Back to the Eisenhower era? It’d be a smash

Sen.-elect Rand Paul wants to take us back to the Eisenhower era?  Too much regulation, “strangling business,” he says?

See what the Eisenhower-era Chevrolet does versus the Obama-era Chevrolet — Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests:

There.  Feel safer?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Mary Almanza.

38 Responses to Back to the Eisenhower era? It’d be a smash

  1. george.w says:

    “You mean with my feet? ;-)”

    Exactly. But you’d have to take the windshield out to do that. And I don’t know how you’d handle the throttle and brake. Maybe rig up a system of cables or something. I’m sure that’s what he meant.


  2. James Hanley says:

    As John Muir, author of How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive said, “Drive like you are strapped to the hood”.

    You mean with my feet? ;)


  3. James Hanley says:

    John Mashey,

    Thanks much.


  4. gawiman says:

    Of course driving at 70 miles per hour on rain slickened roads blocked by concrete barriers as they did in the crash tests may be a good thing to avoid doing, whatever kind of vehicle one’s driving.

    As John Muir, author of How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive said, “Drive like you are strapped to the hood”.

    “The posters were most upset that somebody wrecked a Bel Aire.”

    Totally worth it to demonstrate what engineers know but which is counterintuitive to the rest of us. Might make some parent think twice before letting their kid drive a classic car, and thus save a life.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    The posters were most upset that somebody wrecked a Bel Aire.

    Tell ’em to get over it.

    It was an Impala.


  6. Bryan says:

    John, thanks for the other vids. I was curious about the weight of the cars. I found this discussion and somebody did the work for me:

    Apparently, there’s only a 200lb difference between the Bel Aire and the Malibu, which surprised me as much as it did the original poster. The posters were most upset that somebody wrecked a Bel Aire.


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    John, WordPress is assuming part of your formula is HTML markup.

    Should it be “less than a, greater than?”


  8. James Hanley says:

    John Mashey,

    Those are some disturbing videos. The Smart Car frame stands up to the crash pretty well, but to my non-engineer eyes it appears that it, and other small cars, simply don’t have enough actual mass to absorb the energy of the crash and slow the rate of deceleration, which by itself can kill. Does that actually make sense?

    Of course driving at 70 miles per hour on rain slickened roads blocked by concrete barriers as they did in the crash tests may be a good thing to avoid doing, whatever kind of vehicle one’s driving.


  9. John Mashey says:

    all things being equal, the smaller car gets knocked back more. The difference is that newer cars are explicitly designed to crumple better and protect the driver and passengers by absorbing the shock progressively. That’s part of what I was talking about where weakening structures actually made them safer.
    Of course, physics still rules.

    Nevertheless, if you’d like to see tiny SMART cars crashed at speed into concrete barriers, or SMART-vs-Mercedes S-Class, see this.


  10. Bryan says:

    Further to James’ discussion of intuitive expectations, Mythbusters had another great experiment where they crashed 2 identical cars @ 50mph and compared it to 1 car hitting a wall @ 100mph. They were testing the widely held belief that the damage would be the same. What they “proved” was what most people already knew but ignored: conservation of momemtum. The crash of 2 identical cars traveling @ identical speed is the same as 1 car crashing @ the same speed into a wall. But change 1 variable (mass or speed of 1 of the cars) and you get a different, worse outcome for one of the vehicles.

    With that in mind, I thought that those older cars were much heavier than modern cars, so I would expect the modern car to experience greater deceleration (including being pushed backward) if both cars were traveling at the same speed. I presume that no adjustments were made to the mass of either vehicle, but do we know that to be true?


  11. george.w says:

    Whatevs, James. Maybe you can pick up extra work writing apologies for politicians who are “sorry if anyone was offended”.

    But I don’t think you’ve been thread-jacking – your comments, though contrary, are relevant and on-point.

    John – well said. The executives aren’t (usually – a few notorious cases being the exception) monsters, and the engineers certainly are not. But the marketplace simply doesn’t have a clear mechanism for including external costs. Hence the company that chooses to do so out of a sense of social responsibility will instantly find itself on the downhill side of a non-level playing field.


  12. John Mashey says:

    As noted earlier, I used to visit car folks (and many other kinds of companies), and as a Director/VP/Chief Scientist I talked often both to engineers and executives.

