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Aye, robot: are you ready for Google’s driverless car?

In the original Knight Rider TV series, David Hasselhoff starred as Michael Knight, “a young loner” – as the high-flown intro put it – “on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.” A latter-day lone ranger, Hasselhoff was aided in this crusade by a souped-up, artificially intelligent Pontiac Trans-Am hardwired to fight crime, with a cycloptic stock ticker for a grille, a winning disposition, and all manner of sensors, scanners, and synthesizers, not to mention a flame thrower and a tear-gas launcher for when things got especially tight.

The idea of the self-piloting “driverless” vehicle has a long precedent in science fiction; and yet, as appealing as such technologies may seem, the sci-fi genre as a whole tends to be highly sceptical of their benefits and ever wary of the dangers of technological dependency and malfunction. From HAL in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to Skynet in the Terminator franchise, the fear of automation, of “intelligent” technologies rising up to thwart and terrorize their old masters, is rampant within the genre. Even Knight Rider took up this idea in an episode in which the ordinarily trusty and well-mannered “K.I.T.T.” turns on Hasselhoff and seems to develop a will of its own.

But in spite of science fiction’s many cautionary tales, most of us still consider technology a trusted friend and ally, a tool we can use as we see fit to solve our problems and make our lives simpler, safer, and more efficient in the process. At any rate, this is certainly the thinking behind Google’s ongoing efforts to develop a driverless car, an autonomous vehicle capable of navigating busy urban environments with limited or no human supervision (but that – at least as of this writing – does not appear to be equipped with any onboard tear-gas launchers).

Under Sebastian Thrun, a senior Google engineer who is also director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University and one of the inventors of Google Street View, the driverless-vehicle project has made significant headway in the past several years. In June 2011, after tireless lobbying by Google, Nevada became the first state to pass legislation permitting driverless vehicles to be operated legally on public roads. As of December 2011, when Google was awarded a US patent for its driverless-vehicle technology (which allows human operators to switch between combined and fully autonomous modes), Google’s fleet of adapted Totoya Prius and Audi TT models have put in some 160,000 miles on the road with limited human intervention and over 1,000 miles on auto pilot between California and the Silver State. What was once a mere fantasy of science fiction is on the verge of becoming a reality within the next ten years, and possibly sooner; as so often in our brave new world, the question isn’t if, but when.

As for the question why, Google speculates that driverless vehicles have the potential to save millions of lives. According to the World Health Organization, 1.2 million people are killed every year in motor-vehicle accidents around the world, and the vast majority of these collisions – over 90 percent by some estimates – are the result of human error. Equipped with artificially intelligent software, radar and lidar sensors, and sophisticated cameras that work together to create a dynamic three-dimensional map of the vehicle’s surroundings, Google’s driverless cars can detect obstacles around them and navigate accordingly without succumbing to the effects of fatigue, distraction, intoxication, road rage, and other uniquely human frailties. Because of their precise, 360° computer vision and rapid response time, driverless vehicles can also travel in close proximity to one another and may thus reduce strain on infrastructure by improving traffic flow and increasing the capacity of roads. And when driverless cars aren’t in use, they can be obediently sent home and recalled when needed, thereby removing the necessity to find and pay for parking.

In much the same way, after dropping off a passenger, a driverless car can be reassigned and sent on a route pre-programmed into its GPS unit to pick up and transport new passengers. Greater car-sharing means that most families would no longer have any use for more than one car, and, because vehicles would be used more efficiently, there would be fewer of them on the road, with obvious benefits for the environment in the form of reduced fuel consumption and lower emissions. Moreover, since driverless cars operate autonomously, special licensing and permits would no longer be required: even young children or people with disabilities would be able to ride in them safely. (The question of who would be liable in the event of a collision is difficult to answer; in many ways, the technology is ahead of the law, which always assumes that a human is at the wheel.)

There’s no doubt that the promise of Google’s driverless-vehicle technology is immense, particularly when it comes to improving road safety. And yet, from the industrial to the digital revolution, major technological innovations almost always transform the societies that develop and implement them, usually with significant social, cultural, and economic disruption. So the real question is: what else might the driverless car entail?

