The top FIVE automotive news of 2014

Is it just us or has 2014 been a very eventful year for the automotive world? From recall scandals to exhilarating new technology, we picked the top five news that have rocked the industry this past year.

1. General Motors and Takata Airbag recalls

This year, there was not one but two major recalls that dominated the headlines.

General Motors with caught in a recall crisis for most of the year because of faulty ignition switches that could easily switch from ‘on’ to ‘off’ unintentionally, effectively cutting off power steering and air bags. The newly appointed CEO, Mary Barra, who herself made headlines late 2013 for becoming the first female CEO of a major automotive company, was thrust into the limelight and hauled to Congress barely three months into her new role.

GM has so far recalled more than 30 million vehicles and has agreed to pay out compensation for more than 40 deaths linked to the faulty ignitions, and had set aside some US$3.1 billion to cover the costs of the recalls.

And then came along news of the faulty Takata airbags which began to overshadow the GM debacle. The airbags manufactured by Takata and used by major international car brands could explode too forcefully and fire shrapnel towards the passenger. Five deaths have been linked to the faulty airbags so far, including one Malaysian woman who was pregnant. Recalls have grown to include 20 million vehicles – 11 million of them in the US alone – and mostly vehicles of Takata’s biggest customer, Honda.

Takata’s management of the crisis has caused even more frustration for government regulators and the auto manufacturers involved. While GM’s Barra was seen front and centre and pro-active in issuing recalls, Takata has refused to take the recall nationwide (in the US) and its Chairman, Shigehisa Takada, seemed to have dropped out of sight, which in the public eye looks like shirking of responsibility.

Just last week, Takata announced that its President, Stephan Stocker, will step down and his responsibilities to be assumed by Shigehisa to “centralise and speed up decision making”, according to a company spokesperson. Its executives will also be taking pay cuts of up to 50%. It seems like the Takata fiasco has not yet ended and will continue into 2015…

2. Crude oil going for (almost) peanuts

News item number two doesn’t just involve the automotive industry, but the world’s economy. Brent crude went from a high of more than US$115/barrel in June to a near 50% drop to less than US$60 today. While this has helped pad the wallets of consumers and boosted businesses that consume fuel, such as air travel, oil-producing countries like Russia have been plunged into financial crisis.

Pump prices have been falling steadily in tandem; the average price of petrol in the States went from US$3.68 per gallon six months ago to US$2.30 on Saturday. But with cheaper petrol, automakers are selling more ‘gas-guzzlers’; in November, the top four out of five sellers in the US were SUV’s and pickup trucks, and demand for such vehicles rose 9.6% compared to a mere 1.3% increase in car sales. So much for the greener car movement, huh.

India and Malaysia have taken advantage of the low crude prices to end fuel subsidies while having the effects somewhat buffered for their citizens.

3. The Google Self-Driving Car

In May 2014, Google unveiled its purpose-built self-driving car, which works without standard controls – yes, sans steering wheel, gearstick and pedal. 64 lasers atop the roof spin and map the area around the car as it moves, detecting more than a million data points every second. Add this to the GPS mapping software, the car can navigate roads, avoid other cars, pedestrians, cyclists and stop signs, and ‘decide’ how to act in different scenarios. We are inclined to believe that the Google Car is more intelligent than the other idiots…erm, drivers on the road.

Google will take the koala-looking car to the public roads for testing soon, and is looking for automotive partners to make the self-driving car a commercial reality within the next five years. Who knew that the automotive car we saw in films like Demolition Man, Total Recall and Minority Report is about to become a reality in our lifetime!

4. Not so super for Uber

At the start of 2014, Uber was in 60 cities; by the end, it was in 250 cities. Its CEO, Travis Kalanick, wrote in a December blog post that “we are six times bigger today than 12 months ago.”

But 2014 was filled with lawsuits, protests and allegations of death, rape and violence for the San Francisco company. On the eve of New Year 2014, an Uber driver allegedly hit and killed a 6-year-old in San Francisco as she was crossing the road with her family. Drivers staged protests in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles for arbitrary fee hikes, fee cuts and lack of a tipping feature. The company faced-off with government authorities in the USA, UK, Germany, France, Netherlands, India, Thailand, and China, to name just a few. In September, an Uber driver allegedly struck a passenger with a hammer. The company stayed in the headlines in November when its President of Business, Emil Michael, said to a reporter that he’d like to spend a million dollars to hire a team of researchers to dig up dirt on Uber’s media critics. Then in December, a woman in India reported that she was raped and beaten by her Uber driver followed by a similar assault reported in Boston.

For some reason, despite the negative news, Uber secured hefty financing in 2014, raising more than US$2.4 billion this year, and is valued at at least US$41.2 billion. Goes to show that no publicity is bad publicity.

5. The hype surrounding Tesla

And finally, one of our favourite topics which is one of the most exciting automakers in recent history – Tesla.

The biggest news to cut across multiple industries after crude oil price is probably Tesla’s announcement that it will grace Nevada with the presence of its gigafactory. The factory would not just create 6,500 jobs, it is the largest manufacturing construction project in the States; and it might just revolutionise the electric car industry by enabling cheap battery production, which will also lead to the more affordable Tesla Model III (renamed from Model E this year) which is scheduled for a 2016 reveal.

Tesla began delivery of its vehicles to China in April, despite some teething problems, and in June, the company released hundreds of its patents for open source development, citing that it alone cannot build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis.

Its stock performance continues to astound this year after its meteoric rise last year; the stock started at US$150.10 at the start of the year and closed at US$227.82 on 26 December. But faced with falling petrol prices and more competitors joining the game, 2015 will not be an easy one for Tesla.

Well, what a year is has been. Thank you for keeping us company and we look forward to cruising through more news and reviews with you next year!


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