    There is a strange interaction with regulation.
    1) Often, engineers want to make cares safer, products more efficient, worry about environnmental impacts.

    2) Oddly, executives often do also … except that if only their company does it, and the change adds cost (which it often does in the early phases, even as it may save money in long term), and if the result is loss of market share, they probably won’t do it. {Occasionally they do, where doing something *right* can be seen as a recruiting tool in a competitive hiring market, i.e., like Silicon Valley.)

    3) So, while everybody hates burdensome or wrongheaded regulation, people might be surprised how happy some execs are to have *good* regulations that lets them do things they think are good, but keeps the playing fields level. For one thing, they get less flak from their engineers.


  13. James Hanley says:

    Well, George, I’m sorry you’ve chosen to so distort my argument.

    But I suppose I’ve thread-jacked this post long enough anyway, so I won’t continue the argument any further.


  14. george.w says:

    OK James, you’ve got it all wired. Cars were straight-up death traps back then, and carmakers didn’t even want to install seat belts. I guess you don’t mind the cost of paying for crippling injuries from 20 mph collisions. But societies have a consumption/result role as well as the individuals within them.


  15. James Hanley says:


    As I noted previously, I’d agree with you on the kids issue.

    But regarding your comment on Ford, keep in mind two things. First, safety is a luxury good, by the economic definition of that term. That is, once consumers’ wealth reaches a certain point, demand for safety suddenly increases rapidly. So if you introduce it to people who aren’t yet wealthy enough to demand it, they won’t.

    Second, all values are subjective, so we can’t assume that consumers “ought” to want some particular thing (unless we want to play the role off moral dictator). If someone would rather pay more for an in-car GPS system than side-impact air bags, well, that’s their choice.

    Even more subtly, people who do want safety may be willing to pay for up to a certain amount, but not more. There’s a tendency I note among some commentators I hear in the media to treat safety as a binary variable: safe/non-safe. But of course it’s a continuous variable, there are increasing levels of safety, not a sharp break. And of course none of us are willing to pay for perfect safety, so what we really end up arguing over is what degree of safety is satisfactory.

    As noted, though, kids are different, because they don’t get to make their own choices. I’m wholly in favor of car-seat regulations, for example. But in general, politics get really dangerous when we start telling people what their choices ought to be.


  16. george.w says:

    James, Ford introduced some major safety innovations in 1956, on the mistaken belief that it would be a selling point. It wasn’t, and they went back to re-styling sheet metal. In the years since, consumers have come to expect cars to be pretty safe (without thinking about how they got that way) but it still is not exactly first on their wish list. Today they’re looking for GPS, hands-free phone and surround sound. And of course, horsepower, always horsepower.

    There’s no part of me that says “let the consumers die if they don’t want safety”. Kids don’t buy cars, and even consumers aren’t always rational. For every death, there’s a lot of fantastically expensive injuries. Safety pays off for everyone, not just the people in the car.


  17. James Hanley says:

    So remove face masks only for defensive players, maybe?

    Joe Pa’s idea seems analogous to some of the ideas related to traffic calming (as discussed, for example, in the book Traffice. By making the street slightly more dangerous, you cause drivers to become more cautious, creating greater increases in overall safety.

    I noticed once again in Damascus (and Beirut) that I felt safer crossing the street there, despite the vastly crazier traffic, and even though it meant dodging in and out among cars. The traffic is so crazy that drivers are actually looking out for everything that’s happening, and so they see pedestrians and nearly always slow down or stop if the pedestrian takes the initiative to cross, in contrast to the U.S., where drivers tend to have tunnel vision and not see anything.

    (Apologies if I’ve taken this threadjack too far. In relating football helmets and pedestrian safety to auto technologies, I will defend myself with the words of my former philosophy prof: “Truth, I say, is like a spiderweb. Touch any part of it and the whole resounds.”)


  18. Scott Hanley says:

    On the football front, Joe Paterno has seriously advocated removing face masks. It initially sounds perverse, but he argues that defensive players would be far more reluctant to use their helmets the way they do. Generally, the the guy who initiates the hit can protect himself much better than the guy getting hit, so the defender uses his equipment more boldly.


