Occupied as it now is with the massive Watergate scandal, Washington ignored some unprecedented Congressional testimony recently given by an auto manufacturer. On April 16, 1973, a Japanese auto company told Congress and the public what it could do instead of what it could not do.
The executive vice-president of Nissan Motor Company, Soichi Kawazoe, informed the House Commerce and Finance Subcommittee that his company had designed a 2200 pound car production model/(with air bag) which could take a 50 mile frontal barrier crash and permit its occupants to survive. A 50 mph crash into a fixed barrier is equivalent to a car crashing a similar standing car at 100 mph. About 90 percent of motorist fatalities occur at speeds equivalent to or less than the forces generated by a barrier crash of 50 mph.
As was the case with Honda’s superior pollution control system, Nissan has moved ahead of the giant U.S. auto companies who said it couldn’t be done. Nissan’s prototype safety car is part of the International Experimental Safety Vehicle Program (ESV) launched by the Department of Transportation under the 1966 auto safety law. Part of this program involves the design of several ESVs by non-auto companies under contract with the federal government. The other part consists of encouraging auto companies worldwide to develop their own experimental safety car projects.
General Motors and Ford disliked the ESV program from the start in 1968 but could not stop it. So they decided to show how impractical these cars would be by producing their own versions. The ponderous GM and Ford ESVs weighed in somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds, had expensive metals and other features designed to convince the Department of Transportation that safety cars would weigh too much, be too expensive, and consume too many rare metals.
Largely due to Nissan and, surprisingly, Volkswagen, the GM-Ford strategy of negativism has floundered technically VW, knowing that its hazardous Beetle has to be replaced, embarked on a serious ESV program and has produced a practical safety car weighing 3200 pounds which they claim meets the 50-mph barrier standard.
The importance of keeping vehicle weights down without sacrificing safety is of vast significance. For not only are mass-produced cars priced largely according to their weight but lighter cars consume less gasoline, less raw materials, less parking and driving space and often lower repair costs. The Nissan-type achievement opens up opportunities for both safety, energy and ecological factors to be given the respect they deserve.
Instead of being joyous at the Nissan and VW efforts, the Department of Transportation’s former undersecretary James Beggs delivered an address’ in Japan two months ago at the Fourth International ESV Conference in which he recommended lowering the safety protection levels and extending the years when the 50- mph level should be met—well into the mid-1980s for the ESV program! This statement signaled to the U.S. auto companies that the government would similarly defer setting comparable safety standards by law until possibly 1990. Begg’s statement was a disgraceful surrender to the lumbering auto giants in Detroit, since two smaller foreign auto companies who took Washington more seriously had already met the requirements in 1973.
Fortunately, Beggs was speaking as a departing government official and did not have the knowing approval of the new Secretary of Transportation, Claude Brinegar. Mr. Brinegar has assured me that Mr. Begg’s statement is not departmental policy and that Brinegar would make known his decision in the coming weeks.
Secretary Brinegar should realize that pushing the companies into a competitive race to develop practical safety vehicles can save hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of injuries. He should encourage the kind of attitide expressed by Nissan’s M. Kawazoe who told Congressman John Moss that the next time he appears before the subcommittee his little vehicle may meet survivable barrier crash impacts of 60 mph.