Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply:
Mark asks: I’ve heard you on Tom Woods’ show a few times. Enjoyed listening to a fellow Libertarian converse that is also in the automotive field. I’m a tech and looking to inform our customers on the design changes of vehicles related to EPA and performance standards. I have many training manuals that I’ve acquired over the years. Just wondering if there were government sources or other manufacturing sources you might know about.
My reply: As you know, there are numerous federal standards all new cars must comply with, most subsumed under “safety” (DOT and NHTSA) and emissions/fuel economy (EPA). These have become so comprehensive that they effectively dictate new car design, both stylistically and mechanically.
There’s a whole roster of them under the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) which you can view here – if you have a strong stomach.
How do these affect design?
One example: Roof crush/bumper impact standards establish what amounts to a template for the general shape of the car’s body. The main reason all new cars seem bloated – especially their rear ends, which emulate Kim Kardashian – is because of the need to comply with bumper impact requirements.
Another – obvious one – is the “supplemental restraint” (or air bag) regulation, which has made steering wheels ugly blobs and imposed thousands in up front and ownership costs over time on every new car built. All new cars come standard with at least four air bags and most have six or more. The entire car has to be designed around the air bags.
For example, the structure of the cowl (the structural area behind the dashboard) and then the dashboard itself. Its shape has to not only physically accommodate the air bags but also work with them. The air bags have to be positioned in a certain way in order to deploy a certain way and that, in turn dictates the shape of the dashboard.
The same applies to the door panels and seats – all of which must be designed around the air bags.
And this is why you see such a uniformity of design. The regs dictate it.
In addition to the physical regs, there are also electronic regs. For example, the federal requirement that all new cars have tire pressure monitoring (TPMS) systems and back-up cameras and (soon) automated emergency braking. These things cost less in terms of up-front costs because electronics are relatively cheap at the new/manufacturing level. However, repairing – replacing – these electronic components when they fail can be very expensive.
Most electronic components either work – or they don’t. There’s no fixing them. Many of these parts are make/model (and even individual-car) specific; aftermarket generic replacement parts may not be available. And after a few years have gone by, it may be hard to find factory parts because the factory stopped making them.
New car “product cycles” are shorter than they used to be – because of the need to keep up with the regulations. A car designed in 2015 doesn’t comply with the standards of 2020 – so it has to be redesigned. Not only does this mean higher cost for the new car – think of all the resources that go into that – it also means higher costs to keep its predecessor operational.
It may no longer be “supported” at all – and the owner/shop forced to scrounge for used parts. If a critical part can’t be scrounged, the car becomes artificially obsolesced. It’s still got years of life, but a critical part either can’t be found or it costs so much relative to the value of the car that it doesn’t make sense to buy the part/do the repair.
This problem is becoming much worse as the industry consolidates and multiplexes the electronic systems into LCD/touchscreen interfaces that control everything. If the “central hub” goes down, the car is bricked.
EPA’s regs are recondite in the extreme. There are “tiers” and “bins” – just for openers – that establish a similar design template for engineers. You can read more about them here.
Engines have become not only much more technically complex (e.g., direct injected, turbocharged) but also homogenized. Note the proliferation of 2.0 liter turbo fours across brands/makes/models. That didn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of mandates. The 2.0 engine comports with European carbon dioxide “emissions” regs (as well as helps them comply with other regs, while making sufficient power, etc. to keep customers happy) and so the brands which are based on Europe install them in all their cars – including those they sell here.
The biggest change driven by the regs, however, is the electric car putsch. You probably know all about this, but: The tag team of “zero emissions” mandates and federal fuel economy regs (CAFE – issued by the EPA) are effectively forcing the manufacturers to build fleets of electric cars, despite the functional problems (short range and long recharge times) and the economic problem (they cost 30-50 percent more than an otherwise comparable non-electric car).
There seems to be no concern about people’s ability – leaving aside their willingness – to spend 30-50 percent more on a car that goes half as far and takes at least 5-6 times as long to “refuel” (recharge) as a non-electric car.
My prediction is that an eight-story high-dive belly flop is about to be performed that will crater the entire car industry.
Unless, of course, people are forced to buy – to rent – these electric cars.
Which the government could do by fatwa’ing restrictions on the use of non-electric cars (as is already a fact of life in several European countries). Or by applying onerous registration/licensing fees on non-electric cars (as is a fact of life in China).
People would still be allowed to own non-electric cars; they just won’t be able to use them – or be able to afford to keep them.
It’s very clever. No outright ban – so the fiction that you’re “free” remains intact. You don’t have to buy an electric car.
But most people will have no choice.
This approach isn’t new. You can legally buy a .50 caliber automatic rifle if you wish. You just have to have a special federal license that costs a couple thousand bucks and comply with onerous regulations, including your agreement that federal thugs can “check” your weapons – on your property, in your home – at their pleasure.
All of this – and more that’s coming – was made inevitable more than 50 years ago, when the government decided it had the power to appoint itself Chief Engineer – so to speak – of the entire car industry, and decide on your behalf how your next new car will look and what features it will have – and won’t be allowed to not have.
One can perhaps argue that it’s legitimate for the government to fatwa tailpipe emissions standards – within reason. We reached that point about 25 years ago. Cars “emit” mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide now (which is why carbon dioxide has suddenly become an “emission”). There is no longer an air pollution problem – which is why that has been supplanted by a “climate change” problem.
Gotta keep the scam going.
But the other regs – those pertaining to “safety” (and fuel economy) are indefensible. Or rather, none of the government’s business to decree. If you think adults in a free society have the right to decide for themselves what kind of car – and which equipment – to buy or not buy, according to their own criteria.
Instead, most people seem to be ok with being parented by the government – and lobby for the government to parent other people.
It’s not enough that – as an example – air bags be available for those who want them. Everyone must be forced to buy air bags.
That principle was established back in the late ’60s – when the first fatwa was issued requiring all cars to have what were called “5 MPH bumpers.” If the government could force that on the car industry – and on car buyers – it could on the same principle force everyone to buy air bags, back-up cameras, tire pressure monitors and all the rest of it.
The only way to stop this is to reject the principle – that it’s none of the government’s proper business to fatwa “safety” or gas mileage mandatory minimums. The people have the right to decide those things for themselves – and the market will provide them if the people freely express a desire for them.
But of course, the whole point is to take away people’s freedom to choose for themselves. Not because the government “cares” – but because there’s power to be had.