LIMA — The salesman cruised the 2018 Honda CR-V west on state Route 309 out of Lima, talking about the features.
For a few seconds, Brook Hall, a salesman for Allan Nott Honda-Toyota, took his hands off the steering wheel. The car continued to stay in the middle of its lane, following the contours of the road. If a car ahead slowed down, this automobile would too, Hall explained, thanks to its adaptive cruise control.
“When you hear ‘self-driving car,’ it seems like the kind of thing that wouldn’t be available yet,” Hall said. “With the CR-V and a lot of the other Hondas and Toyotas, there are some of those driver-assist features. … I don’t think self-driving cars are here quite yet, but the safety features in them mean we’re getting closer to that.”
The automobile industry is in an era of immense change that could have an immense impact on the Lima region, known for its oil refinery and its Ford engine plant. Some day, the idea of hopping in your car and pushing the pedal to the metal and hearing the roar of a gasoline-powered engine may just be memories.
Over the next seven days, The Lima News shares its findings on how close the nation really is to autonomous and electric vehicles becoming mainstream and what that means for a community.
“The Jetsons are coming. Driverless cars are definitely on the way,” said Larry Webb, president of Webb Insurance Company in Lima, who’s been part of the effort to re-imagine the role of insurance in the future.
While technological advances push cars closer to being able to drive themselves, companies invest billions in making more electric vehicles.
“Certainly that instant torque, the really quiet ride, how smooth it is and then not having to go to a gas station,” said Elizabeth Winter, a spokesperson for General Motors. “Until you drive EV’s, that experience of just being able to plug in and wake up to essentially a full ‘tank’ is something we’re finding customers really enjoy,”
“Autonomous cars are so far in the future that there’s no forecast of when we will actually see one,” said Bernard Swiecki, Director of Automotive Communities and Senior Motive Analyst at the Center For Automotive Research in Detroit. “We are nowhere near the point where you can just buy an autonomous car and have it drive you around.”
The closest you’ll get to that is the Tesla Model S, which theoretically has a full self-driving capability package that needs government approval first before you can type an address onto its panel and go. That vehicle has a $74,500 price tag, though.
The price is similarly high for the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, a $63,000 vehicle that can change lanes itself if it sees an opening. The $56,000 BMW 5 Series can park itself in parallel or perpendicular parking spots.
That doesn’t mean the average Joe can’t get his hands on some of the technology, though. The Honda Sensing Suite includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist and a road departure mitigation system.
Toyota Safety Sense is a similar package that’s already standard on its popular Yaris, Highlander and Prius models. It includes a pre-collision system, including pedestrian detection, a dynamic radar cruise control and a lane departure alert.
Companies continue to invest in completely autonomous vehicles, with some testing in real-world conditions.
“Oh no, it’s going forward, and you can’t stop it. It’s like a tidal wave,” said Webb, the insurance veteran. “Twenty years from now, your grandchildren are going to ask you, ‘What did a steering wheel do?’ They’re not going to know.”
Most automotive makers have electric options available now, but the interest locally hasn’t been strong.
Blake Cole, new car manager at Reineke Ford in Lima, said the dealership doesn’t keep a Fusion Energy, a fully electric vehicle, in stock because there’s no demand for it. It does keep five to 10 Fusion Hybrids on the lot, though, as there’s some demand for the combination vehicle that gets 45 miles to the gallon and can travel 700 miles on a single tank of gas.
“We are not really noticing an increase in interest (from the buying public) in hybrid or electric vehicles,” said Blake Cole, new car manager at Reineke Ford in Lima. “But if gas prices keep going up, I do look for that interest to grow.”
Manufacturers aren’t waiting on that. Ford invested $11 billion in electrified vehicles, committing to 40 of them globally, including hybrids, by 2022. Fiat Chrysler announced a $10.5 billion investment in gas-electric hybrids and fully electric vehicles. General Motors wants to have at least 20 new all-electric models on the market by 2023.
“Reducing our dependence on oil is one of the single, greatest challenges that our society faces,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told financial analysts.
There’s a benefit to owners, too.
“Actually, everything about a hybrid is cheaper to own and maintain, mostly because the engine doesn’t run as often” as a gasoline-powered motor does, said Eric Martin, the general manager at Allan Nott Toyota.
Still, a prediction from the U.S. Energy Information Administration suggests petroleum-based fuels will continue to fuel the majority of vehicles through 2050. That means a continued need for the Husky Energy Lima Refinery, since the energy demand “includes demand for gasoline and diesel, produced responsibly at the Lima Refinery,” said Kim Guttormson, of Husky Energy.
CHANGING THE GAME
When the automobile’s doing the driving or it’s fueled, some of our everyday notions become challenged.
“I mean, there’s going to be no brake, no accelerator, no steering wheel (with autonomous cars). How can you, the consumer, be liable?” said Webb. “But then, let’s say you don’t maintain your vehicle by having the necessary software upgrades installed. Then you may have some legal exposure and you may want to purchase your own liability insurance, but it will cost a lot less than it does now.”
Similar questions pop up about the need for a driver’s license.
Then there’s the question of how you pay for roadways. Increasingly fuel efficient cars are already cutting down on the amount of fuel tax area county engineers receive, and a transition to electric cars leaves them looking for alternatives.
Sam Spoffofth, the executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio, said possible answers including a tax on recharging vehicles, changing license plate fees or restructuring the roads themselves to charge a by-the-mile tax.
“We want to do it the smart way,” Spofforth said. “Obviously, it’s going to have to happen at some point, but not today.”
Perhaps owning a car will become a thing of the past too, as ride-sharing services make a dent in larger cities. Swiecki expressed doubts about that in mid-sized cities such as Lima, though.
“These are all good replacements for owning your own car,” Swiecki said. “However, if you use your car a lot, as most people who live in the suburbs, rural areas and little towns do, it just would make more sense to own your own vehicle.”
The rapidly evolving technology also challenges the people who must fix them.
“The automotive industry in general is constantly changing, and new technologies and systems and stuff are coming out,” said Jason Duvall, an automotive instructor at the University of Northwestern Ohio. “So we’re constantly updating our curriculum and looking at what were covering in class and what we need to be covering for the newer vehicles.”
Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko. Reporters Josh Ellerbrock, Merri Hanjora, Camri Nelson, Bryan Reynolds, Sam Shriver, J Swygart and from the Associated Press contributed to this story.