Fords “Transit Connect” all electric vehicle made its debut at the Los Angeles Petersen Automotive Museum this week. One of the first of four battery powered vehicles planned by Ford to hit markets by 2012. This electric powered version of a light duty cargo van has been available since 2003 on the global market and is a popular vehicle for government and corporate fleets. The vehicle can travel a maximum of 80 miles per charge, making it perfect for in town deliveries where there is a predetermined route. Both the brakes and the accelerator pedal incorporate regenerative technologies that extend the vehicle’s range by recharging the battery when the vehicle is slowing down. Production of the Transit Connect Electric will begin in the fourth quarter followed by the Ford Focus Electric passenger car next year.

After all the news we have been hearing about Toyota and their problems, Consumer Reports still ranks Toyota vehicles as number three. (The same ranking as last year.) The rankings are based on performance, comfort, utility and reliability of over 280 different vehicles.

“Toyota builds extremely good, reliable cars”, said David Champion, senior director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center. “I think once they get through all the recalls you will see that they are a very reliable manufacturer.” The magazine ended up dropping a couple of Toyota models from the Top Picks after the company suspended sales because of the recall. Since the vehicles were not for sale at the time, they could not make the list.

Honda (which includes Acura models) and Subaru were tied for first place, the fourth year that Honda was the leading manufacturer. They were followed by Toyota, and Hyundai (including Kia) which was ranked fourth, up from ninth last year. American manufacturers fared poorly. Ford was ranked eleventh, moving up one place from last year. General Motors and Chrysler occupied the bottom two slots, respectively.

In the auto industry, it is expensive for each auto manufacturer to design and build every component for their vehicles. As a result, they go to automotive suppliers who build OEM parts that are bought by many different auto manufacturers. The gas pedal assembly at the center of Toyota’s stop sale and recall are one of these OEM parts. It was designed and built by a company called the CTS Corporation. They are a leading designer and manufacturer of electronic components and sensors and a provider of electronics manufacturing services in the automotive, communications, medical, defense, aerospace, industrial and computer markets. CTS manufactures products in North America, Europe and Asia. They also sell assemblies to Honda, Ford, GM and Chrysler.

Honda spokeswoman, Christina Ra reassured their customers by saying, “We use the same supplier for a small number of vehicles sold in the U.S. We do not use the same components as are involved in our competitor’s recall. We directly confirmed with CTS that it is not the same component.”

Ford, also a CTS pedal customer, has halted production in China of its Transit Classic diesel van, which is the only Ford product to use a CTS pedal assembly. The van is sold only in China. “Ford has its own unique design and engineering for its accelerator pedals globally,” Said Deep, a Ford spokesman. “In a review, we determined that none of our other vehicles worldwide use the CTS pedal.” ” 1,663 Transit Classic vans with the CTS pedal had been produced, and the company was investigating how many had reached customers. “We are constantly monitoring performance, and we have not seen any design issue related to unintended acceleration in Ford vehicles,” Mr. Deep said.

Alan Adler, a spokesman for G.M., said that the automaker has “no direct contractual supplier relationship” with CTS, though he said the company could be supplying components through other suppliers.

Chrysler said the pedals CTS makes for the company are different from Toyota’s. “Accelerator pedals produced by CTS Automotive for Chrysler Group LLC vehicles are a different specification and design and are manufactured using different production tooling and materials than the pedals produced for Toyota,”

You can CLICK HERE to view CTS Corporations press release of the Toyota accelerator pedal recall.

Even with all the turmoil and uncertainty in today’s auto industry, auto makers and a large financial institution banded together in an effort to send funds to the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.

GM gave $100,000 and provided direct online access to the red cross so its employees could make personal contributions as well. “As one of the world’s largest car companies, doing our part to contribute aid to Haiti is not about business but our obligation to our fellow man,” explained GM chairman and chief executive officer Ed Whitacre. “There is remarkable compassion among GM employees, and I know that same spirit will make a difference in helping the Haiti relief effort.”

Toyota Motor North America Inc. is donating $500,000 to the American Red Cross, Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders. “Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders have been working in Haiti for a long time”, says Michael Rouse, vice president of philanthropy and community affairs at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

In addition, Toyota North America, Toyota Motor Sales, Toyota Financial Services and Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America will match employee contributions and provide four-wheel-drive Tundras and Tacomas to the Red Cross.

