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What's good for America is bad for GM.
May 28, 2010 3:22 AM   Subscribe

How The U.S. Government Built, Then Killed The Safest Car Ever Built. Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. government built a fleet of cars that were safer than anything on the road. Twenty-five years ago, the government shredded them in secret.
posted by rodgerd (95 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
i don't know ... looks like a bunch of pacers to me.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 3:37 AM on May 28, 2010


Did it run on water?
posted by pracowity at 3:44 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh great, another reason to be angry at Republicans. Thanks Reagan, hyuck!
posted by JHarris at 3:44 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


How The U.S. Government Built, Then Killed The Safest Ugliest Car Ever Built.
posted by fixedgear at 3:52 AM on May 28, 2010


America: A bunch of crash test dummies
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:57 AM on May 28, 2010


Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go
Beelzebub has the devil put aside for me
for me
for me
for meeeeeeeeee
posted by bwg at 4:05 AM on May 28, 2010


Preventing auto death is socialism.
posted by DU at 4:11 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read this earlier over at Jalopnik and it just pissed me off all over again about the stupidity of the American automobile manufacturers over the years.

(... as an aside, looking at the car, it reminded me of growing up in the late 1970s early 1980s and wondering why every car on the road was such an incredibly, pointlessly ugly piece of shit. I remember sitting down on a bench waiting for the bus and just watching every single car on the road pass by and thinking: ugly. ugly. ugly. uh... pretty ugly. ugly. ugly. hm, Rx-7. ugly. ugly.)
posted by Auden at 4:18 AM on May 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


""I don't think that RSV had much influence in its time," says Friedman. "It is a precursor of the performance we're going to see in the future."

ya know, i think that statement is a bunch of crap. a couple of years ago my hyundai elantra broadsided a large suv while i was going 40 mph. the worst injury resulting from the accident: a broken finger because my kid had his hand on the panel where the airbag was. also, they (insurance, that is) fixed the car, and i drove it for 4 more years.

and then there's this i seem to recall that the analysis was that the driver of the bel-air would be dead ... and the driver of the malibu would walk away.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 4:27 AM on May 28, 2010


whoops--the video from that old post has been taken down from youtube. still available here.

so i think these cars did exactly what they were supposed to: push the standards higher.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 4:30 AM on May 28, 2010


How The U.S. Government Built, Then Killed The Safest Ugliest Car Ever Built.

It's certainly wonky, but is it really ugly? It's like a purified essence of 70s auto design.
posted by delmoi at 4:35 AM on May 28, 2010


Safe cars.... An oxymoron, at any speed.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:37 AM on May 28, 2010


"Roof-mounted periscopes"? The hell?
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:43 AM on May 28, 2010


"Roof-mounted periscopes"? The hell?

Well where else would you mount them?!
posted by knapah at 4:57 AM on May 28, 2010 [27 favorites]


i got no problem with the way the car looks. but then, i'm also a fan of earth shoes.
posted by msconduct at 5:00 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Related: Who Killed the Electric Car?
posted by zardoz at 5:03 AM on May 28, 2010


i got no problem with the way the car looks. but then, i'm also a fan of earth shoes.

Yeah, but EarthShoes is still in business.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:04 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I apologize if I'm playing devil's advocate, but...

First - I hate the Reagan administration as much as the next half-intelligent individual, but in this instance, they had just "invested" a heavy sum of money in Chrysler, so their termination of the research program was fiscally driven. Why invest more money in something that won't help them back into the black as quick as possible? At that point, we were 2 nights into a capitalist-binge, so profits were the focus.

Second - Regarding the destruction of the vehicles, I will reserve opinion on the matter if the author of the article can prove the Smithsonian had interest. Basically, 90% of concept cars after making their appearance at some showcase (admittedly, this is my personal estimate, but I do know that it is most of the few that even make it past the drafting table), the rest end up in museums. If there were museums that were interested, let the rowr/snark begin. In this article, it's hearsay.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:04 AM on May 28, 2010


The above should have read "...90% of concept cars are destroyed after making their appearance..."