For one, the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in transportation, public transit, and automotive manufacturing. For another, the potential loss of revenue generated by motor-vehicle sales, car insurance, licensing, and even parking. That might seem like small potatoes when weighed against the prospect of fewer fatal collisions; but if we’re willing to surrender control of our vehicles, what else are we willing to give up into the bargain? And to what other, perhaps more ethically problematic uses might such technology be put? To take one example, since at least 2004 the American government has been conducting rogue attacks on strategic al-Qaeda targets using self-piloting drones, and while these unmanned aerial units may have become the scourge of cave-dwelling terrorists, they’ve also led to considerable so-called “collateral damage” amongst civilian populations.

Despite all the evangelist talk of “thinking” computers and “smart” machines, the problem with artificial intelligence is that, in the end, it’s still artificial, no more than a crude attempt by ingenious software engineers to mimic our habits of mind and our abilities to reason, infer, extrapolate, and bring judgment and experience to bear when operating our vehicles (as in all walks of life). By entrusting our lives to our machines, is there not a danger that we might in turn become less human, more machine-like, as countless sci-fi writers have warned? Do we not at some point risk becoming the tools of our tools? Of course, the driverless car is in some ways simply a logical extension of technologies like cruise control, antilock brakes, automatic transmissions, blind-spot alerts, and automated parking assistance. For those of us who actually enjoy driving, we’ll no doubt be able to continue to operate our vehicles in manual mode, at least for a little while. But the quaint idea of driving our own cars may ultimately be destined to go the way of the stick shift. And maybe that’s all to the good, especially if after dropping us off safely at the office our cars can put in a few hours as charming crime-fighting sleuths.

Rise of the Machines: Vehicles Have Never Been More Technologically Sophisticated, but Where Do We Draw the Line?

In the past five years, automakers have been building new “functionality” into their vehicles the way Gillette has been adding blades to their razors: relentlessly. With their myriad menu options, varicoloured instrument panels, and touch-screen displays, the consoles of many modern cars resemble the cockpit of an Apache gunship and often require operating manuals of their own. For some ecstatic buyers caught up in this wave of techno-enthusiasm, the technology behind the dashboard is virtually as important as the technology under the hood. Watch a few car ads and you’ll get the idea: digital high tech is often given pride of place over safety ratings, fuel economy, horsepower, and other less modish selling points.

But just what is all this state-of-the-art gadgetry in service of, exactly? As often as not, it seems to be a solution in search of a problem. What specific shortcoming, for instance, does onboard Wi-Fi connectivity promise to solve? Are our vehicles insufficiently entertaining? Should they be transformed into “Web-enabled media hubs” so that we can issue tweets and Facebook updates by voice command while negotiating rush-hour traffic? Assuming it even occurs to the techno-zealot to ask himself such questions, the answer is usually a resounding “why not?”

It’s an article of faith amongst techno-zealots people for whom the word feature holds a quasi-religious significance that just because something is possible, it naturally follows that it ought to be done. In many ways, necessity is no longer the mother of invention: new things are developed to create demand, not to supply it, and new technology is often developed to solve problems it creates (e.g., how can we get a clean shave, look professional, achieve worldly success, attract significant other, produce smooth-cheeked offspring, etc., with fewer than six blades on our razors?). But remember the good old days when most of us still shaved with single-bladed disposables and somehow managed to get by without cameras in our cell phones and DVD players in our cars?

This is not just misty-eyed nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time that never really existed in the first place. There’s no question that, in many ways, modern vehicles are safer and more reliable than ever, thanks in no small part to human ingenuity and technological innovation. But somewhere along the way human ingenuity succumbed to the principles of the marketplace, and many of today’s technological innovations have about as much business in a car as a bread maker or an espresso machine (though perhaps their day too will come).

It’s hard to deny the convenience of many of these gadgets. For instance, drivers with onboard GPS are not likely to lose their way; but then neither are drivers who take it upon themselves to plan their routes ahead of time. Relying on roadmaps for guidance may be less convenient, but drivers who do so typically gain far more thorough and lasting knowledge of the region they’re navigating than those who blindly comply with their nav system’s automated voice commands. Similarly, automatic parking assistance and blind-spot alerts are highly convenient, but they may eventually make the art of parallel parking and changing lanes obsolete. For all their convenience, a lot of these innovations are contributing to the deskilling of drivers by relieving them of the need to learn how to safely operate their own vehicles. The point is: technology giveth and technology taketh away. Although techno-zealots have a great deal to say about what we stand to gain from technology, they seldom bother to ask what we may be giving up into the bargain.

