• Apr 26, 2010
Every single year, for almost 40 years, politicians and regulators have written piles of laws and regulations to control the automobile. And yet, there's no end in sight. Right now they're working on regulations that will take us out to 2025 and beyond. Will it ever end?
Worst of all there is no coordination between government agencies, so we get regulations that work against each other. NHTSA mandates safety equipment which makes cars heavier which makes them burn more fuel. The EPA mandates more stringent emission standards that make it harder to meet CAFE. And CAFE forces us into smaller cars which are not as safe. Around and around and around it goes.

There is roughly $5,000 in government-mandated hardware on every car today, based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And this doesn't capture the cost of engineering all this stuff in the first place. Nor does it come close to capturing the cost of the armies of people that automakers have to hire to monitor all these regulations and fill out all the paperwork.

Cars are definitely safer, cleaner, and more efficient today. And yes, some of that is thanks to these regulations, but more of it is due to competition in the marketplace.

So when I look at the reams of new regulations that are coming down the pike, I have to ask: Do we really need so much more regulation? Or have we hit the point where the regulators are simply trying to make sure they keep their jobs?



John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.



A perfect example of what I'm talking about involves the newest safety regulation. The latest law is a new roof-crush standard that is expected to save maybe 70 lives a year. Yet 55% of the people killed in car accidents are not wearing their seatbelts. If we put more effort into getting people to buckle up we could save 20,000 lives a year. Where do you think NHTSA should devote its limited resources?

Automakers are coming out with A-pillars that are practically the size of a linebacker's leg
Plus, to meet that roof-crush standard, automakers are coming out with A-pillars that are practically the size of a linebacker's leg. They're so big that in some situations they can block your view of a car coming out of a side street, increasing the likelihood of a crash.

And the new ultra-high-strength-steel needed to prevent the roof from crushing is so strong that the Jaws of Life, which most first responders use, can't cut through that steel. They were never designed for it. In fact, automakers had to come up with a new stamping process, called hot stamping, to make those UHSS parts. It's a manufacturing breakthrough to be sure, but it uses a lot more energy, which translates into a bigger carbon footprint. Say a cheery "Hello!" to the law of unintended consequences.

Thanks to the roof-crush standard most municipalities – which are flat broke by the way – will now have to go out and buy new Jaws of Life. Did NHTSA ever contemplate this as they wrote their standard? No, of course not. Like I said, there is no coordination between agencies. But I don't blame the agencies. In most cases, Congress prohibits them from coming up with sensible compromises on their own.

Why don't we just adopt Europe's safety and emission standards?
It sure would make a big difference if automakers were given guidelines to achieve, not bureaucratic dictates. The more minutely the government tries to control the auto industry, the higher it drives the complexity of the business. That complexity strangles agility and efficiency and drives up cost.

Here's a simple suggestion. Why don't we just adopt Europe's safety and emission standards? They are so close to our own regulations anyway that we would see no deterioration in fatalities, emissions, or fuel economy. And we would save a fortune. Billions.

Of course I'm under no delusions that this is ever going to happen. No, I'm pretty sure that all we're going to get is another mountain of new regulations.

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  • 57 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hey I know how about a cool new picture for John??!!
      • 4 Years Ago
      There's something old-fashioned, head in the sand Detroit-ish about the column. American car companies have had no disadvantage compared to foreign car companies when it comes to dealing with government regulations-- if anything, the US companies had more resources to bring to bear (once upon a time) and closer access to the regulating process. Yet the last 40-50 years has seen American companies lose market share because their products got lamer compared to foreign companies that had to meet the same regulations (and still do).
        • 4 Years Ago
        Seems to me John was talking about saving consumers' money (and lives), not auto companies', nevermind Detroit companies specifically.

        I don't think any reasonable person (John included) would suggest ditching government regulation entirely. However, at some point, and I think we're well past that point, we need to rationalize proposed new regulations against more comprehensive criteria.