N e e d | c o f f e e .
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 5:06 AM on May 28, 2010


I would not hesitate to drive a car that looked like a Pacer built to for the set of Tron.
posted by mhoye at 5:13 AM on May 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


This isn't a huge shock. Back before I finished high school, I nearly got involved in processing data (dummies, etc) with a company that had a fantastic safety device which was neither a seat belt nor an airbag. I wasn't quite up to the programming task at that point (they had some arcane data system with which I had no idea how to interact), but I did watch the demonstrations. Live, and in front of me, a driver, sans helmet, would ram the test car, fitted with the device, over and over into a junker, until the vehicle could no longer move. Not a scratch on the guy.

Twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour — all indications were that the device worked better the faster you went. Just looking over the green and white printouts, I could see numbers corroborating what I had seen with my eyes. The gizmo was cheap and consisted of few moving parts. That model was only useful for front impacts, and it was designed to be used in conjunction with other things, but damn, it was impressive, especially as part of a junker vehicle that looked like a rolling deathtrap to begin with.

Last I heard, the struggling company got bought out by one of the airbag corporations and the entire invention was buried so deep you'd think they might have wrapped silver chains around the coffin, first. A simple, affordable, reliable, reusable device, versus the ridiculous profit of airbags? C'mon. Who'd you think would win?
posted by adipocere at 5:14 AM on May 28, 2010 [11 favorites]


Twenty-five years ago, the government shredded them in secret.

You say this as if it was a bad thing.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:18 AM on May 28, 2010


a fantastic safety device which was neither a seat belt nor an airbag.

So what was it?
posted by fixedgear at 5:28 AM on May 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


The first 18" of the car need some work but otherwise I think the car looks fine. A set of flush mounted projection lights would do wonders. Not really surprising though as I like the Pacer, the Eagle Kammback, and gull wings (which every car should have IMO).

It's a shame that innovative cars are so rarely successful in North America. The vast majority of car buyers here are so conservative.
posted by Mitheral at 5:31 AM on May 28, 2010


I've seen that car, before.
posted by steef at 5:32 AM on May 28, 2010


I think it looks awesome! I would be glad to drive one.
posted by sidereal at 5:41 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


One aside in the article is that American automakers resisted using airbags. They've been terrible for decades, resistant to all change, and that's a lot of what got them into their present mess.

But resisting airbags made sense in the 1970s and early 80s. The first versions of those technologies were pretty goddamn dangerous, with unreliable sensors and moderately toxic propellants. Part of that was because, at the time, people simply tended not to wear seatbelts. Airbags are driven by powerful explosions; they need to be strong to inflate the bag in time. If you're too close to the explosive charge when it goes off, before the bag has inflated, you can be very badly hurt or killed. People at the time bought airbag-equipped cars and kept not wearing seatbelts, and the outcomes were, as I recall, substantially worse than just a plain dashboard.

Further, many of the early airbag systems were prone to misfire, either not working when they should, or going off inappropriately. So people mostly didn't want them; the talk on the street in the middle-lower class was that an airbag was a deathtrap. And, for a public that didn't wear belts, they were. With the deployment issues mostly worked out, and a public that's finally using restraints, airbags are a great way to reduce the severity of injuries. But even now, without something to slow you down long enough for the airbag to inflate, they're dangerous.

If you have airbags, and you get into an accident, your dashboard is going to explode. Without belts, not only are you hitting the dash at, say, 50mph, it's pushing back at 200mph+. This could very easily kill you, where you might have survived the impact otherwise.

With belts, you often won't know that they fired until you recover from the shock and see the deflated bags hanging there.

Wear your seatbelts!

I was trying to remember what was toxic about those early airbags, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. I figured a little cheatsheet might be useful:
Again: wear your seatbelts!
posted by Malor at 5:48 AM on May 28, 2010 [9 favorites]


a fantastic safety device which was neither a seat belt nor an airbag.

