04 January 2013

Regressive Progress

That year [1976], Dodge offered a high-mileage version of the Dart called the Dart Lite (the Plymouth Duster version was called Feather Duster). To be precise, it was an option package that included a specially tuned version of the famous “slant six” 225 cubic inch engine, teamed up with an overdriven four-speed manual and a mileage-minded 2.94:1 rear axle ratio (vs. the standard car’s 3.21:1 ratio). Also included were lightweight body parts such as an aluminum hood and trunk lid bracing – which cut about 200 pounds of deadweight off the already-lightweight car. The result was 36 MPG on the highway.
The new Dodge Dart – a much smaller car, equipped with a much smaller four-cylinder engine – gets exactly the same 36 MPG on the highway as the ’76 Dart Lite/Feather Duster. This is startling, given the new Dart has the benefit of almost four decades of engineering advances – including such things as a six-speed manual transmission, direct port fuel injection and vastly better aerodynamics. Yet the 2013 car only manages to match the mileage of the 1976 car – a much larger car, with a much larger engine fed by a carburetor and without even an Atari-level computer running the show.

Now, some context is necessary for this.  The modern Dart is certainly safer, and far more comfortable.  Furthermore, one reason why the fuel efficiency of the modern Dart hasn’t improved is due to ethanol being used in fuel per federal mandate (ethanol has less potential energy than straight gasoline).  Furthermore, the modern Dart is more likely to last longer and is probably more reliable.

Nonetheless, a lot of the improvements made to the Dart’s fuel efficiency (transmission improvements, fuel injection improvements, and aerodynamics) have existed only to subsidize stricter safety standards.  This is a generally needless improvement, because driving has become considerably safer without the need for onboard safety devices, like airbags.  Wider tires and better suspensions do more for automotive safety because they help to prevent crashes (by offering better control of the car) than airbag systems.  Improved roads and highways, not to mention better road maintenance techniques, help to ensure safety as well.

As far as safety measures go, it’s generally more cost-effective to work on preventing crashes (better roads, better handling, etc.) than surviving crashes.  The state’s approach at mandating safety equipment that enables passengers to survive a crash simply is not very cost effective since it adds to the cost of the car, in terms of both direct costs and operational costs, while only adding minimal benefits (and considering that airbag systems have the potential to do more harm than good to passengers, it may be one of the dumbest mandates ever).

More problematically, the government’s approach to mandating vehicular safety, in addition to being cost-inefficient, is doomed to failure because it doesn’t operate from the proper risk equilibrium.  Quite simply, most drivers have more risk tolerance than the government does, and are thus willing to drive more recklessly as a result of having more safety features.  Heavier cars with mandated survival systems make the risk of driving highway speeds seem smaller, and so people drive faster because they believe they are safer.  The government, instead of allowing people to drive riskier cars, attempts to impose speed limits on drivers without first recognizing that it was federal safety mandates that encouraged people to drive at high speeds in the first place.  In what is likely a surprise to no one, giving people liberty to decide for themselves what cars they will drive and at what speeds they will drive said cars would likely lead to both safer and more efficient driving practices.  Unfortunately, the government’s intervention into this aspect of American life has created a system where the technological developments of automotive manufacturing are mostly wasteful and rather regressive.

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