Automotive engineers and designers around the world have wrestled with sharply divergent regulations, laws and other barriers for years. Now that tastes and emphasis on emission control, safety and the environment are converging globally, they're pushing for some semblance of standardization to reduce costs and build better, cleaner safer vehicles (see Editorial, p.7). Among the more articulate proponents is Chrysler Corp. Executive Vice President-Product Design and International Operations Thomas C Gale. Mr. Gale outlined his thoughts at a Society of Automotive Engineers executive breakfast hosted by Chrysler on Jan. 25. Following are selected excerpts.

During the past 10 years, a fundamental paradigm shift in our industry has been convergence of tastes of new-car consumers around the world -- something that has radically changed the way we all approach our work.

When you stop to think about it, it hasn't been that long since you could define the nationality of an automobile from about six blocks away -- the big American "boulevard boats," those pulse quickening but generally spartan European cars; and the highly efficient but unusually less than pulse-quickening "econoboxes" from Japan.

I remember spending a week in Paris early in my career -- just long enough for those old Citroens to start looking normal. I also recall spending a week in Tokyo back then and beginning to think all cars were small and white. And then it was really a shock to come home to Detroit and walk into a sea of limo-length, two-tone American cars in the airport parking lot.

Today, that same parking lot doesn't seem much different than airport parking lots in London, Paris, Frankfurt or Buenos Aires.

Not only is it a lot harder to differentiate cars by nationality today, it's a lot harder to differentiate them by market, too -- because we're now witnessing the development of truly global market segments.

These segments began to emerge with the evolving popularity of four-wheel-drive vehicles around the world.

Then came the minivan, the replacement for the station wagon in North America, and the first true family vehicle in many other parts of the world.

Today, the latest list of truly "global vehicles" includes sport/utilities, trucks, and even European C-class cars. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that about two million C-class cars are now sold every year here in North America.

This worldwide drive toward product harmony began with in the energy crisis of 20 years ago and the demand it created for small cars. But then, in my view, it was greatly accelerated by the almost instantaneous communications afforded by new electronic technology, including the arrival of global television networks like CNN, Today our customer is anyone anywhere in the world with the ability to buy a new car or truck. And his or her tastes, in turn, are being shaped by everyone else in the world.

As global automakers work to blend the most popular features of Asian, American and European vehicles in their new products, the automobile designer's job becomes harder, because distinctive design now plays a much larger role in market acceptance. Today's designers need to be as aware of societal changes around the world as they are of design trends because the two go hand-in-hand.

But while this fundamental shift in consumer tastes has certainly created challenges within our companies, it also has created opportunities.

At Chrysler, we've completely redesigned our domestic product line by incorporating elements of what we've come to call the new "international design ethic" into cars and trucks that carry a distinctive Chrysler stamp. The 1996 Grand Cherokee is a good example. It's one of today's best-known American vehicles, and yet it has a very European-like interior, with features like analog gauges, smooth leather seats and ergonomically-sensible controls.

Our sales figures in North America prove that our customers love the way we've applied today's international design and engineering concepts in the Grand Cherokee and in our other new Chrysler cars and trucks. And, over the past six years, we've also been working hard to apply the same concepts to the vehicles we create in North America for international markets.

And I'm happy to say we've been enjoying quite a bit of success at it.

Back in 1991, for example, we were only selling in 22 countries. Today we're in more than 100. Our international sales were up 29% last year and we sold more vehicles outside North America than BMW sold outside Europe. You might also be surprised to learn that almost half of the Jeep Cherokees we build are sold outside North America. And we'll have no fewer than five right-hand-drive vehicles available by the end of this year.

But there is still one huge obstacle standing in the way of Chrysler and every other company in the industry seeking additional opportunities overseas. And that's the complete lack of a clear and concise vehicle regulatory system to guide or work in the many nations in which we do business today and want to do business tomorrow.

The trouble is that many of the folks who operate those systems don't want to change them because they provide effective, non-tariff trade barriers for keeping others out of their markets.

Or, looking at it another way, you could say that one company's barrier is the moat around another one's castle,

Today, there are still too many different ways to certify vehicles around the globe, too many bureaucratic hurdles that restrict trade and add cost to our products.

Everyone in our industry needs to become part of one team arguing for what should eventually be one set of standard vehicle requirements and one set of testing and certification procedures around the world.

Today every automaker and its suppliers have to design, certify and manufacture distinctly different variations of their products to meet different standards in different nations.

For example, we have to build two different versions of our right-hand-drive Neon for the United Kingdom and for Japan, not because driving conditions are that much different in those countries, but because they have different seat belt warning regulations. Similarly, we can use the same type of windshield wiper on our minivans in the United States and the United Kingdom, but not in Australia because Australia requires a different vision zone."

Here's another illustration: the Japanese require that seats be 400 mm wide, so, even though we sell three-passenger seats that are less than 1,200 mm wide in other nations, we can't call them three-passenger seats in Japan.

And here's one more: we can't use the same headlights in Europe that we install in the U.S. because our regulators require headlight beams high enough to illuminate road signs, but the Europeans like theirs focused strictly on the road itself

Each situation adds cost and complexity to the vehicles and parts those companies are trying to sell. And, of course, each one ultimately adds more cost for the customer.

Today, it's painfully apparent that inconsistencies in vehicle regulations hinder cost-effective product development by all manufacturers, and that helps fuel today's hot affordability debate.

How many more people could afford a new car if we could take out the waste created by the regulatory system? And how many customers in smaller nations won't be able to buy a niche vehicle like a Viper or a Prowler, not because the demand isn't there, but simply because the costs of-compliance are so high that we can't justify creating them for global markets

These problems aren't restricted to other nations. We should be just as critical of the inconsistencies in our own regulations as we are of other nations' systems.

In fact, U.S. manufacturers are especially handicapped in competing globally because our nation's regulations are significantly different from those of many promising growth markets and other key auto-producing countries. That creates an advantage for other global automakers to adapt their home products for international markets both faster and at a lower cost.

Why should every nation have different auto safety regulations when the people of the world are all susceptible to the same types of injuries?

In Europe new side-impact regulations now being finalized differ from recently-issued U.S. regulations in almost every respect, including the angle of impact, the types of materials used in the barrier, test speeds, even the type of crash dummy used.

How can we agree on measurements if we aren't all using the same measuring tool?

The Big Three all agree that regulatory harmonization is an urgent priority. Through the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn., we're working to build a forum for coordinating consistent regulations.

The next steps will include an April conference in Washington where barziers will be discussed in great detail and reports will be submitted to government and industry leaders.

Here's what we'd like to achieve:

* An agreement between the U.S. and other nations on the common objectives of harmonization and an overall strategy for global vehicle regulation.

* A moratorium on creating unique regulations in the future.

* International cooperation on pre-regulatory research.

* An agreement between the three major rulemakers -- the U.S., Europe and Japan -- on mutually recognizing each others' regulations, which would make products acceptable for sale in one market automatically acceptable in other markets, without additional testing of certification.

It's time for all of us to take off our designer hats, supplier hats and any other traditional hat we wear and to support regulatory harmonization. And what better place to continue this important discussion than the upcoming SAE International Congress and Exposition with its theme of "Technical Cooperation and Global Competition ?"