And in This Corner…

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An epic bout is in the making – and we’ll all have a ringside seat.

In this corner, the Safety Nazis – who have inadvertently made the average new car several hundred pounds heavier (and much more expensive) than it would otherwise be via the piling on of keep-you-safe government mandates, from air bags to telescoping bumpers to crumple zones. In the far corner, we have the MPG Mussolinis. Their obsession is mileage uber alles, which they try to impose via government “fleet average” fuel economy requirements (CAFE).

Up to lately, these two antagonists have not butted heads, if only because the engineering talent in the car industry has been able to figure out at least partial work-arounds that (temporarily) satisfy both sides.

Sort of.

For example, new cars are reasonably, even remarkably, fuel-efficient – despite their massive and ever-increasing bulk. Kind of a like a strong lineman who, though 30 pounds overweight, is still pretty quick on his feet. Cylinder deactivation technology, variable cam/valve timing, direct-injection, seven and eight-speed transmissions with deep overdrive gearing – they counteract the bulk, at least somewhat. Without these technologies, the average new car of 2012 would be a real gas pig.

But now, we’re approaching the point of economically and technologically diminishing returns. Federal fuel economy standards are set to increase shortly (2016) to 35.5 MPG average and from there zoom to 54.5 MPG average by 2025. This sets the stage for our clash of the titans. Because there’s no economically or technologically feasible way to get cars to average even 35.5 MPG without significantly reducing their curb weight. Which, absent the use of exotic (read, expensive) materials and new (even more expensive) “safety” technologies – will inevitably make the resultant “economical” cars less “safe.”

Let’s get ready to rumble!

There have already been minor skirmishes. For example, you may have noticed that certain cars parts are more fragile, or not as durable, as the were in the past. Like disc brake rotors. They’re fairly easy to warp – as by over-tightening of the lug nuts that hold the wheel to the hub. And they can’t be resurfaced (“turned”) as often – sometimes, even once – because there’s less metal (weight) there to work with. Brake rotors used to be heavy, thick, sturdy things that could typically be “turned” several times before you had to replace them. But heavy conflicts with efficiency – and the engineers, told from on high to reduce the unsprung mass of the cars they design, cut ounces here – and pounds there.

This is also why almost all new cars come with aluminum rather than steel wheels, incidentally. They are pretty, but also expensive to manufacture (and replace) and much easier to damage, as by rubbing up against a curb or hitting a bad pothole.

It’s also why virtually all new cars have  plastic headlights (saves a couple pounds) and plastic front and rear clips rather than heavy steel bumpers – which were safe but, alas, added too much weight.

The point, though, is that the automakers have already cut most of the easy fat off new cars – and they’re still porkers. Especially today’s “compact” cars – which are the cars most oriented toward efficiency. They typically weigh in closer to 3,000 lbs. than 2,000 lbs. for the simple reason that it’s necessary to build in more bulk to make these cars “safe” – that is, to get them to meet federal standards for “safety,” including crash test performance.

But this, of course, reduces fuel efficiency. Significantly. Take 300 (or 500) pounds off any 2012 “economy” car that gets say 38 MPG highway at 2,600 lbs.  and it’s a good bet that same car would give you close to 50 MPG at 2,100 lbs.  Ah, but it wouldn’t be “safe” enough to make the Safety Nazis happy. (Never mind you.)

So, who will emerge victorious? The Safety Nazis – or the Mileage Mussolinis?

One thing’s for sure. We’ll be the ones on the mat.

Because the safety edicts of the past 30 years are not going to be made optional, no matter how much less efficient and economical they make the average new car. And the ever-upticking “fleet average” CAFE fuel economy mandates aren’t going away, either – chiefly because the average person has the engineering and economic understanding of Beetlejuice from The Howard Stern Show. These are the people who think the automakers are “dragging their feet,” deliberately building gas-pigs cars – and that all it takes to get them to build more fuel-efficient cars is simply for the government to pass a law requiring them to do so.  It does not enter their heads that there will be costs and compromises involved. Costs and compromises to be paid for by them.

And, of course, by us.

Throw in The Woods?

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eric

Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  40 comments for “And in This Corner…

  1. mikehell
    January 26, 2012 at 1:30 am

    Well, of course if the roads were privately owned then owners could engineer roads and vehicles together. Owners would have an incentive to build safe roads and efficient vehicles. Maybe the state will one day be forced out of the road monopoly and we’ll see it happen? Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

  2. 3Deuce27
    January 24, 2012 at 3:38 am

    Regarding; Hey Blake,

    “I know you meant well, but I had to delete the post of the full text of CAFE. A link to that would be ok!”

