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Here's what happened in the car industry in 2015

From 'dieselgate' to Tesla's self driving cars, here's what went down this year

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Well, 2015 was one of those rare years when news items from our little ghetto of cars have exploded into proper homepage-occupying top-of-the-bulletin front-page-leads, right across the global media.

VW’s diesel engine scandal was a story that had it all. All of us either own one of the affected cars or know someone who does, and we needed to know if they were still legal and whether they’d plummeted in value. Hundreds of thousands of VW employees feared for their jobs. The financial markets were sent into jitters by the possible collapse of a vast industrial entity.

Now the dust is settling, the scandal has taken a different shape from the early hoo-ha. The VW Group will pay dearly but won’t be brought to its knees after all. The recall of 8.5 million cars in Europe sounds a biggie but the per-vehicle fix cost is small. It uses the latest knowledge to tweak the engines to meet the NOX standards that applied when they were sold.

The standards in the US are stiffer and making the cars comply will be harder. That, after all, is why VW began cheating in the first place. It might have to buy back (at inflated prices by way of a sweetener) all the 450,000 affected cars. That might cost up to £3 billion. Believe it or not, VW can actually afford that.

It’s unlikely other carmakers cheated in the same way. Other diesels sold in the US used an expensive but effective urea-injecting NOx catalyst. Only VW and Audi said they had an engine that could do it without. We now know they actually, er, didn’t.

So what are the consequences unforeseen when the scandal first broke? The Group has changed tack a bit. It will concentrate harder now on building electric vehicles, designing an all-new platform for small-to-midsize battery cars. There will also be electric Porsches and Bentleys and big Audis and VWs, only some of which were planned before the scandal.

But one huge and necessary change at VW still hasn’t happened. The company still needs to throw off the dark cloak of secrecy. They’re still clinging to the pretence this cheating was the work of a few rogue engineers.

The flow of honest information has remained a damagingly scant trickle. VW sent its US boss Michael Horn to answer questions from Congress, the most powerful democratic body in the world. But the Wolfsburg HQ entirely refused to arm him with the facts to satisfy the inquisitors. He knew no more than you could find from reading already-public US government documents and the Wolfsburg local paper. Americans were already annoyed with VW’s duplicity; this stonewalling enraged them further.

Even after it became clear this wasn’t just a scandal about exhaust emissions but about corporate transparency, VW remained opaque.

And when appointing a new CEO to replace, they missed the chance to bring in an untainted outsider to make a symbolic fresh start. Instead they gave the job to Matthias Mueller, who had been in charge of the Group’s model strategy in the years the cheating took hold. Of course Mueller has been accused of nothing. But why not instead give the job to someone who, by the very fact he or she wasn’t there, would inevitably be blameless?

It’s not just about what what a company does, it’s about what a company is seen to be doing.

Strange as it seems now, we haven’t been talking about #dieselgate for the whole year. Other issues have also put cars into the news. Autonomous driving for a start. This was the year it began to move from theory to stark reality.

Many Tesla owners awoke one morning to find their car had been upgraded to new software that takes advantage of existing onboard sensors to provide what Tesla calls ‘autopilot’. It’ll steer itself down a motorway lane, following the speed of the traffic in front.

Because Tesla tends to be covered as a tech company rather than a car company, it’s covered by a different subset of journalists. Most of whom are unaware that similar systems have been available in Mercedes, BMW, Volvo and others for a while.

But where the Tesla system does differ is that it doesn’t beep at you – and eventually cease steering for you – if you take your hands off the wheel.

In other words, it isn’t the technology that’s different in the Tesla, but the degree to which its creators think it’s robust enough for real traffic. Still it does feel like a rubicon has been crossed now there are people out on the motorway, hands and feet off the controls, at some speed.

Even though feet-off and hands-off autonomy is with us now, it still seems likely that eyes-off and finally brain-off autonomy are a decade or more away. Just look at the space-age design of Mercedes’ autonomous concepts.

Tesla has been a story all year. Partly because of the upcoming crazy-door Model X crossover. Partly because it has high-performance, luxury, pure-electric cars on sale while the Germans have them only as motor show concepts.

It’s actually GM, with the Bolt, that will be first to market with an affordable 200-mile electric car. But there will be more, because they will continue to be subsidised. The Paris climate conference saw to that.

Partly too Tesla stayed prominent because of founder Elon Musk’s salty remarks about his rivals. He’s been grabbing yet more headlines in suggesting the VW scandal proves we’ve reached the endgame for improvements in petroleum efficiency and should switch entirely to electricity. Oh, and he suggested Apple’s car project was a ‘graveyard’ for engineers who left Tesla because they weren’t good enough.

So far the notoriously secretive Apple has said nothing about its car project. But it has been hiring engineers from several major car companies, and has also been investigating using the closed roads of a former naval base, renamed GoMentum Station, as a test facility (external link).

Speculation as to whether or not Apple will build a car has been rife for much of this year. I still think it’ll decide against the idea.

Musk (him again) has also been a prominent critic of hydrogen fuel-cell cars, but this year Hyundai, Toyota and Honda put on sale cars with the technology. Pity there’s hardly anywhere to refuel them. Still, ‘The Car That Emits Only Water’ is another headline with universal appeal.

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