about the universe forum commander Shop Now Commanders Circle
Product List FAQs home Links Contact Us

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Steve Cole, a professional engineer, comments:

Congress passed a law requiring the automobile companies to improve the gas mileage of their cars. The mileage has been improved, and a lot of gasoline has been saved. Good so far.

But how was this accomplished? Congress assumed that the automobile companies would make smaller cars that were just as safe, better gasoline engines, and new technology such as electric cars and hybrids. What actually happened is that the vehicles were made lighter (a good way to improve gas mileage is to carry around less mass), and that has led to death. Engines just could not be improved, not enough, anyway. (The technology of internal combustion is a century old, and there just isn't a 20% improvement left to be found.) New technology is still a decade from being economically feasible. That left only less metal.

There's a lesson here. If you give somebody an ultimatum to accomplish a task, he may accomplish that task by means that were not the means you assumed he would use. Congress thought that safety would not be compromised, but given the impossible cost of a more fuel efficient engine (and the sky high price of a hybrid, which by the way produces more pollution in the manufacture of its special batteries than it saves), what other choice was there but to build the car out of thinner and weaker and just plain less steel?

Reducing the weight of the average car by 500 pounds has caused somewhere between 2200 and 3900 more automobile fatalities every single year. Why? Because vehicles that get into collisions have less "armor" around the people. Lighter vehicles tend to come apart (or crush) during collisions, instead of staying in one piece and providing "room to stay alive" inside the damaged areas. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration says that reducing a small car by only 100 pounds means 5.63% more deaths, while reducing a larger car by 100 pounds means 4.7% more deaths.

It's a tradeoff. One argument is that human life is priceless, but then, insurance companies (and juries) put a price on human life every day. The national decision to HAVE cars in the USA costs 45,000 lives per year, but given geography (this is a large country with a fairly thin population compared to, say, England or France) you cannot make the US functional without them. Are 2,000 lives worth cutting fuel consumption (and imports!) by a billion dollars or two? How many lives are lost in "wars for oil" we have all watched on TV? Are people really priceless? Apparently, not.