Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act, which will require quiet electric and hybrid vehicles to emit a sound that allows the car to be detected by blind pedestrians. The interesting part of this law, which received the support of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, was that it did not base its compliance requirements on some measure of quietness, but rather on the propulsion technology used. That significant detail has me wondering: what role should clean technology play in promoting safety, particularly in the auto industry?
Clearly, every car on the road must guarantee some base level of safe operation (example: batteries should not cause their vehicle to explode). But beyond that promise of reliability, the argument could go in two very different directions.
First, the call for more safety: “The future of personal transportation would not be bright with today’s level of danger on the road, so clean technology should assume higher standards of vehicle safety.”
There’s no denying the societal repercussions of auto accidents: according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2009 over 33,000 people died in over 5.5 million crashes in the U.S. at an economic cost of over $230 billion. Though NHTSA did not publish the statistic, the environmental impact related to property loss as well as hazardous material spillage was significant. And 2009 was the safest year on the road in ALMOST 50 YEARS. The safety hawks among us would argue that if today’s electric vehicles represent the mainstream choice for the car of the future, automakers should use them to set the standard for future safety technology. Furthermore, there’s nothing sustainable about scrapping so many crashed vehicles. Given that today’s EVs and hybrids are often more energy-intensive to build than conventional cars, one might argue that automakers have an obligation to incorporate accident avoidance technology if they are going to market their product’s sustainability.
On the other hand, there could be an argument for even less safety: “Electric vehicle technology is not where it needs to be for mainstream acceptance, but our environment needs a solution now. Two of the biggest challenges for today’s EVs are weight and cost. Limiting the safety spec required by law would provide EVs with a competitive advantage to spark market acceptance and fund future development.”
A few years back, NHTSA estimated that federal safety standards added $839 of cost and 125 lbs of weight to the average passenger car. Inflation has turned that cost into over $1,000, and 125 lbs represents the bare minimum safety spec, which greatly underestimates most automakers’ equipment levels. Industry research shows that early adopters of new technology are more risk averse and less concerned with safety than the mainstream. So in the interest of moving the technology along, why not give them what they want? By many estimates, $1,000 will buy an extra 2kWh of battery in the next couple of years, which could add an extra 10 miles of range. That would go a long way toward improving the value proposition of these products.
Looking to the future, Google has presented a vision of the autonomous automobile that could drive itself, coordinate with traffic, and solve both efficiency and safety problems simultaneously – but certainly at some cost and with huge commitments to behavioral changes (we Americans love our independence). In the meantime, what should clean tech mean for vehicle safety? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Paul Hirsch is a Senior Product Planner at Toyota.