Even the technological innovations that promise to improve our safety may have unexpected consequences. Studies have shown that owners of vehicles with antilock brakes tend to drive faster, follow closer, and brake later than owners of vehicles without them on the unacknowledged assumption that the technology will let them get away with riskier behaviour. Similarly, researchers have found that airbags may actually encourage more aggressive driving. This puzzling phenomenon is in line with what is known as the offset hypothesis: although the technologies are safer in principle, the advantages they provide are offset by the fact that drivers unconsciously adapt their behaviour when they believe the risk of an accident is more remote. Far from preserving us from danger, these and other similar technologies may actually be breeding complacency, encouraging us to relax our guard by promoting a false impression of security that makes us more susceptible to the very lapses that cause accidents in the first place. If you’re told the ship is unsinkable, the threat of an iceberg becomes an afterthought, and it’s full speed ahead come what may.

From toasters to microprocessors to virtually anything with moving parts, all technology is liable to break down, but the more elaborate the apparatus, the greater the margin for error. Just ask owners of new Ford vehicles with MyFord Touch. Due in part to a rash of technical glitches with the touch-screen communications and entertainment system (to say nothing of the inherent difficulty of figuring out how to use it when it works), the Ford marque recently fell 10 places in the annual Consumer Reports auto reliability survey, where it ranked a borderline respectable 20th out of 28 leading brands. Ford has already overhauled the system and begun to issue upgrades, but it seems like the disease is being prescribed as the cure: evidently there’s no better fix for faulty technology than more technology.

According to conservative estimates, some 25% of all vehicles manufactured in the next five years will come equipped with Internet connectivity. If some commentators are to be believed, an Internet connection will improve the driving experience by creating new and exciting possibilities for “in-car entertainment.” But since when were our vehicles intended to entertain us? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with getting from one place to another in safety and relative comfort? And is it not plain to see that these exciting new in-car entertainment possibilities may distract drivers from the business of driving and so expose them and others to significant risk?

Apparently not. Techno-zealots argue that intuitive touch-screen interfaces and hands-free voice-recognition software ensure that drivers can enjoy the full gamut of their vehicles’ functionality without endangering anyone. But drivers face different kinds and degrees of distraction. Most of us can hold up our end in conversation with passengers, listen to a ball game, or cope with kids squabbling in the backseat. These ambient distractions may increase our cognitive load (the quantity of information our brains need to process at a given moment), but they typically don’t require us to take our eyes off the road for any length of time. Then there are the distractions that preoccupy our eyes, hands, and minds all at once. For instance, a recent study out of Texas A&M’s transportation institute found that texting while driving is even more dangerous than common sense suggests: not only can it lead to erratic driving, but it also significantly reduces driver reaction time, which is potentially disastrous when you consider how quickly danger can develop even when travelling at relatively low speeds. Similarly, the infinitely cascading menu options and settings, the touch-screen radio and temperature controls in place of good old-fashioned knobs and dials, and all the other rampant multi-tasking functionality hardwired into our cars can fragment our attention and put us all at risk. After all, it takes only a second to make the mistake of a lifetime.

But not to worry, says the techno-zealot: Web-enabled cars will supposedly be able to communicate with other vehicles on the road by relaying important status information by way of a kind of electronic heartbeat. In the words of one industry expert quoted in a May 2010 article in Car and Driver, “If there’s a red light ahead and the car is going too fast, you’ll be sent a message and the car will stop you from crashing into an intersection.” What a relief: how else would we know when to slow down if not for our cars’ say-so? Why should drivers have to exercise their own judgment and determine whether to stop all by themselves when a computer can do it for them? Better to leave those kinds of decisions to the wisdom and experience of a circuit board.

Not so very long ago, techno-zealotry was a fringe movement regarded with suspicion and even scorn by the mainstream. Words like geek and nerd had not yet become terms of endearment or distinction, and the only people who talked excitedly about Bluetooth, Internet connectivity, touch screens, and USB ports tended to be pale-faced shut-ins with bad haircuts who turned out in pimpled droves at Star Trek conventions. Maybe we’ve become a more tolerant society, a place where geeks and nerds are not only free to leave the safety of their parents’ basements but even hailed for their technological savvy as the leaders of a brave new world. Or maybe we’ve just become a society of nerds, without realizing or regretting it. Either way, there’s something undeniably puerile about the desire to have all the latest so-called “toys” installed in our vehicles. It’s hard to imagine Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Burt Reynolds in Cannoball Run getting all bent out of shape because their cars didn’t have enough apps or integrated support for their PDAs. Perhaps it’s time to put aside childish things. Driving can be a fun and exhilarating experience, but cars are not interactive entertainment hubs, and toys should be left at the playground, where they belong.