  19. James Hanley says:

    slightly weakening the metal somewhere kept that from happening.

    That’s the kind of thing that fascinates me about auto-design technology. In hindsight and in the specific case, yes, it makes intuitive sense. But for most of us non-engineering types, the generalized concept of weakening things seems intuitively quite wrong. But as an open-wheel racing fan, I’ve seen the safety design changes over the past several decades. Today’s crashes are so spectacular, with pieces coming off the car, that they look worse than most crashes in the past. But of course that’s all be design, to bleed off the force of impact.

    A year or so ago on Discovery’s sports science show, they put sensors on a hockey player (I’m also a hockey fan), then body checked him both in an open-ice check (nothing to absorb the impact) and against the boards. The check against the boards looks worse, because the guy is slammed against an object, while in the open ice he just falls down. But the sensors showed the opposite, because in the open-ice check the player absorbs the total force that hits him, while against the boards, they absorb much of the force. (There’s a reason they make them fairly flexible, instead of just putting up a concrete wall, eh?)

    With the NFL’s recent concern about helmet-to-helmet hits, I wonder how helmet manufacturers are trying to incorporate such design principles? Can it be done with helmets, or is there too little mass there to be able to apply those types of ideas?


  20. Ed Darrell says:

    Volvo and SAAB had faithful customers, but the market stampede to those brands wasn’t great enough to drive auto makers to put safety equipment in all cars.

    Oddly, I think federal regulations pushed the safety of the cars at the low end of the price line.

    Seatbelts, airbags, emergency flashers, and a host of other sometimes seemingly-minor improvements were mandated by regulation. Of course, for safety, I can’t think of a single safety option that was not invented by a “free-enterprise” engineer first.

    Perhaps we should do a comparison. Is there a free market with some heft, somewhere in the world, where safety items are not mandated by the government? Do the automakers put those devices in the vehicles there?

    India? South Africa? China? Philippines? Indonesia? Brazil?


  21. James Hanley says:

    George W.

    Despite Nick K. says, yes I believe consumers demand these things. What the auto industry was arguing against in those cases was fleet-wide mandates. I’m not going to defend that position, but I just want to clarify it. In each case the industry introduced these innovations,* but either as options or as standard in their premium cars. Over time they made them available in their lower level cars, usually as options first. Their reason for battling against fleet-wide mandates is that they increase the price of cars, and they were concerned that their sales would drop.

    Evil corporations concerned only about sales, right? No, because the loss of sales would mean consumers making decisions. That is, ultimately it was the consumers that would decide whether they wanted to pay for the safety improvements.

    I’m not arguing corporations are perfect, or that they care about consumers. But with the Corvair, for example, Corvair owners were well aware of its weird propensity to drive at an angle long before Ralph Nader published his famous book about it. Now to the extent that made the car more likely to crash, innocent people in other cars could be victimized, so it wasn’t simply an issue of concern for the car owner, and regulation becomes legtimate.

    But consumers do demand safety improvements as they become available and more cost effective, and corporations do respond to what consumers want–not because they care about people, but because giving consumers what they want is the best way to maximize the bottom line. For consumers, safety is a good like any other, and they’re willing to pay up to a certain amount, but not more, for a given level of safety features. As with all things, rich people are able to afford more of it than poor people. Mandating it doesn’t help poor people afford it in the short term, as they’ll buy older used cars without that safety technology if they can’t afford the newer car with the mandated technology.** And the problem there is that the older car is likely to be less safe in general, not just from wear and tear but because it has other less up-to-date safety technologies aside from the mandated ones.

    Do I think cars would be safer now than in 1959 without any gov’t regulation?*** Absolutely. To answer that question in the negative means you have to believe that consumers wouldn’t reward auto manufacturers that innovate improved safety features. If consumers didn’t, then companies wouldn’t bother to advertise those new safety features, but they do.

    Assume the average consumer is given a choice, at similar price points, between a car with 1959 safety technology vs. a car with 2010 safety technology. How many do you think would buy the 1959 one?

