Review: Toyota Sienna minivan mixes the solid with the subpar

The Sienna resplendent in an elementary school parking lot.

Enlarge / The Sienna resplendent in an elementary school parking lot.

In the early 2000s, I was in the market for a big car. We needed something that could ferry our daughter and stuff around, carry drywall and other home-improvement stuff, and feel comfortable on cross-country trips to visit my family. Neither our Ford Taurus nor Saturn SL1 fit the bill, and we weren’t feeling the SUV love. As we started looking into minivans, it became clear that there were three models to look at seriously: the Honda Odyssey, Chrysler Town & Country, and Toyota Sienna.

Nearly 20 years later, not much has changed. Honda, Chrysler, and Toyota still rule the minivan market in terms of sales. We drove the Town & Country’s successor, the Pacifica, last year and came away very impressed. So when I found out there was a 2019 Toyota Sienna on the local press fleet, reviewing it was a no-brainer.

The Sienna got a new powertrain in 2017, and last year’s model saw some safety and ride quality improvements. Toyota Safety Sense, its suite of driver-assist technology, became standard on the Sienna. Toyota also tackled ride quality by making the cabin quieter. For 2019, support for CarPlay and Amazon Alexa has been added, and the all-wheel-drive powertrain is now available on the SE trim.

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Source: Ars Technica

“Our worst fears have come true,” VW Group exec wrote to Audi exec

Audi and Volkswagen signs.

Enlarge / A sign for car service for Audi and VW is pictured on January 09, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (credit: Photo by Florian Gaertner/Photothek via Getty Images)

On Thursday, a federal grand jury in Detroit, Michigan, indicted four Audi executives for playing a role in the diesel cheating scandals that rocked parent company Volkswagen Group in 2015 and 2016. The four executives—Richard Bauder, Axel Eiser, Stefan Knirsch, and Carsten Nagel—all worked for Audi in Germany, and they have not been arrested.

The four men have been charged (PDF) with conspiracy to defraud the United States, commit wire fraud, and violate the Clean Air Act.

The indictment offered some new details on how emissions cheating unfolded at Audi and VW Group, especially with respect to emissions control system cheats on Audi’s 3.0L diesel vehicles.

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Source: Ars Technica

VR headsets, augmented windshields, and multiscreen infotainment at CES

Yes, I am wearing VR in the backseat of an electric car. Yes, this is Peak CES.

Enlarge / Yes, I am wearing VR in the backseat of an electric car. Yes, this is Peak CES. (credit: Aurich Lawson)

LAS VEGAS—I’d been on the ground for less than twelve hours before I strapped on the virtual reality headset. It was only 8pm but felt far later thanks to time zones and air travel. I had already been chauffeured about that afternoon by a self-driving car, and here I was sitting in the back seat of an Audi e-tron at a race track a little south of the city. I’d already reached Peak CES, yet the show wouldn’t even officially start for another 36 hours.

We were at Speedvegas for a rather exclusive look at Holoride, which Audi thinks is the next big breakthrough in in-car entertainment. According to the company—which has spun Holoride as an independent startup—it’s a “radically new way to entertain backseat passengers in a brand new way.” The idea is deceptively simple: you take telematics info from the car in real-time and use it to construct artificial environments in VR. Or, to put it another way, imagine you’re flying in a spaceship, and every time the car accelerates, brakes, or turns, your spaceship accelerates, brakes, or turns as well.

I know what you’re thinking: “wearing VR in the back of a car is going to make me carsick!” Holoride’s magic formula has been to better match the car’s motion to what happens in VR. That means less conflict between the messages from your eyes and your vestibular system, which means less motion sickness. (Now, only 27 percent of users will experience severe nausea, down from more than one in two before Holoride worked out its digital magic. And 53 percent experience no nausea at all.)

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Source: Ars Technica

Elon Musk announces Tesla layoffs, warns about weak Q4 profits

Tesla CEO Elon Musk visiting China in January 2019.