So what was it?


I had a buddy who was working on something that may be similar to what he was talking about. Basically, at the moment of impact, two "arms" would raise from the seat about chest level, inflate quickly, and deflate a bit so it almost caught the driver (they referred to it as the "catcher's mitt" even though I would've likened it to a claw) and would give just enough so there was a much lessened impact than what you see with airbags, plus it was along the sides of the chest, so... in theory, you had strained muscles at the worst when it was over. Did well with the dummies, so-so with actual driver reports.

It may not be the same thing, as this wasn't reusable as the previous poster claimed (I apologize, but I consider his claims dubious, at best) and there was quite a bit of concern over the fact this would require calibration thanks to the large variance in body types of the American populace.

Along with this, it was ultimately scrapped because it was designed with the understanding all drivers drive with both hands on the wheel at 10 and 2.

No, I don't know how it ever got past the concept stage.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:01 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh man, here's a 1976 broadcast about that car. For me it probably more fun remembering the fashions and etiquette (notice how the guy helps the lady out of the car) than the car. But it still seemed interesting.
posted by forforf at 6:03 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


On airbag safety see John's ranting here. Like Malor said airbags=good isn't as cut and dried a win as commonly perceived. Also it's easy to blame the manufacturers for slow adoption of safety technology but the fact remain that unlike baseball "if you built it they will comesell" doesn't work. Car buyers are extremely cost conscious; add 10% to the price for safety and watch sales plummet. The only way to sell these features to the vast majority of buyers is to get the government to mandate them as standard equipment.
posted by Mitheral at 6:09 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Perhaps they were destroyed because they were expensive to warehouse?
posted by caddis at 6:14 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Gullwing doors in a safety car? Can you open the doors if the struts go out?
posted by smackfu at 6:15 AM on May 28, 2010


Can you open the doors if the struts go out?

Or if there's a rollover and the car is on it's top?
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:22 AM on May 28, 2010


Airbags - especially side-curtain airbags - are an excellent addition to improved structural design. Anything that helps you walk away.

Airbags can be pretty dangerous for rescue personnel, though. Airbags basically use a small (but pretty potent) explosive charge to deploy. Techniques used by rescue teams (like cutting panels open with "jaws-of-life") can set off undeployed airbags and injure the rescuers.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:29 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. government built a fleet of cars that were safer than anything on the road. T

With the furor from Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed still fresh...


Ralph Nadar's "Unsafe at Any Speed" was ten years old. The Lion's share of the Viet Nam war happened in those ten years (at least from the US point of view). Safe at any speed was still out there and occasionally referenced, but I think it's pretty clear that the author is going for the dramatic. I'm not saying that the cars themselves were unsafe, but there are a lot of things in here that they try to make sound like safety features that seem like really bad ideas to me. That coupled with the flair for the dramatic really make me feel like I'm reading product literature for the Chevy Corvair and being told how great this new swing axle suspension is.

For example, "The fender and front fascia were plastic composites that could take a 10-mph smack unscathed."

And this is good because? What it suggests to me is that the front fascia would pass the force of impact on to the passenger while soaking up minimal energy itself.

I totaled my first Volvo when a Ford Expedition cut across my bow. I was doing about something like 30-35 mph and barely had time to scream. When all was said and done, I could have reached out over the dashboard and almost touched my radiator. The Expedition was in pretty good shape visually, save for the passenger side front wheel being at an odd angle. I yanked my radio, cleaned out my trunk and called my wife to come get me. The guy in the SUV left on a back board.

For an even more dramatic example, look at formula 1 accidents where the all that's left of the car is a chunk of roll cage with some wires sticking out of it, and then the driver gets out and throws his helmet at the wreckage of his car. (Not that it always happens that way, but it happens more that it seems like it should when a car that was doing about 200 mph goes out of control.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:31 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


No wonder the government took over GM. They were made for each other.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:43 AM on May 28, 2010


Maybe you could kick out the windshield in a rollover?

