Nothing more – and nothing less.
But what might we be able to buy if we did have a free market? Or even a more free market than the one we’ve got right now?
Almost certainly, we’d have access to new cars that are much more fuel efficient – and much less expensive – than the current crop of government-mandated cars.
These cars – the government-mandated ones – are both expensive and not particularly fuel-efficient because they must be designed and built to satisfy two at-odds directives: That they be “safe” – i.e., meet the government’s crashworthiness standards (which now include making the car “safe” for a pedestrian in the event the car strikes one). And that they be economical – i.e., they must meet the government’s fuel-efficiency mandates.
It’s a case of demanding to have one’s cake and eat it, too – which is the sort of thing the government specializes in.
Government-mandated cars (all types) are heavy cars. Because adding structure (steel, typically) is the only economically feasible way to make a car physically more resistant to impact forces. This, however, means increased curb weight. And the more a car weighs, the more fuel it takes to get it moving – and keep it moving. Especially if a minimum level of performance (and here we still have some free market influence on the thing) is necessary. People – generally – will not accept a car that takes 15 seconds (or even 12) to get to 60 MPH. The “bar” – the slowest most people will accept in a new car – is about 10 seconds, about what it takes a Prius hybrid. Most 2015 model year subcompact economy cars get to 60 in 8 seconds or so. They also weigh well over 2,000 pounds (the ’15 Toyota Yaris I reviewed recently weighed just under 2,400 lbs.) which is hundreds of pounds more than subcompact economy cars once weighed – in the era before government got heavy-handed with the “safety” mandates.
For example, a 1975 Honda Civic weighed about 1,900 pounds – about 500 pounds less than the ’15 Yaris. Which tells us why the ’75 Civic – a car 40 years older than the ’15 Yaris and lacking direct (or any other kind of) fuel injection (it had a carburetor) or a computer to precisely meter the fuel, and which came with a four-speed manual transmission without overdrive (a fuel-saving feature all modern cars have) nonetheless achieved nearly 30 MPG.
The Yaris tops out at 36 MPG.
Not much to show for 40 years’ work.
But what would a car like the Yaris – with fuel injection, an overdrive transmission and all the benefits of the past 40 years’ engineering advances – be capable of if it weighed 500 pounds less?
Probably 50 MPG. Possibly more.
Especially if it weighed 1,000 lbs. less – which is almost certainly doable given advances in manufacturing, metallurgy and the availability of plastic and composite materials.
And – who gets to define it?
Such a car would not be unstable, difficult to operate – a car more likely to lose control of. In fact, it’s very arguable that a car like the ’75 Civic is in a very meaningful way a safer than a car like the ’15 Yaris because it’s less likely to be be involved in an accident in the first place. Why is that? Because in a car like the ’75 Civic, you can see other cars better – and are thus more likely not to pull out in front of one. And that’s so because a car like the ’75 Civic does not have the awful blind spots most new cars have, because the ’75 doesn’t have “A” pillars (the structural supports at either side of the windshield) thicker than Hulk Hogan’s biceps, “B” pillars as thick as his legs and sail panels/”C” pillars as thick as his torso. Modern cars do because the government mandated that the roof be able to support the car in the event it rolls over. But the ’75 is less likely to roll over in the first place.
Which, then, is “safer”?
Also, “safe” is a continuum.
There is no such thing – yet (and probably never will be) – as the perfectly safe car. Even parked in your driveway, a meteor could crash into it. Must the car be made meteor-safe? An exaggeration, perhaps – but the point stands:
There are cars that are more – or less safe – than others, in terms of their ability to protect occupants from being injured in the event of a wreck.
A Mercedes S-Class sedan is “safer” than a Yaris. Drive each into a tree and see for yourself. The person who chooses the S-Class values its physical size, which confers an inherent safety advantage. Or maybe he just likes a big, imposing car. In any event, he values fuel efficiency – a function of lightness – less. He is still allowed the choice. Just as the Yaris buyer – for the moment – is still allowed to go with the car (the Yaris) that is lighter – and so, more fuel-efficient. Even if it entails owning a car that is objectively less “safe” than the Mercedes.
Why, then, should the person who places an even higher value on economy – who would be willing to accept a potentially increased risk of being hurt if there is an accident in exchange for much-improved fuel economy on an everyday basis – be denied that option?
The fact is most people don’t die in car accidents. Serious car accidents are actually fairly rare – and the truth of it is, they’re mostly avoidable because most “accidents” aren’t. They don’t just happen, like lightning strikes. They take place because the driver made a mistake. He wasn’t paying attention; he over-corrected the steering; he drove the car above his abilities or inappropriately for conditions. All of these factors are under the driver’s control. They are mistakes he didn’t have to make. There are drivers who do not make them. Who go a lifetime without ever wrecking a car. For them, the hundreds of extra pounds of “safety” they’re forced to lug around is expensive deadweight. Over a lifetime of driving, they are paying – are forced to pay – thousands of dollars for fuel they’d otherwise not have burned and thousands more for “safety” they never needed.
A good driver might weigh the (small, if driver error is excluded) risk of his being involved in a serious accident and – if he could – would buy the 1,500 lb. aluminum/plastic/composite car – perhaps with a small diesel engine – that gave him 75 MPG every day.
Unfortunately, he’s not allowed the choice. Neither are you.
We buy what we’re allowed to buy – as determined by the arrogance and presumption of people we’ve never met, who – somehow – regard themselves as entitled to parent us.
It’s become so ingrained and accepted that most of us don’t even question it anymore.
We ought to.
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