Nissan donated $30,000 in cash to the Red Cross and plans to provide more than $100,000 for the Haitian earthquake relief effort. The automaker will match the first $25,000 in employee donations, for a combined contribution of up to $50,000. They will also give $52,000 to Habitat for Humanity International to construct 13 houses in Haiti as rebuilding programs get under way.

Ford’s Ford Fund & Community Services said it will match all individual employee contributions up to $50,000, which will be donated to the American Red Cross. It also is working with Behrmann Motors, a Ford dealership in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to identify critical needs on the ground.

Eaton, an engine parts supplier, pledged $100,000 to the Red Cross fund. Eaton also will match employees’ donations to the United Way Worldwide Disaster Fund that supports long-term recovery efforts such as financial and health-related challenges.

Bank of America executives donated $1 million with half of that sum going to the American Red Cross. The remaining $500,000 will go toward the long-term recovery efforts to restore basic medical services and fund the rebuilding of homes, schools and other structures critical to the affected communities. Bank of America also plans to match donations made by its employees.

Based on the Detroit Auto Show, the automobile industry may be undergoing a huge transformation. There are dozens of hybrid vehicles and countless pure battery-powered cars. The market for energy alternative cars remains weak, but if strict emissions standards are imposed, demands could soar.

Ford Motor Company had a very strong showing, winning North American Car of the Year and North American Truck of the Year Awards. The car award went to the Ford Fusion Hybrid and in the truck category, Ford’s Transit Connect van. This is the sixth win in the truck category for Ford, the most of any automaker.

The awards recognize the vehicles that are “benchmarks” in their category based on factors including innovation, design, safety, handling, driver satisfaction and value for the dollar. Vehicles must be new or “substantially changed” to be considered.

Some other memorable displays are: General Motors with their new Chevy Volt, Mercedes B Class pure hydrogen fuel cell car, Audis A8 which won the eyes on design and Chrysler’s Gem which has sold more than 40,000 since 1999 and reportedly owns about 70 percent of the electric vehicle market.

Even after all the talk about distracted drivers and products developed to make less distractions, Intel and Google are hoping to bring your desktop to the dashboard. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, they displayed 10 inch screens above the gearshift displaying high definition videos, 3-D maps and web pages. These “infotainment systems” will hit the market this year and are likely to become standard equipment in a wide range of auto’s before long. They prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving, but they can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger.

Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says “This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst. Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.” The technology and car companies say that safety remains a priority.

Earlier I talked about Fords new hands free infotainment service, ‘Sync’, and how it is going to make our roads a little safer by giving drivers less distractions. Next week, Kia Motors Corp. will introduce ‘UVO’, a North American competitor to Ford Motor’s Sync. Ford’s exclusive contract with Microsoft expired at the end of 2008 and in May of that year, Microsoft announced that Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group would develop a voice-controlled infotainment system for the North American market. Fiat Auto Group also uses Microsoft technology to power its infotainment service, called Blue&Me.

Like Sync, UVO is based on the Microsoft Auto software platform, known as the Windows Embedded Auto Software Platform. Spokesmen for Kia and Microsoft say the Kia version will have features unique to the South Korean automaker. UVO will debut on an unnamed Kia vehicle sometime in 2010. The automaker will not release specifics until it formally introduces UVO at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

With concerns about distracted drivers causing automobile accidents, Microsoft has created Sync, a voice controlled in car system where there is no LCD screen distracting you from the road. Push a button on the steering wheel, tell the system what you want and your request is confirmed by a robotic female voice.

Sync is Ford’s voice-controlled in-car system for wireless hands-free operation of a cell phone and for playing music from a connected MP3 player. Automated calls for 911 assistance in the event of an air bag deployment are also part of the Sync package Ford has been adding features to Sync since its introduction. The latest version includes built-in GPS navigation with spoken turn-by-turn directions; traffic updates; recorded news and sports articles; and vehicle health reports.

There is no monthly fees for the first three years (Ford has not determined whether fees may be applicable after that), and drivers do not need to pay extra for a data cell phone plan. The system sends information over a voice channel of the driver’s phone.

Though the system is quite simple to use, drivers do need to learn Sync’s preset commands which means either reading the manual or waiting for prompts from the interactive voice menu. People who have tried the system say they are never 100% comfortable with only voice commands and having passengers in the vehicle make it difficult to have a conversation and follow directions at the same time. Like all new technology, Sync has it’s glitches but hopefully with more testing it can become a tool in making our roads a little safer.