Retail Front

Safety Sells, Sort Of

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Money may not buy happiness, but it does buy advanced technology that can keep a premium-priced car from going out of control and ending up in a ditch.

Everyone expects a level of protection in the cars they drive today. Even entry-level vehicles are equipped with multiples of airbags and the like.

But certain cars are safer than others. Money may not buy happiness, but it does buy advanced technology that can keep a premium-priced vehicle from going out of control and ending up in a ditch.

Some car shoppers care less than others about extra safety equipment. A mainstream-brand Texas dealer told me most of his customers zero in on the lowest possible monthly payments. Those people, often with kids in tow, want to talk deal and deal only.

Their eyes can glaze over if a salesperson gets too carried away pointing out life-saving features. The good news is the vehicles they end up buying will come with a lot of those things, whether they want them or not.

Conversely, people who buy Volvos tend to do so because of the brand’s golden reputation for protecting occupants.

John Maloney, head of Volvo’s U.S. unit, tells me he regularly opens staff meetings by reading letters from accident victims who credit their survival to their overly protective Volvos.

“I’m not a teary guy, but some of those letters are touching,” he says.

My hometown stages an annual “Dream Cruise” featuring classic cars, especially from the 1950s and 1960s. Those vintage Pontiac GTOs, AMC AMXs and original Dodge Chargers sure look cool.

But look inside and you’ll see hard surfaces everywhere, the kind that would mess up anyone going head-first into one during the free-for-all that is a serious car accident.

Conspicuously absent from those old cars were many things we now take for granted. Airbags? Forget those. Seatbelts? Well, maybe a mere lapbelt, certainly not the 3-point version of today.

But back then, drivers considered seatbelts a nuisance. People complained they were uncomfortable. Not to wear, because only fussbudgets wore them. Rather, they were uncomfortable to sit on.

We’ve come a long way in our thinking and technology. The old cars draw oohs and aahs. But when it comes to putting a car in drive and hitting the road, I prefer today’s vehicles that come with antilock brakes, electronic stability control and advanced safety technology such as forward-collision avoidance, lane-keeping assistance and blind-spot detection.

Auto suppliers develop those systems, then sell them to their customers, the auto makers. Sometimes it’s a tough sell. Auto makers try to keep costs down and give customers what they want.

If the buyers of a make or model aren’t particularly interested in a bundle of life-saving features on the vehicle, then it’s unlikely an auto company will include them.

On the other hand, if buyers of a brand want such things and are willing to pay for them, auto makers and suppliers will have a deal.

That’s how the free market operates, to an extent. Electronic stability control started out as an option on luxury cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. now requires it in all vehicles.

The federal agency is considering mandating auto makers to add rear-vision cameras as standard equipment to help prevent back-over accidents. Those occur when obscured visibility causes a driver to put a vehicle in reverse and strike a person behind the vehicle. Typically it’s a kid.

Such accidents are rare. Only about 300 occur annually. “The numbers aren’t large but it usually is a tragic accident, often involving a parent backing over and crushing a child,” says David Agnew, an advanced-safety engineer for Continental.

Left on their own, Continental and other suppliers might have a hard time persuading auto makers to place orders for such technology. But if the government mandates it…well, that makes it easier going for suppliers.

With that in mind, I suggest to Agnew that in a way federal regulators are a supplier’s best friend. He doesn’t recoil at that, but says flatly, “I would not call the federal government our best friend.”

OK, maybe not BFF. But good for business.         

 

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Blogs about automotive retailing, commenting on news impacting the business of selling vehicles.

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Steve Finlay

Steve Finlay is the editor of WardsAuto Dealer Business magazine and a senior editor for WardsAuto.com. His journalism career started 42 years ago as a crime reporter. A Michigan native, he likes...

Jim Ziegler

Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues.
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