    Again, let me emphasize that I am not arguing against regulation in general here, or necessarily against any specific safety regulation. If the only person who would ever be affected by the level of safety was the car owner, I’d say let them endanger themselves as much as they want. But of course they also endanger others: people in other cars, riders who may be unaware of the safety level of the car they’re in, and particularly children who have no choice of what kind of car to ride in. Protecting those third parties is a general argument in support of pushing safety levels beyond what consumers might demand.

    But to suggest that consumers wouldn’t demand more safety over a 50 year period, or that no manufacturer would recognize the opportunity to outdo competitors by meeting that demand? I think that’s grossly illogical.

    * Set emissions standards aside, because that’s a different case. It’s not a safety issue, but a pollution issue, so it involves externalities in a way the safety issues don’t, which makes it a different type of case.

    **Although it’s a good question of whether mandating it causes it to trickle down to them more quickly, through the secondary car market, than not mandating it would. That’s an empirical question that I’ve not seen studied, so I don’t know the answer.

    *** I want to emphasize that this is not the same as saying there shouldn’t be any regulation. I’m simply answering a “what if” question, not making a normative argument.


  22. george.w says:

    James, I’ve been paying attention to the auto industry for a long time. I remember the auto industry fought tooth and nail against requiring cars to have seat belts. Years later, they switched directions and spent $100m promoting seat-belt laws to stave off air-bag requirements.

    Does the Ford Pinto ring a bell? Crash testing requirements? The pitched battle against emissions requirements? Chevvy Corvair? The whole SUV debacle? Ford Explorer? They were in court or in Congress in an eye-blink whining about how regulations would destroy the industry. If it required them to do anything but re-style the sheet metal for the next year’s marketing, they were against it.

    But you think cars would be safe and as good as they are now without regulation? Seriously? Yes, engineers solved the technical problems to make it happen. But engineers have little power in American (and most foreign) car companies. Exhibit A: in the last 25 years, engine power has just about doubled while fuel economy has stayed level.

    Only recently has safety even become a selling point. Consumers don’t even realize how much safer cars are now than they were then.


  23. Nick K says:

    James writes:
    There’s even a part of me that says if consumers are too stupid to demand improvements in safety, they don’t deserve to have government mandate it for them. Fortunately, consumers aren’t as stupid as you might be taking them to be.

    Sure they are. After all, they’re the same people who elected the Republicans..the party that want the government to do absolutely nothing to protect anyone period…except of course the extremly rich.

    We’re at the point where really Big Business isn’t going to do anything to protect their customers unless someone compels them too.


  24. James Hanley says:

    Are you seriously proposing that regulation is the sole reason these improvements in safety came about? Advances in technology by designers trying to figure out better ways to make cars wasn’t a part of it? Competition between automakers for customers wasn’t part of it? Demand by consumers for safer cars wasn’t part of it? Consumer Reports’ provision of information to consumers wasn’t part of it?

    Not that the regulations are necessarily bad in and of themselves, but nearly all of the regulations were reactive, not proactive. Seatbelts, safety glass, collapsible steering wheel columns, antilock brakes, airbags–all were invented by engineers, put into place on premium model cars first, working their way down to more moderately priced vehicles over time, and being mandated after Congress discovered them in use on cars. Heck, I drive a Subaru because the all-wheel drive system really helps with winter driving. Great safety innovation by Subaru, but not required by the government.

    There’s also a minor problem that by requiring more safety in new cars we drive up the price and keep older cars, that are even less safe (as well as more polluting) than new cars would be sans mandates, on the road longer by pricing lower income people out of the market until those newer models trickle down to them in the used car market.

    Again, the regulations aren’t bad in and of themselves, and there are bucketloads of reasons not to want to go back to the Eisenhower era, but the regulation story just isn’t as simple and wondrous as you make it sound.

    There’s even a part of me that says if consumers are too stupid to demand improvements in safety, they don’t deserve to have government mandate it for them. Fortunately, consumers aren’t as stupid as you might be taking them to be.

    Or, shorter rant…you compare a 1959 model car to a circa 2010 era car and you’re suggesting the only casual factor of the difference between them is government regulation? Seriously?


  25. Scott Hanley says:

    No, the test happens when you aren’t looking for a moose.


  26. John Mashey says:

    Electronics are important, but really, one has to give credit as well to the mechanical engineers. An important element of safety improvement had been the structural design to make cars absorb impact by appropriate crushability, not just mass. Modern cars can protect people better, even with less metal up front.

