in the future, is an act by Tesla that is reckless and almost criminal. 

Above: Tesla's Model X and Audi's A8

Thoughts on Audi's new naming system

From the Audi press release:

"The reference value for the new model designations is the power output of the individual model in kilowatts (kW). Audi is thus subclassifying its model range into different performance levels – each identified by a two-numeral combination. For example, the numeral combination “30” will appear on the rear of all models with power output between 81 and 96 kW. And “45” stands for power output between 169 and 185 kW. The top of the Audi model range is the performance class above 400 kW, which is identifiable by the number combination “70”. In each case the numerals appear along with the engine technology – TFSI, TDI, g-tron or e-tron.

The changes will kick off with the new Audi A8 generation in the fall of 2017. First among the two six-cylinder engines to be redesignated will be the 3.0 TDI with 210 kW – as the Audi A8 50 TDI, and the 3.0 TFSI with 250 kW – as the Audi A8 55 TFSI."

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Above: Audi's new naming system on the A8

On the face of it, this new numbering system aligns Audi with Mercedes and BMW, who also use a series of numbers to denote the relative power outputs of their model variants.

Historically, the model designations for Mercedes and BMW would be based on engine displacement. The underlying logic behind this was the assumption that the larger the engine, the more power it produced. Thus, 'E300' would would mean an E-Class with a 3.0L engine and '320i' would be equivalent to a 3-Series with a 2.0L engine. Although this is no longer the case (for example, the new E300 uses a higher-powered 2.0L engine) the long-running use of this type of nomenclature by both brands means that customers are still familiar with the underlying logic behind the system. A customer who walks into a Mercedes dealership may not know the size of the engine in the E300, but they will understand that it's a more powerful car than the E200. A decades long history of using the same basic system develops a contextual familiarity for the customer.

Audi's new two digit numbering system is a stark departure from the previous system where the engine displacement was directly labelled. Without the historical precedent that Mercedes and BMW share, the Audi customer cannot be expected to understand what numbers such as '30', '55' and '70' mean. Moreover, with the industry focusing on electric vehicle development, other characteristics such as range (i.e. the distance the car can travel between charges) also become important, which is a metric that is not described by the new numbering system. 

Overall, I feel that this new 2 digit numbering system is too little, too late. The system is too simplistic to cover characteristics that will be important in the future, such as vehicle range. Without historical precedent, it is likewise confusing for future prospective Audi customers.

With cars having a number of important performance characteristics such as power, torque, acceleration and range, it is difficult to concisely and clearly express all of these into a single alpha-numeric combination.

Perhaps a better option would be to scrap this model designation system entirely and instead follow the Ferrari route. Focus on marketing (and badging) the model only, e.g. Audi A4/A6/A8 and tabulate all performance characteristics on a hidden plaque or badge inside the car, together with any customer ordered options and other specification such as paint colour and wheel design. This way, all performance characteristics can be clearly displayed and understood. Additionally, this system would be beneficial come resale time, as all customer ordered options and preferences would be evident (with personalisation being key at the premium end of the market).

Audi TT air vent design

The recently launched Audi TT is notable for its interior design, especially the unique design of the air-conditioning controls that are integrated into the air-vents:

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HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning) controls on the 2015 Audi TT  

This is an excellent design. 

Fundamentally, changing something like the A/C temperature or fan speed involves two senses. Sight is needed to observe what the currently displayed temperature is and to then adjust the setting. Secondly, touch, or more specifically, thermoception, is needed to 'feel' the new temperature or fan speed change and confirm whether the new setting is appropriate, or whether further adjustment is required.

Thus, this process usually involves a two-step action: manipulating the switch or dial to change the temperature/air-flow, and then placing a hand near the air vent to 'feel' whether the new temperature and air-flow is right.

Most car interiors reinforce this two step process by separating the air-vent and temperature controls and placing them in disparate locations.

2017 Porsche 718 Boxster. The HVAC controls are just visible at the bottom of the image.

An example of this is the Porsche 718 Boxster. Porsche takes a contrasting approach to Audi and places its HVAC controls almost diametrically opposite to the air-vents, with both being separated by the infotainment screen and the media controls. Consequently, this design enforces the rigid two-step process outlined above, by forcing the driver to physically move their hand between two different locations in order to ensure the correct temperature and airflow setting.

Audi's design, in contrast, is innovative because it elegantly and efficiently combines the disparate two step process in the Porsche and other vehicles. By integrating all necessary HVAC controls, including temperature, fan speed and airflow within the air-vent, the driver can simultaneously adjust the control and immediately feel the effect of their action, without having to physically move their arm.

While this may seem to be a superficial change, Audi's design has numerous benefits. Not only does it create a sense of harmony and visual symmetry, but by minimising the number of separate buttons and switches, it greatly reduces the potential for the driver to be confused or frustrated by excessive clutter and small, illogically placed controls. By streamlining a relatively complicated, two-step process into a single action, Audi's design could also potentially increase road safety, by essentially halving the time the driver spends with one hand on the steering wheel.

An innovative, refreshing and logical design that clearly moves the ball forward. Great work.