Enlarge / Tesla CEO Elon Musk visiting China in January 2019. (credit: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tesla is cutting its workforce by about 7 percent, CEO Elon Musk announced in a Friday morning email to employees. Musk said that the cuts are necessary to help Tesla cope with what Musk described as an “extremely difficult challenge: making our cars, batteries and solar products cost-competitive with fossil fuels.”

Tesla’s stock price fell more than 9 percent on the news.

Tesla grew its workforce by 30 percent in 2018, according to Musk, but that growth turned out to be unsustainable. And Tesla is facing a number of headwinds in the coming months.

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Source: Ars Technica

Tesla sells a new wall charger, Maryland backs away from big EV charging program

Tesla wall charger can be plugged into a standard outlet.

Enlarge / New Tesla wall charger. (credit: Tesla)

This week, Tesla introduced a new wall charger that can plug directly into a NEMA 14-50 standard American wall outlet. The new wall charger is similar to the company’s second-generation mobile wall connector but with the ability to provide 40 amps (9.6kW) to long-range Model S, X, and 3 vehicles. Mid- and standard-range vehicles still charge at 36 amps, much like the mobile wall connector.

The new wall charger can be used wherever an applicable wall charger exists, without the need for an electrician to come out an install the charger. Both the new wall charger and the electrician-installed wall connector cost $500, but the new charger that is NEMA 14-50-compatible obviously won’t require electrician’s fees if you have an accessible outlet. Still, Tesla recommends its electrician-installed wall connector “for new installations.”

The Tesla Wall Connecter offers the fastest charging speeds, but according to Tesla, this new wall charger is 25 percent faster at charging than the Gen 2 mobile wall connector. As far as charging speed, it seems to sit somewhere between the high-end hardwired charger and the mobile charging kit.

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Source: Ars Technica

Stop and Shop grocery chain to begin offering “store on wheels” service

Stop and Shop grocery chain to begin offering “store on wheels” service

Enlarge (credit: Stop and Shop)

Stop and Shop, a major grocery chain in the Northeast, will begin offering a driverless grocery service in the Boston area, the company announced Wednesday.

Stop and Shop isn’t the first store to make an announcement like this—Kroger and Walmart are both working on driverless grocery services of their own. But those are delivery services. The Stop and Shop service, by contrast, puts an entire miniature grocery store on wheels. It’s a partnership with Robomart, a startup we first covered last June.

Conventional delivery startups like Nuro and Udelv envision a future where the customer chooses a few items of produce and those specific items are sent out in a driverless vehicle. Robomart’s plan, on the other hand, is to send the entire produce aisle to the customer’s driveway. Once it arrives, the customer gets to inspect the merchandise and choose which items to buy. Robomart says it will use a mix of cameras and RFID tags to determine which products a customer took and automatically charge for them.

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Source: Ars Technica

Tesla accuses engineer of plotting secret project, she denies it and sues

Tesla's Fremont factory in July 2018.

Enlarge / Tesla’s Fremont factory in July 2018. (credit: Mason Trinca for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

An ex-Tesla engineer has sued her former employer, accusing the company of defamation.

The lawsuit (and pages of exhibits) were filed Wednesday by Cristina Balan in federal court in Seattle. Balan says she was forced out of Tesla in 2014 and has been tangling with the company for years, both in arbitration and in the press.

According to Balan’s lawsuit, the alleged defamatory statements include that she spent company money without approval, booked an unapproved trip to New York, produced a secret project for windshields for her own benefit, and conducted illegal audio recordings of coworkers.

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Source: Ars Technica

Ford and VW are forming an alliance—here’s why it’s a smart move

Artist's impression of a VW-branded Transit van.