That said, it's not an SUV. It's not going to flip over that easy.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:44 AM on May 28, 2010


The doors don't look any larger than the rear hatches on minivans and you can open them just fine without functioning struts. Besides the failure mode of struts is generally from slow escape of gas. IE: they don't fail catastrophically without warning. If your door starts getting difficult to open you'd replace the strut. Or the door could be balanced by torsion bars.

Bathtub Bobsled writes "Or if there's a rollover and the car is on it's top?"

This is the common concern but it really isn't a factor. Cars rarely come to rest on their roofs in an accident and when they do there is usually damage to the door frame such that one can't open the door anyways. On the other hand gull wing doors only require a few inches of clearance to open. If your Delorean comes to rest after an accident with only 11" of clearance on either side you can open the door wide enough to get out; that is rarely if ever the case with conventional front hinged doors.

Kid Charlemagne writes "For example, 'The fender and front fascia were plastic composites that could take a 10-mph smack unscathed.'

"And this is good because? What it suggests to me is that the front fascia would pass the force of impact on to the passenger while soaking up minimal energy itself. "


The front fascia is still being deformed in the accident; it's just constructed of materials that can do so in an elastic manner so as not to be damaged. Fieros have a similar design (though not to 10mph) and it's great; low speed impacts at worst crack the paint yet the Fiero had the best crash test results in it's class when it was introduced (tied with a Volvo).
posted by Mitheral at 6:46 AM on May 28, 2010


It seems to me that what they should have been used for was standards, not as potential sales items. The government builds them and sends three to each auto company saying, "Here, free market, we've proven the concept, do this or better in five years."

Think of where we'd be today if we had had 32mpg standard in the 80s.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 6:58 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


It was obviously killed to protect the Federation - look, it has a Klingon insignia on the front.
posted by davelog at 6:59 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Screw it, I guess I can talk about it. They made me sign something, but now that I think about it, I was under age eighteen, so I doubt that anything I signed was binding.

It's a fantastically clever device that used inertia, rather than fighting it. It went between the car seat and the seat mounts on the floor. It put the seat on a special set of curved-just-right rails. At the moment of impact, your seat slid forward on the rails, but at the same time, the track made the seat go up and tilt back. Rather than your body flying head into a steering wheel, windshield, and/or dashboard, the seat was now angled such that your momentum went right into your butt and thighs. The faster you were going, the more tilt you got, and all of that kinetic energy directed into a part of your body you've been landing on since you were six months old.

Again, it was an "in addition to" safety device, but for front impacts, it did just fine on its own. The rear seats would have been harder to deal with, but driver and passenger bucket seats would be dandy. Some seat belts would have to be modified to work more efficiently with it.

You could probably build it in a machine shop for twenty bucks and a little love. If I recall, there were four parts, maybe six, aside from various nuts, bolts, and such. Mass produced, the cost might be as little as seven dollars. Kid Charlemagne could probably put together a prototype in a weekend. Anyone capable of using a wrench could have installed it in under an hour. I've often wondered if I could dig up the plans for it (they were not complicated) and have a few machined out for my personal use. A peculiar quirk of the patent system allows them to be owned but deliberately left on the shelf, which, in this case, could have saved many lives for those too short to safely use airbags.
posted by adipocere at 7:05 AM on May 28, 2010 [60 favorites]


Maybe it's because I came of age in the 70s, but you can add my name to the list of people who actually, you know, like the way this car looks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:16 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Perhaps it's because I had the good fortune to not be alive in the 70s, but am I the only one who thinks these cars look insanely awesome?
posted by a small part of the world at 7:18 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Blast! What FaM said.
posted by a small part of the world at 7:19 AM on May 28, 2010


adipocere, I remember seeing a television show with the device you describe or something similar. They showed crash tests with a real human and a junker car at various speeds and the human always walked away.