        The new rollover standard is a perfect example of single-variable actuarial regulation. IIHS and NHTSA get together and compare Excel spreadsheets, fudge up a cost-justification, and ram it through because nobody wants to argue against "x lives would be saved." It's about time somebody called them to the carpet.

        Fuel economy and safety are naturally at odds, so I wouldn't argue for a single agency to address both, but I'd like to see them check and balance each other. And I'd like to see GAO or another appropriate agency do better cost-benefit analyses of present and future regulations. I bet a least-common-denominator approach to present first-world auto regulations would dramatically simplify the industry, still produce safe, efficient, innovative automobiles in the short term, and actually spur faster technological advancement going forward.
      • 4 Years Ago
      The government should consolidate the departments into one agency.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Dan,

        You are right.

        None of them should exist in the form they now have. Even if one or two of those agencies can justify their existence, in REAL terms, not bureaucrat-speak...

        They should be much smaller, and not with the force of law behind their policies. Government agencies were never supposed to assume the congress's power to make law, without congressional up or down vote. Agencies now pass regulations that are blanket-adopted, and then enforced.

        Based on the *federal budget, only about 25-35% of what the government pays for, are things that a *federal government has no mandate to perform in the constitution, and the 10th Ammendment declares that if the constitution doesn't say it, the federal government doesn't get to do it. Those rights and functions are reserved to the states and the people.

        *-FEDERAL, meaning a bottom-up association of people, and states into a common nation-wide front, not a top-down national government, which is what this is fast turning into. A common international contact point, a common defense, and fairness in dealing between differing states. Not a dictatorial body that over-rides states or individual people's rights.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Under your vision, that already exists. It is called the Executive Branch. Secretaries would be called Deputy Secretaries, but that would be the only difference.

        • 4 Years Ago
        Ronnie, I think you're making My point.
        Seat belts were invented before regulation required them, however you're not aware of GM threatening FORD to Not Sell Safety.

        GM, of the 50's, looked at seat belts an an unnecessary expense that could be eliminated.

        As far as the 250 straight six, with a crude one barrel carb, and a crude untuned intake and exhaust manifolds, it would be environmental and fuel regulations that killed those kind of crude power plants. And the carb, killed by direct fuel injection, not as a performance option but to control emissions.

        Sure, on a sports car, the auto industry "innovated" a little. The across the board improvements came from Government Regulation.




        • 4 Years Ago
        "Mike!!ekiM 7:27PM (4/26/2010)

        Ha, The Glen Becker's always giving us a show.

        If we had No Regulation, these cars wouldn't even have Seat Belts, we'd still have 250 cubic inch sixes with 100 hp, and 305 cubic inch V8's with 4 speeds, and no brakes, skinny tires and poor handling. Because Never in my observation of the auto industry have you ever gotten Any Advance in normal cars without government intervention. "

        Never?

        How much do you know about automotive history.

        You're deluded. You think government regulations resulted in higher specific output engines? Oh, and btw, those 250 CI inline sixes made very reliable engines. You're also probably not very old, so you have no idea how poorly cars ran when automakers tried to meet early environmental standards. Government regulators are rarely concerned with real world engineering. Now it's true that car companies have done some very cool things with technology and invention to make a modern ICE powerful, clean and efficient (and if you think about it, all three of those are related to getting the most out of fuel), so incidentally some of those regulations have indirectly led to innovation, but it hasn't been government types doing the innovation.

        Seat belts were offered as optional equipment long before they were mandated by regulation. Nash introduced them in 1949 and Ford offered them in 1955. Better brakes are also the result of innovation by automakers and suppliers, not government fiat (no pun intended). The major advantage to disc brakes, btw, is not really better stopping, since you can build an effective drum brake. The major advantage to disc brakes is that they are more resistant to brake fade, but you can push discs to the point where they will get mushy too. Michelin invented radial tires, not some government agency. As far as handling is concerned, I doubt many government bureaucrats know what unsprung weight is, let alone how to reduce it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        That is called Fascism. The separation of powers was a deliberate move by the founders to impede growth of government, that is being undermined by cronyism in the government now, as it is.

