Is GM Full of Hot Air?

Once again General Motors has broken’ its public commitments and decided not to assume the leadership to save a million lives and tens of millions of injuries on the highways worldwide in the next 30 years. Last week, GM presi­dent Pete Estes telephoned the Department of Transportation to say that GM would not install air bags in its six-pas­senger 1982 vehicles.

In November, Estes told transporta­tion secretary Neil Goldschmidt that air bags, already on 10,000 GM cars of 1973 to 1976 model-year vintage, would be put in 1982 large GM autos as the way to meet the government’s passive restraint standard. Now GM, led by the arch-reactionary chairman Thomas Murphy, has decided, in order to repeal the air bag, it will not even build large 1982 cars with a bench front seat.

The callous intransigence reflected by this decision, which probably will be followed by Ford and Chrysler, may be the last chapter of GM’s historically tragic duplicity surrounding a highway-proven major engineering lifesaver.

Over the years, consumer groups have learned how difficult it is to overesti­mate GM’s irresponsibility. I’m not surprised when GM rejects effective safety systems proposed by outsiders, nor am I astonished when GM suppresses the safety advances of its own specialists.

But I must confess that this latest GM reversal, after a solemn promise made with some pride by Estes to government law enforcement officials, did surprise me. Here was the giant in the auto industry suppressing a proven safety system perfected by its own enthusiastic engineers and already working very well in thousands of its own cars for half a decade.

The DOT felt betrayed. Goldschmidt, back home from his overseas travels, said he was “personally disappointed by the General-Motors decision.” His dis­appointment finally may lead to a deeper concentration on his part to dig in and start enforcing the law for safety in motor vehicles on behalf of millions of motorist casualties every year.

Mercedes-Benz, the West German automaker which is a midget compared to GM, may come to-the assistance of a possibly aroused Goldschmidt. In a letter dated May 27, 1980, to the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Ad­ministration, Mercedes-Benz said that “production plans currently call for the installation of an air bag system in all model-year 1982 U.S.-version Mercedes-Benz passenger cars.” The company sells about 50,000 cars a year in the United States.

When GM backed down on the air bag, its spokesman, R.T. Kingman, said it was due to their “forward product program.” GM, he said, cannot afford the high cost of “parallel tooling programs for 1982 and 1983.”

Now compare this pretext with that little Mercedes-Benz told the U.S. government: “In model year 1982, only one of our car lines must comply with the passive restraint requirements of Standard 208. Mainly because of our limited production for the U.S. market, however, we presently believe that installation of the (air bag) passive restraint system can also be achieved on our other two car lines at the same time rather than phasing in as permitted under the current law, standards and regulations.”

In other words, Mercedes-Benz not only places air bags as standard equip­ment in a volume of cars which is one-seventh of the number of Cadillacs GM sold in 1979, not to mention other large GM models, but it is including two of its car lines that do not have to meet the passive restraint standards until 1983 or 1984 model years.

So here is another instance in which a foreign carmaker is leading the way with superior management and foresight.

There are some observers who speculate that GM may be bluffing. They note char GM will have to pay damages to about 100 suppliers to get out of its air bag and bench seat commitments. If the Carter Administra­tion and the Congress stand firm behind safety, they argue, GM will resume its late-1979 determination to go with air bags. Perhaps. But GM is behaving more and more like the ancient mastodons.

Its leaders will not spend any sleepless nights worrying about how many motorists will be going through wind­shields in crashes because of what they did three weeks ago.

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