Enlarge / Artist’s impression of a VW-branded Transit van. (credit: Aurich / Ford)

We have seen a couple of big news days for two of the world’s biggest automakers. On Monday, Ford used the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to announce the Shelby GT500, an uber-Mustang, as well as new Explorer crossovers. The same day, Volkswagen—one of the few German brands to attend Detroit this year—revealed the latest Passat sedan and an $800 million investment in its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The US plant is to become VW’s North American base for manufacturing electric vehicles, adding 1,000 new jobs with production of electric vehicles using the new MEB architecture beginning in 2022.

You’d think that either company would be relaxing at this point; after all, both just laid out some pretty strong plans to sell a lot of vehicles here in the US market. But throughout yesterday, automotive Twitter (yes, it’s a thing) was a-buzz with news of something else, a joint press conference between the two rivals. On Tuesday morning we got our answer: a global alliance between Ford and Volkswagen, with each contributing one of its strengths in an area where the other has a weakness.

It’s not a merger, and no shares are trading hands between the companies. But it will involve plenty of collaboration. First up? New commercial vans and medium-sized pickups for the global (read not-US) market. And that’s medium-sized as determined by those markets, so we’re talking Ranger-sized, not F-250 monsters. Ford will build pickup trucks to be badged by both automakers, starting in 2022. It will also develop a replacement for the Transit van, with VW taking responsibility for a new city van due in 2023.

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Source: Ars Technica

Ford goes all-out with the new supercharged 2020 Mustang Shelby GT500

On Monday morning, the second-worst secret in Detroit finally got its official reveal. I am of course referring to the newest, fastest, and biggest-grilled (that’s a word) Ford Mustang ever, the Shelby GT500. (Number one is obviously the mid-engined Corvette C8.) Under its now-bulging hood is a supercharged version of the 5.2L “flat crank” V8 that sounded so good in the Shelby GT350. The addition of some forced air will give the GT500 “more than 700 horsepower” (522kW), according to the spec sheet—full figures will have to wait until closer to the car’s showroom arrival later this year. To cope, it gets a new dual-clutch transmission from Tremec; sorry stick shift fans, there is no three-pedal option this time.

The rest of the car takes this same approach: start with the GT350 then turn everything up to 12 (because 11 is passe.) The scoops and vents are bigger, because the more powerful engine and stronger transmission need more cooling. So, too, do the brakes, similarly supersized—the front rotors now measure 16.5in (420mm) which is a hefty increase in thermal mass. It’s the front that dominates the GT500’s appearance. Ford says it has double the open area of the GT350—a stat we don’t doubt—and that cooling airflow is 50 percent higher.

There’s revised suspension geometry to cope with all this excess, and like the Mustang GT we tried driving last year, there’s a full suite of track-biased electronic trickery on offer from the MagnaRide suspension and the powertrain. If you opt for the Handling Pack you get some additional goodies, including adjustable strut top mounts and a spoiler with a Gurney flap. Or you can go for the Carbon Fiber track package, which includes carbon fiber wheels (slightly wider at the rear), ultra-sticky Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires from Michelin, the adjustable wing and splitter from the GT4 Mustang race car, and no back seats.

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Source: Ars Technica

Man says CES lidar’s laser was so powerful it wrecked his $1,998 camera

A man attending this week’s CES show in Las Vegas says that a lidar sensor from startup AEye has permanently damaged the sensor on his $1,998 Sony camera. Earlier this week, roboticist and entrepreneur Jit Ray Chowdhury snapped photos of a car at CES with AEye’s lidar units on top. He discovered that every subsequent picture he took was marred by two bright purple spots, with horizontal and vertical lines emanating from them.

“I noticed that all my pictures were having that spot,” he told Ars by phone on Thursday evening. “I covered up the camera with the lens cap and the spots are there—it’s burned into the sensor.”

In an email to Ars Technica, AEye CEO Luis Dussan confirmed that AEye’s lidars can cause damage to camera sensors—though he stressed that they pose no danger to human eyes.

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Source: Ars Technica

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