I always wondered why it didn't make it into any production cars.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 7:29 AM on May 28, 2010


...bumpers wide enough to haul Dom Deluise

Shooting for that "Over 50" demographic, I see.
posted by Kskomsvold at 8:02 AM on May 28, 2010


I'd drive one. It looks like something I'd race across the country Cannonball Run style, and that speaks to a specific part of my brain that pushes everything else to the background.

Me: "It looks kinda weird, those gull-wing doors can't be practical..."

Myself: "Dude, let's Cannonball Run it!"

I: "Oh fuck yeah! We're doing this!"
posted by quin at 8:13 AM on May 28, 2010


Man, I like Audi Quattros from the 1980s and even I think that car is ugly.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:17 AM on May 28, 2010


Screw it, I guess I can talk about it. They made me sign something, but now that I think about it, I was under age eighteen, so I doubt that anything I signed was binding...

Such a killer way to kick off your answer, adipocere:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:27 AM on May 28, 2010


adipocere wrote Screw it, I guess I can talk about it. They made me sign something, but now that I think about it, I was under age eighteen, so I doubt that anything I signed was binding.

I'm sorry to have doubted this. On the internet, rarely can we take things at face value.

Good stuff, though.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 8:35 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


DrumsIntheDeep: "adipocere, I remember seeing a television show with the device you describe or something similar."

There's a post in this just a-quiverin' to pop out.
posted by mwhybark at 8:38 AM on May 28, 2010


It's a fantastically clever device that used inertia, rather than fighting it. It went between the car seat and the seat mounts on the floor. It put the seat on a special set of curved-just-right rails. At the moment of impact, your seat slid forward on the rails, but at the same time, the track made the seat go up and tilt back.

The immediate problem I see in that idea is that you will be presenting a very small, inflexible target to the rear seat passenger. As the seat tilts, the rear passenger stops getting the rear of the (padded) seat to crash into, but now has the smaller and pointier head restraint pointing directly at them. This makes it very significantly less safe (possibly less survivable) for the rear seat passenger, no matter how much better it makes it for the front passenger, unless you significantly change the design of head restraints. In addition, your knees are sliding forward into a dash that may be coming back at you in the impact and your feect are getting shoved into the pedal mechanism (which is above the pedals). I can't see how anyone with short legs or arms that needs to sit close to the wheel wouldn't have destroyed knee caps much earlier in terms of accident severity with that system unless you design a dash style that allows room for this movement. This will impact steering column design, styling and remove a lot of the usability of the space below mid dash - ie glovebox room and space for systems, ducting and wiring behind the dash. It's pretty damned cramped behind a modern dashboard, so that's 6 inches of room at least, the full width of the car and 2 feet high, maybe? Something like 5 sqft of space that must be kept clear for crashes.

To produce the same sort of device for the rear passenger (it'd have to be implemented to all seats to avoid the above issue of presenting a tiny impact point for the rear passenger) would be extremely expensive in terms of packaging and interior space. Any room the rear seat rotates into must be clear of obstructions for the system to work as designed. So you'd need an exclusion area behind the seat kept clear for this, and so lose something like 6-12 inches of boot space - this would likely produce around 15-20sqft of utterly dead space that you are carrying around in case you have a rear passenger when you crash in addition to the space lost at the front for the driver's/passenger's legs.

That is extremely inefficient packaging and makes the equivalent car with this system significantly heavier and physically larger for the same market niche. It is not, in any way, the easy and gobsmacking simple and no-cost addition to revolutionise crash safety. In addition, this system would perform poorly and/or be ineffective in an awfully large number of typical accidents or standard tests - only in the direct front impact would it be as effective as suggested. The offset impact test and side impact tests mean an awful lot of weight and complexity is being carried for a small proportion of crashes. The extra size and weight of the vehicle also means a given accident is more severe anyway, as the extra mass increases the energy of the impact.