Hyundai – so… how do you like them now?

You can be sure that February 16, 2012 is a date that will long resonate in the hallways of Hyundai around the world – but especially here in Canada.

It was that morning when Richard Russell, Chair of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) opened an envelope and declared the 2012 Hyundai Elantra had been awarded AJAC's Car of the Year.

Just a few moments before, a room full of media from across North America exploded when Steve Kelleher, President and CEO, Hyundai Auto Canada Corp. made the short walk to the podium to accept the "Best New Design" award for 2012 for the new and innovative Hyundai Veloster.

For Hyundai, this morning was, indeed a moment to savour.

Earlier this year at the Detroit Auto Show on January 9, the Elantra was selected as the North American Car of the year for 2012.

A double honour; one that many had been quietly debating around water coolers and in the shadows for some weeks.

Validation for the Korean-based manufacturer who has slowly convinced many auto journalists and aficionados over recent years that their engineering, value proposition and fluidic styling were the real deal. In fact, back at the beginning of 2009 those two exact same awards were bestowed upon Hyundai's rear-wheel drive sports coupe, the Genesis. What made this award all the more special was that the three finalists for this honour were all Korean manufacturers. Hyundai with the Accent and the Elantra and sister company, Kia, the upstart, new kids on the block, with the Optima.

No longer would Hyundai be considered a one trick pony – pun completely intended.

Now, the general public will have to pay attention to another Asian manufacturer of well-engineered, value-laden and stylish modes of transport for practically every budget.

Later the same morning, I was able to sit down with the affable Mr. Kelleher for a quiet, far-reaching and informative one-on-one interview as he and his staff slowly began to realize the enormity of their accomplishment.

TDM: Congratulations on this win. Feel any different today than you did yesterday?

SK: Thank you. I have to admit that it was all a bit nerve wracking early on. While we did have finalists for two of the three cars, there was always the thought what if we split the vote? Even with the Veloster's win earlier, we were still unsure.

TDM: Now do you believe that consumers will afford Hyundai the respect that you deserve? Do you see a pay off now for the value proposition – that and the fact that you may now be more than just a rational purchase?

SK: We're not about bragging rights. We do what we do very well and have been consistent in our styling, engineering and value-proposition for some time. It's true that in the early years, we struggled. No question. But we stayed our course and made it through. 2011 was where many things went very well for us as a manufacturer and a marketer. From a consumer point of view, in the past, we would be perceived as a rational purchase – the price was right. But now, we offer a complete package. It's not multiple choice. Now a car buyer will look at the design, the technology, the performance, the mileage – and, of course price and is more likely to want to buy us! Becoming an emotional purchase? That's a change for us that while slow in coming, has built in momentum. We need to maintain that and build upon it.

You know, Japan has been looking at us for a few years now – as has Detroit. We believe that Japanese manufacturers will work very hard to regain any lost market share from 2011 as a result of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and later flooding in Thailand.

We respect our competition. All of it. It makes us stronger and hopefully better. We expect that Honda, for example, will do what they do best with their marketing and product, and will likely regain some of the market share they lost in 2011. Our goal is to build upon our successes.

TDM: The Elantra saw an overall increase in sales across Canada of 30.1%, representing 44,970 vehicles. This January, Hyundai sold 7,460 vehicles, an 11.6% increase over last year. Where do you believe your sustained growth is coming from?

SK: It's a well-known fact that sales in Quebec and Eastern Canada for our various models have, until last year been the heart of our combined efforts in Canada. It's practically been that way since 1984, our first full year in Canada. Ontario consumers have been rewarding us over these last few years with significant increased purchases. Approximately 20% each year. In fact, in Canada we are fortunate to have enjoyed 37 consecutive months of year-over-year sales growth. It is our belief that going forward, we will likely not lose ground as far as market share goes. But we are not going to rest on our laurels and expect results.

Going forward, we need to continue to offer our loyal customers the innovation, styling and pricing they have come to expect. This morning, we unveiled a 2-door coupe of the Elantra; later this year, an exciting all new Santa Fe will be rolled out.

TDM: So, complacency is not about to set in any time soon?

