fb tracking

Small cars are safe – if you design them that way

The New York Times Wheels blog ran a piece about three small, highly fuel efficient cars that were named Top Safety Picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). For going on three decades, there has been a perception that small cars are less safe. This perception is based on a vastly oversimplified view of crash physics, and the attitude that nothing can be done to improve small car safety has frustrated calls for increasing fuel economy.

The IIHS has been one of the biggest promoters of the oversimplification of the relationship between fuel economy and safety. Earlier this year, IIHS released misleading test results to drum up anxiety that new fuel economy standards would result in increased crash fatalities. But small cars must comply with the same frontal, side and rollover crash standards and must provide the same level of protection to occupants as larger vehicles.

However, the IIHS results showing that three small, highly fuel efficient vehicles (two are hybrids), can make their Top Safety Picks highlights a key argument we have made about fuel economy and safety: manufacturers can design vehicles to be fuel efficient and safe. It’s no coincidence that the three vehicles highlighted in the Wheels blog performed well in the frontal and side impact tests conducted by IIHS.

On the other hand, the emerging market for small, inexpensive vehicles tells the exact opposite story. Today’s Wall Street Journal describes GM’s intention to build a $4,000 vehicle, likely to compete with Indian automaker Tata’s Nano. The Nano is expected to retail for $2,500, and is so pared down that the entry-level model does not have air conditioning, power windows or airbags. The concept of the Nano, to provide an affordable vehicle to a large number of potential car buyers, makes sense to an industry which looks like it may have pushed its conventional market to the breaking point (see “‘Clunker’” sales borrow from 2010”).

Sales of these pared-down vehicles in the U.S. and Europe will be contingent on their compliance with U.S. and European motor vehicle safety standards. More than 40 years of motor vehicle safety regulation in the United States have improved motor vehicle safety, and provided consumers protection from dangerous motor vehicle crashes; however, nearly 40,000 Americans are still dying on our highways each year. 

The bottom line is, auto manufacturers design vehicles to comply with standards, which is why regulating safety and fuel economy together will result in the design of safe, efficient vehicles, like those highlighted by IIHS’s Top Safety Picks.