        See Musollini.

        He was really popular for a while. Then not so much, to the point that he was hung with piano wire, IIRC.
        • 4 Years Ago
        "GM, of the 50's, looked at seat belts an an unnecessary expense that could be eliminated."

        It doesn't work like that. GM doesn't choose features. GM's customers do.

        Or we used to. Now federal bureaucrats make them for us. It's insulting if you ask me.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I don't think redundant NHTSA, DOT and EPA was the separation of powers the framers had in mind.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Ha, The Glen Becker's always giving us a show.

        If we had No Regulation, these cars wouldn't even have Seat Belts, we'd still have 250 cubic inch sixes with 100 hp, and 305 cubic inch V8's with 4 speeds, and no brakes, skinny tires and poor handling. Because Never in my observation of the auto industry have you ever gotten Any Advance in normal cars without government intervention.

        Back in the Day, GM Threatened Ford to stop seat belt installs. Threatened them to Not Use Safety to sell cars!

        Some industries are all about the concept of Sell You Sizzle at a High Price, and Deliver the Least Possible Value.

        Just like US housing, Expensive Houses Built Cheaply.
        We could build Zero Energy Houses TODAY, but what do they sell?
        Where's the innovation? Marble Kitchen Tops.

        You Right Wing Guys, you see the world and Observe Nothing.
        You're politically Delusional and Reality Challenged.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The government should consolidate all of it's members into the largest maximum security prison and place each one in solitary confinement.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Such progress...I owned a 1992 Cutlass Supreme coupe back in the day. 3.1L V6, 3 speed automatic, 15" aluminum wheels, and it got 31mpg on the highway...18 years later they are JUST getting to the point where V6 midsize cars can get that kind of mileage again?(granted, with more power)

      It is all self justification. The same reason that CARB always makes their standards higher than the federal gov'ts. CARB would instantaly obsolete itself if it ever agreed with federal standards. Keep in mind, this is the same state that has a Department of Home Furnishings (Really, are you kidding me?). No wonder they are billions in debt.
      • 4 Years Ago
      You mean to tell me that the Federal gov't is too large and unwieldy to either know or care about the consequences of the decisions it makes. Color me shocked....
      • 4 Years Ago
      Nifty. >steps into vintage honda 4ws prelude that doesn't weigh anything, is a blast to drive, and extremely reliable<

      PS: New cars are lame.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Put new cats on it and call it a day. It'll be stinky for a minute.... then it's every other car after that, if you've got OBD2-spec catalaytic convertors.

        Compared to 90's cars ( which weren't half bad )

        3 oxygen sensors & 2 cats per exhaust bank ftl
        drive by wire ftl
        rear visibility problems due to safety regs ftl
        500-1000lbs. extra ftl
        no more high revving engines ftmfl
        less sophisticated suspensions to help buffer the cost of all the mandatory stuff ftl..

        I could go on, but i'm sure you already know.

        The only thing i feel like i'm missing out on is DI and VVT.
      • 4 Years Ago
      "Thanks to the roof-crush standard most municipalities – which are flat broke by the way – will now have to go out and buy new Jaws of Life. Did NHTSA ever contemplate this as they wrote their standard? No, of course not."

      Maybe they were too busy thinking about people NOT GETTING CRUSHED TO DEATH IN A ROLLOVER.
        • 4 Years Ago
        If the roof doesn't cave in, you don't need the Jaws of Life. Your head isn't crushed, you can crawl out the window or kick out the door.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yes, but there is a logical point to cut standards off. It's called cost benefit analysis. Sure, these are lives we're talking about, but you can't expect everyone to survive every crash ever and still get 35MPG out of a car that produces next to no emissions. It's just not possible or practical to expect. John's making the point that you have to balance regulations or you regulate yourself into nothingness. See: "A Nice Morning Drive" written by Richard Foster or Rush's "Red Barchetta."
        • 4 Years Ago
        Also, those roof safety standards make the rear visibility worse.

