What Should Cleantech Mean for Vehicle Safety?

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.


3 replies
  1. dustyball
    dustyball says:

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  2. Bob Wilson
    Bob Wilson says:

    Safety is more than words but requires effective actions. So January 2011 is also the month the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act regulations go through their last public comment before making backup cameras standard on all new vehicles. Backup cameras will no longer be an extra cost, option bought by the blood of 200 kids and elderly who die each year from backover accidents:

    Sad to say, every new Prius is sold with an annoying and useless backup beeper that sounds in the cabin when the car is shifted into reverse. Since it can not be heard outside the car, many owners have it converted to a single beep. So I bought an aftermarket, beeping backup light and modified our 2003 Prius to install it:

    I have seen pedestrians notice the beeping when I've backed out of a parking place. Because it is located in the tail light assembly, the volume is muted in the cabin but easily heard by those behind me where it can do some good.

    Backup cameras and audio alerts are justified by the "blood on the streets" fatalities recorded in NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS.) Safety advances such as laminated glass, seat belts, air bags, drunk driving campaigns and crash testing saved lives and the proof is found in the FARS database. But the Pedestrian Safety Act is not supported by FARS data.

    We have 10 years of hybrid electric vehicles in the USA including the Prius. Looking at all Prius involved, fatal accidents 2001-2007 revealed half the fatal accident rate as the USA annual rate including Prius pedestrian fatalities. Sad to say, one NHTSA study has been misquoted to claim a risk not found in the FARS data:

    Like King Knute who commanded the tide to stop, the Pedestrian Safety Act is man’s law but nature obeys its own dictates. The Pedestrian Safety Act won't cost much which is exactly what it will deliver. It simply makes hybrids sound just as deadly as today's gas vehicles. An opportunity to bring in more effective safety systems has been lost but there is another area where safety has been priced out of reach of the ordinary, Prius buyer.

    The Prius "Pre-Collision System" is a radar that will automatically apply the brakes when a Prius is about to run into something. The "Lane Keep Assist" is a camera that nudges the Prius to stay in its lane and not wander off the road. These effective systems are only offered after an additional $6,000 is spent on the car buying useless bling (aka., 17" wheels, leather seats.) Toyota only offers them as options in their top of the line, Prius V, and not across the board in all models:

    This speaks volumes of a 'tone deaf' safety attitude that predates Toyota's recent black-eye in run-away accidents and braking problems. By price, Toyota bars these safety systems from frugal Prius buyers as if their lives and safety is less important than those who can afford a Prius V. There is "blood on the streets" showing these two accident avoidance systems are needed for all models.

    We own two Prius, a 2003 that I drive and my wife's 2010 Prius. Since the Pedestrian Safety Act effort started, I've been interested in Prius fatal accidents so I've not only looked at the FARS data but also news reports of Prius accidents:

    A significant number of accidents involve Prius leaving their lane or roadway or driving into objects including pedestrians. This level of detail is not evident in the FARS database statistics. To see these patterns, you have to read the police and news reports but instead we get the Pedestrian Safety Act whose merit is thin to the point of invisibility.

    Safety entails observations and actions to mitigate real risks. Blocking safety options from affordable Prius is the hubris that predated the loss of Toyota safety reputation in 2009-2010. Toyota could go a long way by offering these safety systems as an option for all Prius models.

    Bob Wilson, Huntsville AL

  3. WholeBuffalo
    WholeBuffalo says:

    "early adopters of new technology are more risk averse and less concerned with safety than the mainstream" Where is this information from? It does not seem intuitive, at least in the case of electric vehicles. Our experience has been that safety and environmental concerns are both highly valued by this target market.

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