Commentary

Automotive engineers are the idiot savants of the professional world: dumb as rocks if left to their own devices, but capable of achieving miracles with a little direction from helpful politicians, activists and nice folks in the media.

Even though President Bush signed into law last December new fuel-economy regulations calling for the U.S. fleet to average 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) by 2020, California and a growing number of other states now are suing the Environmental Protection Agency for the right to force auto makers to meet separate, even tougher carbon-dioxide emissions standards. The California mandate equates to 43 mpg (5.5 L/100 km) by 2016.

Auto makers and the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics say it will be impossible to hit California’s bogey without changes that will be catastrophic and require huge sacrifices from consumers in safety and comfort. But the governor of California says it will be no problem; engineers just need to get off their butts.

A number of safety groups also are agitating for change because they believe auto makers have grown lax.

The Consumer Federation of America, among others, is complaining the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. crash-test ratings are useless because 96% of all ’08 vehicles NHTSA tested received four or five stars.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently called on federal auto-safety regulators to require much stronger roofs on SUVs. It has a new study it says proves stronger roofs could save many lives every year.

Photos of the test provided by IIHS show a dramatic difference between the roof strength of a ’00 Nissan Xterra and ’00 Ford Explorer.

Auto makers say the IIHS report is flawed and suggest anti-skid electronic stability control systems, rollover curtains and other safety devices – as well as stronger seatbelt laws – will save more lives than stronger roofs.

Emily Bowness of Grand Rapids, MI, also may disagree with IIHS’ test. She rolled her ’03 Explorer about 10 times in a violent crash in May 2006 and walked away with minor bruises.

The attitude that automotive engineers can make all dreams come true if they are just given a mandate and deadline is not all bad. And the auto industry needs to accept responsibility for improving both safety and fuel economy.

Historically, California, IIHS and others have forced positive changes by pushing the advocacy envelope.

What is destructive is the single-mindedness of their pursuits. Fuel economy zealots do not want to acknowledge their influence on safety; the safety advocates do not want to discuss how their changes affect mileage. None wants to acknowledge the impact on cost.

“Fast, good, cheap: Pick two” is a popular cliche everyone gets. “Mileage, safety, affordability: Pick two,” has to become the mantra for the auto industry in this new era of highly politicized regulation. Eventually, it might become just as easy to understand.

dwinter@wardsauto.com