Someone opined last week that the real reason automobile manufacturers are pushing so hard for self-driving cars has absolutely nothing to do with trying to lower the highway fatality count to zero. No, according to this obscure pundit, these automobile manufacturers are really plugging autonomous cars so they can make money selling you stuff while your vehicle takes you about your business.
After all, with an autonomous car one can enjoy a mobile Netflix subscription; you can catch every bad movie you never knew existed, with a cut of your membership going to the auto manufacturer. Or, maybe sign up for DirecTV; you can watch your mini screen while stuck in traffic, again with a cut of the action going to the car company. (At this point GM must be kicking itself for selling Hughes along with DirecTV some 20 years ago.)
At about the same time as that pearl of apocryphal wisdom was published, President Donald Trump staged a photo-op; he had a small stack of papers labeled “1960 Regulations” and a huge pile, much taller than the president, marked, “Today.” He then promised to whittle away at the current pile of government regulations until it was as small as or smaller than the stack of regulations from 1960.
Personally, I can hardly wait for cars to come without seatbelts, safety bumpers or airbags again. And it shouldn’t be long before we can remove the catalytic converters and let the blue smoke blow out of our vehicles’ exhaust pipes all day long. That’s right, under Make America Great Again, we can reenter the simpler and less regulated times, when 25 percent of the public still lived in poverty. Like the 1950s, for instance, when moms’ sure-fire way to keep their kids from slamming into a metal dash during an accident was to jump on the poor excuse for brakes we had back then, while throwing their right arm across their child’s chest.
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Of course, my snarky comments on these issues aside, too many don’t realize that every major automotive safety improvement — like the pollution reduction that’s reduced smog levels nationwide over the past 40 years, and our vehicles’ incredible fuel efficiency today — happened only because of, you guessed it, government regulations. All of which came about after 1960.
Having been around for far too long, I was there in the earliest days of the catalytic converters, which everyone was led to believe could start fires if you parked or idled your car over brush or dead grass. My response to a customer concerned about that possibility: It might be helpful to drive on the streets instead of tooling around cow pastures or driving through your neighbor’s yard in mid-winter.
That same year the government mandated inter-lock systems on new cars; if you didn’t buckle up, your vehicle wouldn’t start. For the first and only time I can remember, dealers willingly violated a federal regulation; they disabled those systems, because maybe half of all customers refused to buy a new car otherwise.
That was also the year of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy law, which mandated that vehicles double their fuel efficiency over the next decade — a direct response to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 and the massive recession that followed. Even so, then as now the cries of auto manufacturers were heard around the world: “Can’t be done,” “Asking the impossible of known engineering,” “It would cost so much that the public would never buy a truly fuel-efficient vehicle,” and so on. No telling how much lobbying went on in Washington trying to keep those elected but scientifically illiterate officials from “killing the auto industry.”
Of course, the best thing to do with a toddler throwing a temper tantrum is to ignore it, and that Washington did. As a result, we no longer sold Oldsmobile Toronados that delivered 5.9 miles per gallon in town. And 11 years later we sold more than 16 million new cars, with double the fuel efficiency, too, for the first year in history.
As a young person in the industry I watched firsthand as regulations were enacted, then saw the auto makers react viciously before finally giving up and complying with the new rules. As it turns out, those regulations turned into critical selling features on vehicles that the public loved. That’s right, when car exhausts are cleaner, vehicles are light-years safer and fuel efficiency has doubled, buyers tend to like all those things.
But then the pace of regulations slowed in many critical areas, particularly in fuel efficiency. When the subject would come up from time to time that we had made so little progress there since the mid-Eighties, the car companies would rally and claim it’s best left to the marketplace, their engineers were working 24/7 on better mileage, and so on. But none of that was true. Truth is, the fuel efficiency of imported cars fell from its peak in the early Eighties before bottoming out two decades later. Domestic manufacturers, meanwhile, saw only the smallest improvement to their fleets’ fuel efficiency from 1982 to 2000. Yet every time the government questioned their commitment to saving our natural resources, automakers always swore they were working on it day and night.
Finally, President Bush had enough and moved up the CAFE standards, followed by President Obama taking those same standards stratospheric. And guess what’s happened to fuel efficiency in cars since then? That’s right, it’s up 27.5 percent across the board since 2004. Of course, none of those fuel efficiency mandates were in effect in 1960, so one wonders whether they’ll be thrown out, too.
Here, Have Some More Distractions
The other issue that drives government nuts is the amount of distracted driving in America. But here again, the automobile manufacturers say regulations are not needed, because they deeply care about their customers’ safety and therefore they are, dare it be said, working on it 24/7.
And in GM’s case they’ve made a huge breakthrough in this area; it’s called Marketplace. It’s about to be in 1.9 million GM vehicles, and it’ll give drivers access to innumerable incredible things while driving down the road at 75 miles an hour with the rest of us. Because that downloadable app will now allow you to buy coffee from Starbucks or donuts from Dunkin’ Donuts, find a gasoline station, order at IHOP and TGI Fridays, make a hotel reservation or book a flight. (There is no truth to the rumor that the hotel button will be blocked for Harvey Weinstein.)
Come to think of it, you can shop for a new car, buy parts or maybe even accessories. And, according to the Detroit Free Press, GM is going to allow you to do all of these things while you are driving your vehicle.
So far the only button on Marketplace that makes any sense to me is the one that lets you shop for a new car; the one you’re going to need after your major accident in the near future using MarketPlace.
Remember, these are car companies telling government that they care deeply about their customers, and therefore they are working tirelessly to ensure that driver distractions aren’t engineered into their cars. Think about that the next time you’re ordering an IHOP Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity® short stack, frustrated because you don’t know how to add extra maple syrup via your vehicle’s infotainment system — and not noticing that the lane you’re in has come to a complete stop just 100 feet ahead of you.
The most obvious question of all? Will you still be able to text while driving and ordering coffee and breakfast from the dash of your Corvette at 80 miles an hour?
The good news is that GM believes that this Marketplace app will make its way into almost 4 million of its vehicles over the next 18 months. The downside for the rest of us is that GM believes that this Marketplace app will make its way into almost 4 million of its vehicles over the next 18 months. You’ve been warned.
But the best news is that, because of the extreme push-back from automakers over distracted driving regulations being put into place, it’s a wide open game. Any automaker can now do ever more outrageous things with its cars with little concern for future customers’ safety — or those driving near future customers.
And because there’s no regulation, our president will not have to kill it in order to MAGA.
© Ed Wallace 2017 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org