SK: (smiling) Let's hope not! We're serious about who we are and what we can do. As a global corporation we're proud and pleased to be in the position we are today. But we keep thinking "what have we done lately?" Just a few days ago I was in Korea for a series of meetings with head office. I also spent time in our design facility. The Namyang R&D Centre located in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi (about one hour south of Seoul) is a world-class technology research centre. Hyundai now employs approximately 10,000 engineers, designers and researchers here working around the clock to create and develop the best automobiles in performance, quality, and eco-friendliness. A year ago, it was around 8,000.

TDM: Since Hyundai came to Canada, you made it clear that value-pricing and innovation was going to be your calling card. The Pony arrived with three price points: $3,999; $4,999; and, $5,999 – almost take it or leave it. Should what you are accomplishing today in Canada and many other major markets come as a surprise?

SK: Yes, the Pony! It's true; we made no secret of our planned intent from day one. In many ways, we took what many of our Japanese friends were already doing and stayed pretty much on message.

TDM: How does Hyundai consistently package great styling, quality and technology for such a great price?

SK: Obviously, we have been true to our intent. We work hard as a corporation to keep manufacturing costs as low as we can. We have the added advantage of producing our own steel in Korea in our own plants. Hyundai is a global entity with a great deal of vertical integration. Stepping back, consider the message – some would say commitment – from our Chairman Mong-Koo Chung. He stated that in 2011 Hyundai Motor Company would launch a campaign to ensure the energy for growth with a new slogan: "New thinking. New Possibilities."

TDM: Meaning?

SK: Simply, new ideas create new values. Hyundai will respond to the fast-changing international management environment by constructing a system for organic cooperation between production factory and sales headquarters in each country worldwide.

TDM: So there is buy-in around the world – including Canada?

SK: Yes. Absolutely. Our corporate team and dealer network has been working harder to prioritize our customers and also the talent in all departments. It's important we remain competitive. We will continue to do so through exceptional and even fundamental technologies; with environmental management and by continuously expanding our overall R&D and investment in eco-friendly vehicles. Hyundai Motor Company will work hard to provide this new value to yet more customers.

We call it our modern premium concept. We need to give our customers the best car per dollar. What it means is that we put the features in the vehicle that people really want and need. Features in a compact car that are unheard of. Heated rear seats in the Elantra for example. We look at our competition. Very closely. We also noticed that some manufacturers were losing some of the quality on the interior. We made it clear internally; there could be no compromise. No damage to the integrity of the brand.

TDM: In a relatively short space of time, Hyundai has turned the industry on its ear. Now you have a line up of vehicles that can cater to almost any budget. Starting with the Accent and all the way to your super-premium Equus – the flagship marque. Is being all things to all people a misstep?

SK: It's tough to sell both. Each buyer's wants and needs are so different. Two things: Equus and Genesis as a halo have done a lot for us as a manufacturer. I think they're brand builders. It adds credibility. But is it the right move? Maybe… perhaps. Let's look at Toyota for example and their Avalon. Similar situation to ours. Do they sell many? No, not really. But it does sell and it does not seem to affect their brand – overall.

TDM: OK then, so why create an Equus… a Genesis? Because you can?

SK: (laughs) Well, there is truth in that. But regardless, at this stage, if we do bring product to market, even with limited production, it must still be designed and built with our core principals in mind.

TDM: Where do you see the industry going long-term?

SK: Long term? This year? Next year? Five years from now?

TDM: Do you see more hybrids, for example?

SK: There'll be variations. They may not sell well. But they will be there. We need to produce them for many reasons, optics included. However, technological innovations for the internal combustion engine will continue. Remember our engineers were the first to bring out gasoline-injection. Everything you can do to increase efficiencies will continue to be developed. We mentioned our steel plant before. We're now producing lighter, much stronger steel than before. This year? The light truck market will continue to do well, but will probably slowly decline – unless gas prices go really high. Probably flat, over 2011. Perhaps a 2 – 3% increase across the board…

TDM: Does Canada have much influence in Korea as far as product development is concerned?

SK: Well, the Elantra for North America has heated rear seats. Not available elsewhere. Canada does have influence, definitely. From the get go, Canadian input from this cold weather climate market was important. We even set up a cold weather test facility here.

Getting back to your earlier question; I also believe that there will be greater innovation in 4-cylinder engines – from everyone – and especially ourselves. Turbo-charge technology will continue to be developed to bring performance and economy to the fore. Wait until the all new Santa Fe comes out…

TDM: Yes…?