    That was me(3Deuce27)Eric. Normally I would just post a link to supportable information, but after gruelingly working my way through all the uninformed, agenda driven comments in this post, I was feeling a little frustrated and mean, so I attempted to create some balance to all the useless commentary by posting the complete wiki on CAFE.

  3. Charlie
    January 23, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    If they would just get rid of ALL those damn airbags.

    • January 23, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      I’d be ok with just making them optional.

      That’s how they started out. Of course, very few people freely bought them, so there was no money in it. Hence, the push to make them mandatory – and create a market for them.

      Ka-ching!

      • BrentP
        January 23, 2012 at 4:04 pm

        It might be for profit now, but the mandate didn’t start that way and was fought by automakers. Any safety clover will remind us that the automakers fought the airbag mandate. We are told it is because they are evil and want their customers to die so they can have more profit. The reality is what they learned in the 1970s with optional airbags.

        Government regulators fell in love with airbags and demanded their mandate for many years before it actually happened. Automakers fought because airbags weren’t safe for children and small adults. The government regulators and lawmakers dismissed these concerns despite the evidence. Then shortly after the mandate people started being killed in low speed collisions by the airbags. I don’t know how any lawsuits turned out if there were any, but the automakers were probably free from liability having made the airbags to government spec against their own wishes. Government regulators have no liability for their decisions.

        Funny how that works. An engineer makes the wrong choice, just an honest mistake, and the company has liability. A government regulator, willfully ignorant or working on the basis of politics with disregard for what actually happens has no liability.

        • January 23, 2012 at 5:06 pm

          Yup!

          All of this is why I love motorcycles – and old motorcycles especially. And two-stroke bikes most of all. I can think of no other vehicle that’s so anti-Clover in its essence.

  4. January 23, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Sigh. Why do we put up with idiots who know nothing about cars telling us how cars should be manufactured? Can’t we take all the Clovers of the world and ship them to Massachusetts or something? Then they can establish their little socialist kingdom there, and leave the rest of us the hell alone.

    • January 23, 2012 at 10:26 am

      Hey Paul,

      It’s enraging, isn’t it? Not just that they force their ideas on us – but that their ideas are usually based on know-nothingism. Most of these Clovers, especially the DC variety, are people who have never done anything in their lives. Except be lawyers, or politicians, or regulators or “activists.” Consider Obama, who pushed for the latest round of CAFE increases. This man probably could not change a tire on his own, yet he is issuing what amount to engineering Fatwas to the car industry. To us. And he and his kind do it without shame. It’s really quite something.

  5. January 20, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    I don’t see any conflict. Just replace all that steel and heavy aluminum with titanium. ;-)

  6. blakeallington@att.net
    January 20, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    I did a stint as a design and release engineer in the passive safety electronics group for one of the formerly “big 3″ automakers when “smart” airbags were in the dawn of being mandated across all cars.

    The industry name was “Occupant Classification System.” It’s that stupid light that says “passenger airbag off.”

    One of the systems by Delphi uses a silicone pressure bladder in the seat bottom to “sense” the weight of the passenger based on the pressure in the bladder.

    Its job was to deactivate the passenger airbag when a six year old or smaller was sitting in it, and activate it when a 5th percentile female or larger occupant was in it.

    It was challenging, to say the least, to design the system to make this determination reliably. It was even more challenging when you factored in regular cab pickup trucks that could have 3 people sitting in front. Think about it: A pressure bladder that might have an adult in the middle sitting halfway on the bladder that a six (or younger) year old is also sitting on. The system naturally thinks it’s an adult in the seat.

    Our company’s legal department wrote a letter to NHTSA, explaining this challenge, and asked if we could also put a passenger airbag off switch to cover this situation. Note: We did not ask for it IN PLACE OF the “smart” airbag system – we asked for it IN ADDITION TO the “smart” airbag system

    NHTSA’s response: No – the system has to be passive.

    So for any of the clovers out here that think automakers would sell nothing but fuel sucking deathtraps if it weren’t for the safety Nazis: Ours tried to ADD cost to a mandatory system in order to make it MORE reliable and MORE safe and were rejected. After all, someone might have to THINK before driving.

    Result: Safety Nazi’s made cars LESS safe, LESS reliable, MORE expensive, and LESS fuel efficient.

