You Can Have Safety . . . Or Fuel Economy

  • June 7, 2024

There was a time when cars got great gas mileage – better than 40 MPG. That was before they got “safe,” as defined by the government. Bracketed in air-fingers quote marks to ridicule the assertion.

Compliant is the more accurate way to put it. As in the car is compliant with whatever the latest “safety” regulations stipulate.

Is a car less likely to crash if it has six air bags? It may be more likely to crash – due to the decreased outward visibility caused by the bulbous interior structure (i.e., a massive breadbox dashboard, tall door panels, etc.) added to house all those government-mandated air bags. The structure makes it harder to see what’s going on outside the car. Thus making it more likely the driver won’t see it.

Which is why the government – the regulatory apparat that no one elected and which for that reason cannot be un-elected and so operates as a dictatorial branch of the federal government – decreed that, for “safety,” all vehicles must be equipped with remote-view camera systems, so that people can see what the government’s regulations have made it harder to see. Similarly, all vehicles now have Blind Spot Warning systems – because government-mandated “safe” vehicles have terrible blind spots.

All of this “safety” has also made government-mandated vehicles heavier than vehicles have ever been. Just as you used to hear people say, “it’s a free country,” you almost never hear anyone talk about how overweight cars used to be.

There used to be a lot of talk like that. Because it was true. Italics to emphasize the past tense. And – once again – also because of the government.

In the early ’70s, the regulatory apparat began adding weight to cars by ordering that cars be built with bumpers that could absorb impacts of 5 MPH without incurring damage. This did not make the cars “safer,” in that having the bumpers affixed did not make the cars less likely to crash.

But it did make them several hundred pounds heavier.

Around the same time, the apparat began decreeing how much gas new cars would be allowed to use. Italicized to make note of the fact that, at first, the apparat’s decrees applied chiefly to passenger cars. This created a pair of at-odds decrees. Cars had to be both “safe” and fuel-efficient. The solution that car industry came up with was to make cars smaller, so as to make them lighter – which made them more fuel-efficient.

By the early-mid 1980s, the typical American car was no longer a full-size car with a V8 engine, as had been the case before the apparat began decreeing that all cars must be fuel-efficient . (Never mind that fuel efficient cars were available before the unelected apparat got into the decreeing business; the apparat used the “fuel efficient” excuse to expand its power to mandate and regulate, which was always the point of the exercise and still is.)

It had become a much smaller car, typically front-wheel-drive and powered by a four cylinder engine. And some of them – such as the Chrysler K-cars of that era – were remarkably fuel-efficient, achieving better than 40 MPG on the highway. But these smaller, lighter cars were not as “safe” as the heavier, less-fuel-efficient cars that preceded them.

Not more likely to crash. But not compliant with the latest round of “safety” decrees emanating from the apparat. So cars began to get heavier again – though almost all of them remained small, in terms of their dimensions. The weight added came in the form of structure under the skin – the latter getting thinner and lighter as a way to compensate (somewhat) for all the weight being added under the skin to make the car “safer.”

That is, more compliant.

Exterior panels have gotten so thin they can literally be bent by hand, which has made these cars a lot more expensive to repair when they are hit by anything. It is one of the costs of compliance.

But they are very “safe.”

And they are very heavy. Heavier than ever, in fact. A 2024 model year compact-sized crossover (in italics, to note the disappearance of cars, caused to a great extent by the apparat’s regs, which made cars too small to be practical, which is why the crossover is now the “car” bought by most people) such as a Chevy Trax weighs 3,062 lbs. That is about twice the weight of a compact-sized car from the early ’70s, such as the VW Beetle.

But the Beetle and cars like it were not “safe” – so we are assured. And thus we have crossovers such as the Trax that are very compliant – and not very fuel-efficient because they are so god-damned heavy.

The ’24 Trax – and this is not to single out the Trax but rather to point out an example – only manages 32 on the highway, not even close to what an ’80s-era Chrysler K-car delivered – notwithstanding that the Trax has a three cylinder engine. This engine is very efficient – relative to the carbureted four cylinder engine used in the K-car. But it has to pull so much more weight that its efficiency is negated.

Of course, the Trax is very “safe” relative to those old K-Cars.

You can thank the apparat for that.

. . .

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