It was a big year for the auto industry. We learned that Volkswagen earned a place on the naughty list long before the Christmas holiday; that Fiat Chrysler and Takata both took heavy hits to their bottom lines; and that self-driving cars are picking up speeding tickets all on their own (no word on whether the ticket is being contested). All in all, some memorable moments. Here’s our complete list of the top five stories of 2015 with some additional context.
Volkswagen skirts the rules and pays big
The German car company tried to pull one over consumers and federal regulators by knowingly subverting emissions rules, creating a mess so big that even Hollywood is looking to capitalize on the hysteria. Everyone loves a scandal, and this one proved to be one for the books. Once regulators discovered that VW engineers had willfully programmed cars to skirt the rules by implementing a “defeat device,” it was only a matter of time before VW had to admit its transgressions, and ultimately pay the price financially and commercially. The scandal made headlines around the world.
Record fines for Takata and Fiat Chrysler
Speaking of fines, Takata and Fiat Chrysler had their own record-breaking years. And not the kind they were hoping for. A fatal defect in Takata-produced airbags has since led to a record penalty from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and recalls so massive that Takata auto partners like Honda and Toyota have taken determined steps to distance themselves from the Japanese manufacturer. There are also rumblings that Takata could face bankruptcy because of the financial impact of subsequent fines as similar incidents come to light. Just two days ago, for example, the NHTSA announced four additional Takata-related recalls for 2015.
Almost as bad, Fiat Chrysler has been taking a beating from the NHTSA and Consumer Reports for multiple recalls in 2015, receiving at least three civil penalties totaling $175 million. In an earlier post, we took a closer look at this year’s Consumer Reports “Worst Cars” list, only to learn that Fiat Chrysler-made models held the dubious distinction of appearing more times on the list than any other car manufacturer.
Auto sales go gangbusters in 2015
Not since the 2008 recession have cars been selling at such a rapid rate. Auto sales took a steep dive in 2008, bottoming out at just over 10 million. It seems consumers are ready to open up their pocket books and shell out some dough now that banks are loosening the reigns on loans, all while the unemployment rate continues to dip. Though the Fed is upping interest rates for the first time in seven years, all dials are pointing in an encouraging direction. Experts are predicting that that the industry will sell upwards of 17 million cars in 2015, an increase of 6.1% from 2014. Here’s hoping more car sales doesn’t mean more auto accidents.
Mark Rosekind takes over the NHTSA
The 15th administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was sworn in on December 22, 2014, after serving as the 40th member of the National Transportation Safety Board from 2010–2014. He was the on-scene board member for seven major transportation accidents and played a big role in numerous areas of growth for the NHTSA. Before the NHTSA, Rosekind had an extensive career championing auto safety, and since his appointment in 2014, the federal oversight division has proved to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of transportation safety. Under Rosekind’s watch, the NHTSA issued the largest fine in its history (see Takata) and has publicly come out in support of three-point harnesses in school buses—something the NHTSA was reluctant to endorse publicly. Though the support falls short of being a federal requirement, the acknowledgement was a major step in the right direction, according to safety advocates. Will we see three-point harnesses in school buses in the future? Time will tell, but Rosekind is showing he’s not afraid to make bold moves right away.
The world gets one step closer to autonomous vehicles
You saw the video, right, the one with the police officer pulling over a self-driving Google car? Well if not, you can, well, Google it. It happened in California, a self-driving car pulled over for driving too slowly. And just like that, the debate over self-driving cars came back into full view, thanks to a viral video, although that wouldn’t necessarily be the first we’d been hearing about self-driving cars. Good Morning America and 60 Minutes have featured segments on self-driving cars and just how close they are to becoming a reality.
Wired magazine also got in on the fun, although in a much more ominous fashion, when writer Andy Greenberg was driven off the road by a pair of devious hackers (don’t worry, it was all planned), who were able to gain control of the car by manipulating the computer console. Needless to say, it caught the attention of more than one legislator in Washington. All this seems to lead to the conclusion that it’s not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when” autonomous cars start making their way into mainstream consumerism.