        You'll be crashing more often since you can't see out the rear side of your car anymore.
        ( go look at any 2009+ car and you'll know exactly what i'm talking about .... )

        And hood crash standards will make FWD cars even heavier.

        Solution: get the effing SUVs off the road
      • 4 Years Ago
      Politicians: a bunch of eletist, know-nothing, arrogant a..holes who THINK they are experts at everything.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Aren't Europe's safety and emission standards more strict than our? How would it save us billions to adopt them?
        • 4 Years Ago
        The build and sell the Same Car in Europe and America.
        So, your argument is wrong.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The car sold in Europe and America as being the "same", is similar, but not really the same. Bumpers, lighting, window glass, instrumentation and labeling, airbag and seatbelt-pretensioner calibration differ in various ways, and there are cases where individual components have to be different between the versions sold in EU and those sold in North America (and the Canadian and US models often differ slightly, too). It's true that the US EPA tailpipe emission regulations are more stringent, but when the cost of those regulations in terms of higher CO2 emissions (few diesels, no lean-burn) and higher cost to begin with (how much do you want to pay to remove the last tiny fraction of NOx, and how much pollutants are emitted by mining all the extra platinum and nickel and whatnot that comprise the extra emission control equipment in order to reduce the tailpipe emissions?) one questions whether the tougher US regulations are really any more constructive at the end of the day when production of the vehicle and disposal at end of life are considered.

        The cost savings by adoption of EU regulations - or more properly, adopting worldwide WVTA whole vehicle type approval - involves not having to engineer separate components and systems for the two markets, being able to sell all WVTA-approved vehicles in all markets, being able to sell EU-market high-fuel-economy vehicles here right now, and either eliminating or simplifying the function of entire US government departments (and the corresponding Canadian departments also).

        Canada has already scrapped our previous more-stringent bumper standards and now accepts either US-compliant or EU-compliant bumpers, and we already accept either US-compliant or E-code headlamps. Tip of the iceberg.

        On your US-specification car, when you pull the handbrake, does it illuminate the ISO symbol for the brake, or does it spell out "BRAKE" in english (but not any other language ...) ? ? ? food for thought. My Canadian-spec (but German brand name) car uses the ISO symbol ...
        • 4 Years Ago
        Because they aren't adopted in such a piecemeal fasion?
      • 4 Years Ago
      They took off some regulations from the banks and look what happened. So, I respectfully disagree Mr. McElroy. I believe that corporations are much more interested on the bottom line than goodwill to others. I do agree with using global standards however, which would make it a bit easier on the manufacturers and hopefully will reduce noxious emissions all over the world.
        • 4 Years Ago
        You have two choices: "evil" corporations interested in making money, or governments interested in taking more and more control, under the guise of "goodwill".

        At least with the "evil" corporation, I can take my money elsewhere. The problem with government control is you loose choice. I'll take freedom of choice any day of the week and take my chances with the "evil" corporations.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I remember when covered wagons would overturn and I could cut them open with my pocket knife and pull people out. Then they came out with these fancy pants horseless carriages and we had to create newfangled hydraulic scissors to get people out. Dadgum progress!
      • 4 Years Ago
      Understanding of the market fail? Why was Tucker railroaded? The corporations love the regs. Keeps competition... non-existent. Status quo for sure, but that just means multi-billions more for executives, stockholders, and bureaucrats. GM can go bankrupt all to hell. The people in charge still make enough to retire 1000 times over. Bring on the acronyms!
      As frustration with the same corporate interests and politicians mounts, regulations increase at an even harsher rate to counteract unrest and eliminate innovation and entrepreneurship from ever gaining market share. "We" need not do anything. "They" need to disappear so the market can function.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Compared to the 10 year old heaps you're shopping here on a $5,000 budget, you bet I would.
        • 4 Years Ago
        That car is being built right now in China, with no regulations, do you REALLY what to buy it?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yes. Consumer product regulations are almost invariably pressed for by manufacturers, not consumers.

        Imagine what a reliable small car sold at Walmart for $5,000 would mean for the existing auto industry.
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