    We are doomed.

    • Brian
      January 20, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      Excellent example.

      The basic assumption is that we are too stupid to adapt to unique situations and cannot under any circumstances be given the most basic amount of control.

      Bottom line: Clovers don’t want real safety, they want illusions and unintended consequences. They want to dictate what they determine is best.

      • Gil
        January 22, 2012 at 2:16 am

        Libertarians don’t want safety either – they love risk, they thrive. Libertarians anyone who loves safety hates liberty and deserves neither.

        • BrentP
          January 22, 2012 at 3:18 am

          Gil, libertarians don’t want -other- people making the risk-reward calculation -for- them. They also don’t want to cover other people’s risk taking.

          Many libertarians are very risk adverse personally. What many, including myself are upset about is that they are called upon to cover the losses, the downside of people who did take risks and lost. Big banks, big business, governments, voting blocks of people, involuntary charity, heath care, flood damage, and much much more. Meanwhile, while being risk adverse, there was no enjoyment of the upside.

          There is never a call upon the risk takers to share their profits, their beach front homes, their luxuries, parties, and other upsides of the risk equation. It’s entirely one sided and at the barrel of a gun.

          It is people like yourself Gil, that demand that those of us who are more risk adverse pay for those who take risks and lose. Under a libertarian system the risk taking would become controlled because there wouldn’t be any bailouts for bankers or people who decided to build big houses in flood plains. They wouldn’t be so inclined to take risks when they cover their own downside.

        • Boothe
          January 22, 2012 at 4:19 am

          Gil as usual you’re only semi-coherent. But your illiteracy aside, safety is a relative thing and should be a personal choice. You’re apparently butchering a Benjamin Franklin thought which actually reads “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” in an effort to prove what point?

          The original post by Blake proved that government bureaucracy is so inflexible, that even when a private interest attempts to do better than what has been mandated, that too is unacceptable. Government control has little to do with safety Gil and everything to do with power. Of course you side with the “regulators” because you believe you’re on the winning team that way. How does it feel to be a government toady boy?

          Libertarians believe in individual liberty and individual responsibility. That means that people should be free to do even dangerous things so long as they don’t harm anyone else and accept the consequences of their own actions. It does not mean that we despise safety, merely that we believe a man (or woman) should be free to buy what they want, do what they want and say what they want without government intervention so long as they don’t infringe anyone else’s rights in the process.

          The argument I often hear from people in your camp is that our actions could end up costing everyone else money for healthcare, social services, etc. The point of fact is that under our system of government that should not even be a consideration. It is not the federal government’s responsibility to provide healthcare, welfare or anything not specifically authorized by the Constitution. Furthermore, federal meddling is specifically prohibitied by the Constitution in most matters. What is it that you and your ilk fail to understand about our Supreme Law of the Land? You’re all for “law and order” so long as it’s not that particular law, huh?

          • 3Deuce27
            January 23, 2012 at 6:17 am

            Reg; The original post by Blake proved that government bureaucracy is so inflexible, that even when a private interest attempts to do better than what has been mandated, that too is unacceptable.

            Blake’s comment is anecdotal, it ‘Proves’ nothing.

            • January 23, 2012 at 10:10 am

              Hey Blake,

              I know you meant well, but I had to delete the post of the full text of CAFE. A link to that would be ok!

        • January 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm

          No Gil, they want to be left free to choose for themselves (and to be held responsible for those choices, too).

          My “safety” (a subjective thing) is my business, not yours – not the government’s.

    • January 21, 2012 at 12:15 am

      Thanks for sharing this with us, Blake – very interesting stuff!

      To me, this worst thing about Clovers is their general stupidity. Salt this with their arrogant need to dictate to others and you have the makings of debacles such as you’ve described.

      PS: I wonder what the shelf-life of those bladders is? What happens when the “smart” air bag is 15, 20 years old? Oh. Yeah. I forgot. Clovers expect us to just throw the car away and buy (finance) a new one, which will of course cost more than the old one, courtesy of the latest round of for-your-safety Cloverism!

      • Blake
        January 21, 2012 at 5:20 am

        Eric:

        I love ranting – so you’re welcome. Can you please delete my e-mail from my original post? I really don’t want Gil e-mailing me.

        I don’t know what the shelf-life is. It passed our testing.

        There are plenty of other unreliable technologies designed to do the same thing (strain gage weight sensors, capacitive systems, vision systems, etc.). Each has it’s own weaknesses.

