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?
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.
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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