Early cars had less equipment behind the dash - this may have been why the junker in the tests didn't struggle to show the system's effectiveness. It also didn't have a rear seat passenger. The system, while sound in principle, comes up with some very serious financial and packaging problems with only a cursory glance for other implications (and with a knock on into overall vehicle efficiency through the car needing to be anything from 15-25sqft bigger in cabin space for the same usable interior space). It is possible that the test vehicle used was (intentionally or otherwise) of a style that favoured the system, but most modern cars will need a completely different interior layout in terms of clearances to allow this system to be possible in the percentage of straight frontal impacts that allow

This system, at first glance, seems like a no-loss bonus for crash safety. However, it really, really isn't. If you don't consider all the knock on effects of a system and understand all the constraints (it's not just about the money) then you cannot assess how revolutionary and awesome it is. This one, to my mind as a vehicle engineer, brings up an awful lot of difficulty pretty quickly in implementation. It only gives an advantage in a subset of accidents and all the drawbacks are significant and permanent (ie impact the product in all times other than a frontal impact). It's pretty hard to justify from an engineering perspective.
posted by Brockles at 8:59 AM on May 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


"Gullwing doors of the 1970s were as reliable as Billy Carter the week before St. Patrick's Day."


I also understand that gullwing doors are notorious for crushing hands, fingers, and fishing poles.
posted by Xoebe at 9:09 AM on May 28, 2010


Sorry, Jody, it's just that all of the hush-hush stuff made an all-too-large impression on me at that naive age, and then with the industry I work in, I get a little paranoid. which, added to my already extant paranoia ...

I was introduced by a friend. My involvement was brief, just seeing a couple of demonstrations and the setup, then realizing that I was out of my depth and ought to refer the computer end of it to someone who could handle it. Also, it is neat to see cars dropped straight down into the ground, from an enormous harness in the garage because, damn, I am a teenage boy. For more realistic tests, they would put one of the contraptions on another junker car after the last one died. Most cars were, apparently, only good for about three or four solid rams into other cars, after which the frame was so out of true it became False. Just dropping by at random to see a guy take a downhill run at a station wagon and pop out without a scratch was what I got.

The dummy numbers looked good, but at the time, I wasn't even shaving regularly and was not a safety engineer, so it wasn't like I could do anything but casually look at trends. It looked good in person. After that, I just heard rumors.

Life Force, Inc., out in Fenton, Missouri. I think I only remembered the name because of the similarly named horror flick, with Steve Railsback, and I remember thing as being on rails. So, how about some delicious links out of my textual sausage? Here's some patents: 5022707, 5449218. The devices look a little bit different than what I remembered. The total tilt wasn't that much, just enough to be effective.

I'll leave evaluation of the merits of the technology to whatever hopeful bright minds we have left walking the path of Nader before he himself wandered off it, and actual posts to people who can put them together.
posted by adipocere at 9:17 AM on May 28, 2010 [6 favorites]


"The result looked like an AMC Pacer worked over by the set designers of Battlestar Galactica."

Yeah, I thought for sure they had started with a Pacer.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 9:20 AM on May 28, 2010


In terms of airbags and not wearing seat belts, I discussed this with a mate of mine who has worked in crash safety all his professional life, particularly in airbags and seat belts and vehicle crash testing.

The lack of US people wearing belts has crippled safety design for some time, in terms of elegance. Due to the volume of people who refused to comply with the seat belt requirement in the US meant that the government added sections to the legislation for Federal compliance that meant a non-restrained driver/passenger needs to be arrested by the airbag as well as a restrained one. This seems fairly minor until you appreciate how much work a belt does in stopping the person, and as the US is such a major automotive market developing for the strictest areas makes sense to ensure global models and cheaper manufacture through volume. So this kind of legislation drives crash safety just as Californian emissions legislations is still one of the benchmarks in efficiency and pollution.

An example of how this affects car design:
With seat belt: The airbag is basically just stopping your face hitting the wheel/dash. This is not a lot of energy (comparatively) to deal with.