    The Taurus example I mentioned was really vivid.

    1) They would run a simulation on a large system.

    2) Then, the output would be visualized on a high-end 3D workstation, with engineers rerunning it from different angles, zooming in on structural elements, etc. They could highlight different aspects. For example, different levels of stress could be shown in different colors, of which yellow meant the most intense. Yellow flashes on virtual crash dummies were Bad.

    3) They would run many different crashes, for example, at different angles. Within a narrow range of angles (not headon) the following happened:

    a) Crash starts.
    b) Dummy pitches forward.
    c) Airbag fires.
    d) Dummy bounces off backwards
    e) and just then, brilliant yellow flash appears at back left of dummy’s skull, as roof strut collapses inward.

    If I recall right, this was one of the cases where slightly weakening the metal somewhere kept that from happening.

    Many engineers worried very hard about safety, but the Swedes (Volvo, Saab) impressed me as especially intense. I later saw a TV show about moose, noting that in some countries, auto designers use simulations to design car frontends to shed moose in collisions. The car shown was a Saab 9-5 (what I drive, but I have not looked for moose to test this.)


  27. […] Such stupidity (in terms of both science and being reflexively against regulations) has a consequence as Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub points out here. […]


  28. Ed Darrell says:

    I worked with a team that did a project for TRW when that company was making airbags (do they still? I don’t know). It wasn’t part of our work, but I was grateful for the guy in Los Angeles who took his lunch to drag us through the designers’ offices, and show us films of how the things worked, and for the guy in Detroit who let us see the manufacturing. Air bags are a great idea, but a technology that is heavily dependent on advances in electronics made since 1959. In 1959, Feynman made his speech talking about using metal as a small memory device; transistors had become almost common, but printed circuits were extremely rare. Copper was the sina qua non of conductivity to most of us.

    It’s astounding to think that the great improvements in auto safety are so dependent on advances in electronics, and not hydraulics or materials (though they play a role) — see the air bag working in the film.


  29. John Mashey says:

    Great video.
    Car safety is an improvement I’m proud of, having helped in a modest way. Back in the 1990s, I was a Chief Scientist @ Silicon Graphics and among other things we built very affordable supercomputers quite suitable for running “crash codes”, i.e., crash simulations. As a result, there was a big increase right then in the number of virtual crash test dummies that bit the dust to help make this happen.

    I used to talk to auto engineers & execs. At one point, all but one of the major care companies worldwide used these computers.

    Quite often, weakening/lightening the right elements made cars safer. There was a really vivid example on a Ford Taurus like that, or a kind of skull-crashing accident you’d never find by crashing real cars, because you couldn’t afford to crash that many.


  30. Nick K says:

    Gee..wonder if those would have came about if it wasn’t mandated by the “big evil too powerful government”


  31. george.w says:

    Oh, but damn that would be cool…


  32. Ed Darrell says:

    What I really want is an Indy car – drivers walk away from the most amazing crashes in those things. I hear they’re expensive, though. ;)

    And tough to park (lousy in reverse – parallel parking is almost impossible), no trunk space, air conditioning is sub-par, and the stereo sucks wind.

    Plus, for some reason, every cop in town seems to think you’re speeding.


  33. Scott Hanley says:

    George, when I visualize getting T-boned on the driver’s door by a Chevy Tahoe, I don’t expect to have time to be surprised! A head-on collision might be the safer accident.

    What I really want is an Indy car – drivers walk away from the most amazing crashes in those things. I hear they’re expensive, though. ;)


  34. What George.W said, Scott. What this illustrates in the video is the modern understanding that as body panels fold in an accident they absorb collision energy, and less of the shock is passed along to the passenger than in the older cars. There are incredible safety features built into modern cars that were never considered in older cars. Some of these were due to the CAFE rules, which mandated lighter cars.


  35. george.w says:

    Not necessarily, Scott. Few collisions are head-on, and the rest of them are changed dramatically by modern engineering. You might be surprised.


  36. Scott Hanley says:

    Considering I drive a Ford Escort and half the SUV’s out there have bumpers at head height – I’m gonna be pasta in a collision, anyway.


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