SK: (grinning) That's about all I'm allowed to say right now! But it is something. You'll see soon enough!

TDM: Are there similarities to the car market in Korea compared to Canada?

SK: The fundamental difference is that larger cars are the norm; just like in Japan. OK, so that's a generalization. The car market in Korean is pretty much the same size in Canada. But look around the roads for Hyundais and you'll see more Genesis, Equus and of course Sonata than you will our own compact and sub-compact cars.

TDM: Now that's a trend you'd like to emulate here.

SK: Yes, but as long as we can sell and make competitive automobiles for any market, that's our job.

TDM: Thank you.

One Final Season?

Imagine that you were one of the last drivers to see Dan Wheldon as medical staff frantically wheeled him into the on-track medical centre at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that fateful afternoon, October 16, 2011.

Wheldon’s death that day was devastating.

Especially to Paul Tracy who saw his friend and fellow driver being frantically worked on by medical staff as the gurney careened through doorways and down cold, fluorescent lit hallways to waiting additional medical personnel.

“I saw things that day I wish I hadn’t,” says Tracy on a recent visit to Toronto as he participated in the celebratory 25th Anniversary of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion world tour. “Much of the accident was a blur, flying parts, debris going everywhere, cars literally flying… and the smell of burning. And then… after… seeing Dan. Laying there being wheeled in. I pretty much knew that was it…” he turns away, voice trailing.

For the record, Tracy’s preference is to see more limited fields – 24 cars, just like the Indy 500 in days gone by. That way, you are racing because you qualify; you deserve to be there.

Regardless, that day was life-altering. Many questions are yet to be answered. Some drivers are still distraught. In spite of on-track rivalries, many, especially the veterans are tight. Phone calls filled with long stretches of silence. Text messages and emails that say so little – but also say way too much.

That day has forced many drivers to look inward. To reluctantly face demons. What to do? Was this a result of a too short track and too many cars? Driver error? Opinions and theories vary. There may never be any absolute resolution. Many will take the long off season to think things through.

Paul Tracy has already done that. Alone. With his wife, Patty. And with his two children, Alysha and Conrad.

The last few months he was working hard toward finding a full-time ride for the 2012 season. He’d had enough of being a part-time driver.

That terrible accident reinforced his resolve. His driving career would not end with a whimper; he would end his professional driving days behind the wheel.

With the support of his family, Tracy is working the phones. Taking meetings. Going through “… the whole grip and grin routine.”

“I may be 42 years old, but I still believe that there is a place in racing for drivers with experience. Look at Dario (Franchitti); he’s a little younger (than me) yet the man has won four championships – three back-to-back. Knowledge and skill counts for everything.”

Paul Tracy refuses to deal in what ifs, as in what if he doesn’t get enough sponsorship to run what he calls his “farewell tour” of IndyCar racing next season. Remember, this is a man who has accumulated 31 victories in 20 years of racing in the big leagues.

“We’ve been talking to a few teams,” Tracy said. “Ideally I’m looking for a team that already has some sponsorship money; what I can bring will be enough to put them on the track for a full season.”

Tracy does have a long-standing partnership with Honda Canada through its Honda Dealers network that provides enough sponsorship for him to race at the Honda Indy Toronto and the Edmonton Indy. While that may sweeten the pot as he goes looking for a deal, it also handicaps him; next season the IndyCar Series adds Chevrolet and Lotus as engine suppliers and it is believed that at least two of the teams Tracy has talked to will use those power plants.

“Honda has been a great supporter of mine and I would like that association to continue,” he said. “Ideally I would like a deal with a team that runs Honda engines.”

Meantime the Thrill from Westhill is putting all his future marbles into one basket; he’s not looking beyond 2012 in his racing life. Asked about his life after racing Tracy quickly and firmly replied, playing with the ubiquitous can of Diet Coke, “I haven’t even thought about it. I still have work to do.”

Honda Canada production ramping up rapidly

When the sirens started their relentless wail on March 11, 2011 along the eastern seaboard of Japan, who could have imagined that similar, metaphorical sirens might also be resonating in a community in Central Ontario, over 10,000 kilometres away?

We’re talking about the small town of Alliston, situated north and west of Toronto. Since 1986 when Honda Canada first opened the doors to the fledgling state-of-the-art operation, Honda of Canada Manufacturing (HCM) have been producing Honda-brand vehicles for the North American market and beyond with great success. In fact, HCM has produced more than 5.4 million vehicles.