        The NHTSA clovers and the Mothers for Child Safety (I made that last one up – I think) lobbyist says “How hard is it – CAPILAIST PIG? You just strap a bathroom scale to a car seat and presto – smart airbags”

        How many times have you walked into your doctor’s office and the staff said: “Please come SIT on this scale on this chair with its low seat heaight so we can get an accurate reading of your weight.”

        If that wasn’t enough to compromise accuracy, your doctor’s office is also on wheels. Add half a g of extended lateral acceleration, acceleration, braking, hills, bumps, -40 to 85 degree C temperature swings, road salt, humidity, vibration, etc.

        Whoda thunk – scales don’t work so reliably in these situations.

        I shouldn’t complain. I made a good amount of money being employed to implement this unsafe, heavy, and expensive idea.

        However, I could have been doing something PRODUCTIVE.

        Yes stupidity is the common trait. I think our “leaders” truly believe that they are scientists because they earned a degree in political “science.”

        They have no clue that F=ma or E=IR, but by golly, they have an eagle on thier symbol, so they are most definitely smarter than you.

        • BrentP
          January 21, 2012 at 6:05 am

          Blake, I think from the point of view of these clowns believe they do all the work by willing whatever it is into existence. To them an engineer is just a trained monkey or at best a fungible human resource. They do all the real work in their minds. To them all the work is in the politics. They will it and it shall be.

          I imagine that they are like the people you find at large corporations who spend all day talking to people and playing the political game while you get the work done, but worse.

        • January 21, 2012 at 9:37 am

          You bet, will do – right now!

    • BrentP
      January 21, 2012 at 2:37 am

      Back when the automatic seat belts or airbags regulation came into effect Ferrari was releasing the F40. I could be wrong on the model, but a top of the line Ferrari. Standard equipment was a racing harness. The US government said no. They must -remove- it and put in an automatic 3 point belt. That’s how government is. One size fits all cheap-ass mediocrity.

      • Blake
        January 21, 2012 at 4:42 am

        I have another great story about the “passive” 3 point belts. I bought a used 1992 Escort that used this brilliant forced technology.

        To those who may not be aware of this paticular “better idea” passive belt, the shoulder part of the belt was motorized and would automatically retract along a track above the doors when the front doors would open and engage when they were closed (in theory).

        When mine broke mid-track (less than 70,000 miles BTW), it was stuck in the perfect position to decapitate me in the event of a crash. The shoulder harness in a moderate speed collision became the equivalent of a hangman’s noose – except the hangman’s platform is 5 stories tall.

        If I didn’t LITERALLY risk my neck while driving, I risked a “click it or ticket.”

        I chose this risk over that of decapitation.

  7. Enjoy Every Sandwich
    January 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    But now, we’re approaching the point of economically and technologically diminishing returns.

    I can’t help but think that both the MPG Mussolinis and the Safety Nazis are actually banking on this. The watermelons would like nothing better than to create a situation where owning an automobile would be out of the reach of the average person. Of course “important” people like Al Gore would still be squired around in fleets of SUVs but we peasants would be restricted to collective forms of transport, like that gleaming example of 19th-century technology the choo-choo train.

    • Boothe
      January 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      E.E.S., I think BrentP’s already a few steps ahead of your choo-choo train with that other piece of cutting edge 19th century technology; the bicycle. Of course the Watermelons will probably want us to wear some kind of a “re-breather” apparatus to sequester any CO2 or methane we might generate while bicycling…..

      • dom
        January 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm

        Just hope they don’t require us to have EGRs!

        • methylamine
          January 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm

          ROFLMAO! I can just see the tube snaking from the seat…to face-mask. Too rich. Thanks Dom–you made my day!

          • dom
            January 20, 2012 at 6:34 pm

            Ha, I meant to say “us” not “use.” I cleaned it up though. It doesn’t matter what form of whatever. They’ll impose charges, taxes, fees, and regulations on whatever they can. We, as a society, are pussified to the point of acceptance on everything because the clover class out numbers us.

          • Marc
            January 23, 2012 at 10:02 pm

            “We, as a society, are pussified to the point of acceptance on everything because the clover class out numbers us.”

            I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Heavy doses of safety and earth friendly compliance and conformity are force fed to children from their first days in kindergarten.

