GM – Backwards into the future

Once again, General Motors shows how it can go backwards into the future. Its average new motor vehicle fuel inefficiency has been getting worse in recent years. Now it wants to unbundle many of its vehicles by dropping standard equipment side air bags and anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and charging its customers more for these life-saving devices as options.

So the new GM is like the old GM which charged customers in the Sixties and Seventies extra for seat belts and airbags respectively until federal law required or induced their standard installation.

Unless car buyers change GM’s mind by showing their displeasure and moving away from GM to another manufacturer that builds these safety systems as standard equipment, GM’s directive will have the following consequences:

1. Car buyers who opt for the options will have to pay two to three times as much. Once a feature ceases to be standard equipment, it costs more to manufacture in more limited quantities. Also car makers routinely overcharge consumers on options to begin with.

2. More lives will be lost, because these features will not be on all cars. To those rigid ideologues from the right who would leave such matters up to choice, I would ask if they would include seat belts, doors and padded dash panels under their ideology. The whole principle behind mandatory safety standards is to put a safety net under all vehicles sold, just like a good fire code does for building construction.

3. General Motors is exposing itself to losing more product liabilitylawsuits. Actively removing a safety feature from standard equipment straightens the argument by innocent, injured motorists that GM knew better and acted recklessly by deleting a clearly feasible “crashworthy” safety feature.

According to USA Today, GM expects to save about $100 million a year on this move from standard to optional for ABS and side airbags. Last year GM grossed over $177 billion, by comparison. How many lives and injuries is that ill-advised decision going to cost motorists and eventually, in dollars, General Motors.

USA Today, in its report, seemed to lay this decision at the feet of GM’s Product Chief, Robert Lutz, instead of the usual bean counters. I hope this is not the case.

Lutz is a free-thinking former Chrysler executive recently brought in by GM bosses to shake up the staid or stagnant corporate culture and put exciting engineering functions and designs on the road. I held a joint press conference with Mr. Lutz about a decade ago to celebrate Chrysler’s winning our celebrity buyer race by being the first to place air bags as standard equipment in automobile models affordable to middle class buyers. Celebrities such as Phil Donahue, Paul Newman, Dear Abby, Steve Allen and Bill Murray had pledged to buy such a vehicle and did.

It remains to be seen what the National Highway Safety Agency (NHTSA) will say about what Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety (Autosafety.org), called a “retreat from safety.” It remains to be seen also whether GM will start a race to the bottom by other auto manufacturers who see greed and callousness in their “strategic planning” process.

Consumers can vote with their feet and send a signal to these companies not to follow GM into the pits. In the meantime, any citizeninterested in safer roadways can convey his or her displeasure by writing to GM at GM headquarters, Detroit, Michigan or by logging into the company’s website — GM.com.

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