Events of mid-March saw production of all vehicles produced on these shores reduced by 50%. It could not have happened at a worse time: HCM’s Plant 1 was beginning to ramp up for the introduction of the 2012 model year Civic. All Civics destined for North America with the exception of the Hybrid are built there. The Civic has been the top selling passenger vehicle in Canada for the past 13 years with more than 1.6 million of them being sold in Canada since 1973.

While the sudden slow down affected Honda Canada and HCM’s 4,200 employees (Associates), not one single Associate was laid off in the months after the tragic Asian disaster.  Production of all Honda Civics suffered; so did that of the Acura MDX and ZDX, also built in Alliston. It’s important to note that not only was HCM affected, so too was the extensive Canadian dealer network and of course, local suppliers of many key components used in production of Honda automobiles.

In September of this year, production at Plant 1 (which builds the Civic Sedan, Coupe and the Si coupe), returned to two shift operations. Jon Minto, senior vice president of HCM, and Jerry Chenkin, executive of Honda Canada announced on October 19, 2011 that full production on all four shifts and Plants 1 and 2 have now resumed. Plant 1 will produce 800 vehicles a day and Plant 2, 600. Plans are underway, however to increase Plant 2 production to 800 vehicles by the end of November. 400 new associates have been hired and are presently undergoing extensive training.

Both senior executives made a point of thanking everyone within the Honda family in helping to weather difficult circumstances. Throughout it all, orders for the 2012 Civic continued thanks to the enthusiasm of their loyal dealers.
Now the first order of business is to ensure that back orders are filled and that a comfortable inventory of vehicles is maintained. Interestingly enough, while sales on a year to date basis for the Civic are down, as of the end of September, the Civic may be on track to hit the number one spot for the 14th consecutive year.

All while maintaining a safe and productive environment in this highly-efficient manufacturing facility.

Elite Drives




Technology has come a long way in the past 10 years, but not all of it is as reliable as we like to think. Take, for example, the current batch of navigation systems- a great idea well suited to today’s penchant for high tech wizardry. Rely solely on one, however, and you may find yourself contending with silly delays and in some instances, near death.

One of the areas many of us take for granted when it comes to automotive safety is backing up or manoeuvring around in tight spaces. As a driver, it is your responsibility to check your surroundings before backing up. Should you happen to get into an accident, well you know the rest.

Yada’s new automotive safety electronics are designed to help keep families safe in and around the car. Many accidents are avoidable and recently added to the line-up of Yada products are the Bluetooth Rearview Mirror Backup Camera and Speakerphone, Backup Sensors and Blind Spot Assist.



Yada’s new safety products allow you to see what is behind you when backing up, make it easy to detect objects in blind spots and offer a hands-free option for your phone. Find them at your local Canadian Tire store.


Elite Drives


Collaboration makes the automotive industry go round. Without it, we would most likely not be driving the vehicles we are today.

While this may come as a surprise for many, when it comes to production, a true North American vehicle is just as likely to be your neighbours Toyota Corolla as it is the new Chevrolet Cruze. What makes this even more interesting is the behind-the-scenes working together for the common goal of building better automobiles.

Recent events see Mitsubishi and Nissan teaming up to produce new minicars for the Japanese market, Toyota and Tesla working on advanced electric vehicles and at the same time establishing new bonds with Subaru. Ford recently agreed to produce transmissions in China as they continue to work with Mazda, while General Motors is intent on expanding their joint venture in China as well. Comparatively cheap, skilled labour is hard to resist.

The benefit to consumers is a faster turnaround of new ideas and the general strengthening of product as more "chefs" have a chance to input on the finished vehicle. In the end, driving a better vehicle, no matter where it's made, is a very good thing.

Elite Drives

Do you remember the feeling of being the first person in your circle of friends to do something truly unique? An amazing event that everyone wished they would have the chance to do. Now imagine if you were the first person in your neighbourhood, city, province and, in fact, the whole country? Would that be incredible?

Honda Civic

When was the last time you sat in a car, gripped the steering wheel in the 10 to 2 position, squinted and muttered, “Vrooom… varooom… vrooooom?”
Shift into first, pop the clutch, hit the gas – and be prepared for a terrific experience – and wipe that grin off your face!

The all new 2012 Honda Civic Coupe Si is an affordable sports coupe for drivers of all ages. Especially if you’re looking for performance – and excitement.

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