Kiss the American Auto Industry Goodnight

By Bill Moore

Posted: 24 Nov 2009

Effectively, that is what the conservative Heritage Foundation is arguing in a November 23, 2009 blog piece entitled Help Stop the EPA from Imposing More Costly Regulations. The Foundation asserts that if the EPA enacts the fuel economy standards embodied in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, signed by former President George W. Bush, it will mean fewer consumer choices in automobiles, more expensive vehicles, and less safe models due to the inevitable downsizing that will occur in order to comply with the 35 mpg fleet average the law will require.

They claim, "to meet these new standards, cars and trucks will need to be lighter, making them less safe. The National Academy of Sciences study pegs the cost of downsizing at 1,300 to 2,600 lives per year." They also assert that increasing fuel economy to 35 mpg will do little to reduce global warming, something I am not sure they actually believe is real, but that's another matter. Instead, let's examine the "smaller is deadlier" allegation.

The National Research Council published a 2002 study entitled, Effectiveness and lmpact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards in which the majority of the committee concluded, "The downweighting and downsizing [of vehicles] that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of which was due to CAFE standards, probably resulted in an additional 1,300 to 2,600 traffic fatalities in 1993."

Notice that the Heritage Foundation chose to cherry pick this statistic by failing to note that only "some" of the downsizing of the vehicles were the result of CAFE standards and probably resulted in those estimated fatalities. They also failed to point out the fact that the study was done using 1993 accident records. The implication of their citation is that for carmakers to comply with what the Foundation considers an Obama Administration initiative, despite originating during the Bush presidency, carmakers will be forced to build smaller, less safe vehicles.

Let's examine that question, shall we?

When the original 2002 report came out, the committee responsible for its findings were not unanimous in their opinions as to its conclusions. A minority disagreed, stating publicly, "The conclusions of the majority of the committee ... are overly simplistic and at least partially incorrect ... The relationship between vehicle weight and safety are complex and not measureable with any reasonable degree of certainty at present... Reducing the weights of light-duty vehicles will neither benefit nor harm all highway users; there will be winners and losers."

In 2008, Tom Wenzel with the Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Marc Ross with the University of Michigan presented a paper American Physical Society’s Forum on Physics and Society, essentially concurred with the minority view in that the issue of vehicle safety is far more complex than the "bigger and heavier is safer" mantra.

They contended, "Safety can be improved using new technologies, with little impact on weight or fuel economy." Those new technologies include high-strength steel, improved crash safety design, electronic stability control, better seat belts, stronger roofs and vehicle-to-vehicle communication (crash avoidance).

The above graph, screen-captured from their March 2008 Powerpoint presentation, shows relative risk by vehicle type. What's illuminating here is the fact that while compact and subcompact models do represent a higher risk to their occupants than more car-like Crossovers, for example, the damage inflicted on passengers in other vehicles is less. And when you compare them to the light truck/pickup category, the compact car is "safer" than any class of pickup but full-sized vans. Not only aren't these light trucks any safer than a compact car, but the aggressive havoc they cause to other vehicles and their occupants is three to five times that of the compacts and subcompacts. Compare all vehicles classes and imported luxury cars (presumably Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Saab, etc.) come out the best, which can't be explained by size or vehicle mass alone. Something else is going on here including vehicle engineering and driver maturity.

It seems to me that the answer isn't allowing American carmakers to continue to build big, heavy, cheap vehicles, but to engineer safer and more fuel efficient models, and this is, in fact, what they are doing. Both Ford and GM are creating "global" vehicle platforms that they can sell in Asia, Europe and North America, offering comparable amenities and performance, instead of the wide disparity previously seen between GM and Ford's more fuel-efficient models in Europe and their name sake-only variants in North America. Chrysler and Fiat's recently unveiled vehicle and engine plans highlight this shift.

And if you're wondering about how safe those Euro-ized global models are, the World Health Organization reported that in 1998 in the whole of Europe there were 106,757 traffic fatalities and 3,213,104 injuries for a comparably sized population, while in the United States and Canada there were 125,959 fatalities and 4,410,736 injuries. Recall that Europe is more congested and has higher highway speeds than in most of North America, so it should have higher fatality and injury rates, but it doesn't.

Bottom line, smaller and lighter doesn't have to equate to more deaths and injuries. Better engineering and materials can largely mitigate the problem; and doing so will make U.S. carmakers more competitive, not less. Or, we can blindly follow the advice of the creaky Heritage Foundation and kiss the rest of the American auto industry goodnight.

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