      • Enjoy Every Sandwich
        January 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm

        LOL even the bicycle might prove to be “too individualistic” for the Clover Crowd since although you can’t go as fast as you can in a car, you can still go where you want when you want. Selfish!

        Although I suppose they could fit them with mandatory GPS units hooked to a gizmo that will give you an electric shock if you go outside your collective labor district.

        • dom
          January 20, 2012 at 9:16 pm

          I can hear the cloverish argument now. You are wasting too much energy pedaling your bike at 20mph. You’ll consume all the big macs at burger king and eat everyone’s lunch!

          • BrentP
            January 21, 2012 at 2:55 am

            Dom, I’ve heard lots of them. Sometimes in discussion groups, sometimes on the road when biking.

            Clovers -HATE- road bicyclists and often bicyclists in general. This why I use bicycling arguments against such people to bring out their hypocrisy and arbitrary totalitarian nature.

            Why do they hate bicyclists? My theory is that they hate the non-comformity and the freedom of it. They always speak of new ways to restrict and confine bicycling. they demand licenses and insurance and registration. They -love- helmet laws because helmet laws reduce bicycling.

            • January 21, 2012 at 9:43 am

              I have come a long way on this subject! I think I was rage-blinded by Spandex. And those little aerodynamic helmets… !

              When I ride, I wear cut-offs or cargos and no fucking way will I ever wear a helmet.

              Rage against The Machine!

          • dom
            January 21, 2012 at 3:04 am

            I love riding bikes! Don’t do it as much as I used to though. Living on a mountain doesn’t help. I still have my BMX and my beach cruiser. Here is a picture from five or so years ago on an evening I got pulled over (picture was taken right after). It was Cinco De Mayo. We even got the pat down.

            Jay, Dom, Austin

            Me towing my buddy who kept popping his chain.

            Jay in tow

            Oh, here it is! The yella fella.

            Yella Fella

  8. January 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Eric,
    Our family car is a 2002 VW Golf TDI. The city mpg WAS 33 and highway 38. On a trans con road trip the check engine light came on. When we returned the mechanic diagnosis indicated that the valve allowing exhaust gas to be recirculated had malfunctioned. Cost to repair: $567.00. I noticed however that mpg had gone UP to 36 city 43 hwy. Presto! check engine light magically malfunctioned.

    • BrentP
      January 20, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Given the function of EGR it is not surprising that fuel economy increased if the valve failed closed. It should fail closed most of the time it fails if designed properly. EGR is a survivor kludge from dark days of the 1970s. Sure it works better now, but it’s still not a particularly good solution to the problem. There could be another battle of the heavy weights written about NOx. While lowering HC (now VOC) helps fuel economy and power, NOx comes about at the high combustion temps where maximum power and effeciency are. Lean burn engines can’t really go forward until the NOx issue is solved. It’s getting there. Slowly.

      The repair bill of $567 is simply outrageous for an EGR valve BTW. They can be annoying to remove but that’s about it.

    • January 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      $567 for an EGR valve!

      For some perspective: That same sum will (just about) buy a set of new aluminum cylinder heads for my old Pontiac V8. Or, I could rebuild the entire engine for the same sum.

      I’m guessing the majority of the bill is labor. The EGR valve may be extremely hard to get to, requiring major disassembly of other engine components just to access it.

      • dom
        January 20, 2012 at 4:31 pm

        Everyone here should know the sky is the limit on automotive repair prices! All depends how much the shop wants to juice you for and what you are willing to pay. I’ve seen the entire process (even as the guy forced to rob you on parts/labor). That is exactly why I’m not in the industry anymore! Repair/maintenace prices are out of control!

  9. Eric_G
    January 20, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    I drove past the Ford dealer the other day and wasn’t at all surprised to see F150s and 250s, 4 rows deep. Meanwhile the super-compacts were nowhere to be found.

    Just because the fleet has to have an average efficiency doesn’t mean the dealers are going to order them. And of course we don’t have to buy them.

    That said, I did just order an Audi A3 TDI. Figuring the gasoline engine requires premium, the cost/gal is a wash and if I can go 35% further on that gallon I’m coming out ahead. The 2-3 second difference between 0-60 times doesn’t matter to me though.

    • January 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Trucks are, of course, a major profit center for the car companies (and dealers). But now that “light trucks” also have to meet the same CAFE standard as passenger cars I expect the days of the 1500 series truck are numbered, at least, as a mass-market vehicle.

      I think you’ll enjoy your A3 TDI, by the way. Excellent power and very good economy, too.

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