Without a seat belt, the airbag needs to stop an entire 200-300lb person from sliding forward AND stop them hitting their face on the steering wheel. This is a MASSIVE extra workload.

As a direct result of this, airbags are bigger than they really need to be. This means they are are more expensive, harder to package and take longer to inflate (which affects how effective they are). It's a huge knock-on effect.

An example of the extra kind of complexity this requires was demonstrated to me rather effectively when I crashed a Dodge Caravan into a light pole at pretty low speed. It was just fast enough that the airbags went off, but the only part of me that hurt the next morning were my shins - they were bruised for well over a week. There was a heavy metal bar in the lower section of the dash (under the steering column) that was pushed very hard into my legs as part of the airbag deployment system and I asked my mate what the point of the damn thing was, as it pissed me off how much it hurt.

Apparently, they have to have this kind of thing in modern cars because if the person is not wearing a belt, they tend to slide bodily forward into the airbag. This means there is too much work for the airbag to restrain the entire body without making the wheel massive and the bag huge. So they force the occupant to hinge at the waist by restraining the legs (HARD, dammit!) so that only the rotation of the body at the hips into the wheel needs to be controlled by the bag itself - back to the 'stopping the face only' plus a bit of extra weight example. If the occupant is wearing a belt, all that bar does is bruise your legs. In my crash, I didn't even touch the wheel airbag, but still got smacked in the legs.

While you can't really object to the implementation of legislation to protect the dumb few that don't consider it necessary to save their own life in an accident, it does have a significant impact on the more sensible of us. We all have to pay to have extra systems and weight in our cars for those people. Because once you have airbags in your cars that offer the sort of crash protection that customers and legislations demands, you have to make sure it works for people that don't look after themselves too. Over engineered for the stupid and lazy, basically...
posted by Brockles at 9:25 AM on May 28, 2010 [8 favorites]


Sorry, Jody, it's just that all of the hush-hush stuff made an all-too-large impression on me at that naive age, and then with the industry I work in, I get a little paranoid. which, added to my already extant paranoia ...

Even better, adipocere.

Paranoia is like mustard - it adds zing...:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:26 AM on May 28, 2010


Modern car designs need more gullwing doors.
posted by jdoss at 9:39 AM on May 28, 2010


"adipocere, I remember seeing a television show with the device you describe or something similar. They showed crash tests with a real human and a junker car at various speeds and the human always walked away.

"I always wondered why it didn't make it into any production cars."


I bet like shoulder belts mounted too low it compressed the crap out of your spine in the wrong kind of accident leading to paralysis or death. And it would mean the driver's legs would be getting closer to the dash, something that is undesirable (look at the introduction of collapsible pedal boxes to mitigate that effect now). Plus it is keeping your body in motion while the car's crumple zones are collapsing which is exactly what you don't want to happen as it increases the peak g-forces experienced by the occupant. And it's likely it would interact badly with rear facing car seats in the back seat; make your head more vulnerable to objects flying off the rear seat or package shelf plus make egress from the back seat difficult after the crash.

And yep, 1st gen air bags were mandated to be dangerously more powerful than they needed to be because Americans won't buckle up.
posted by Mitheral at 9:42 AM on May 28, 2010


I recall the coverage of this vehicle when it came out. That’s how old I now am.
posted by joeclark at 10:01 AM on May 28, 2010


adipocere The system you describe sounds a bit like Audi's procon-ten (now abandoned, due to the advance of airbags).
posted by Skeptic at 10:05 AM on May 28, 2010


While you can't really object to the implementation of legislation to protect the dumb few that don't consider it necessary to save their own life in an accident

Actually I think I can.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 10:05 AM on May 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


adipocere The system you describe sounds a bit like Audi's procon-ten (now abandoned, due to the advance of airbags).

Um. It sounds completely different in function and operation to me. It is basically just curved seat runners to change direction of crash impulse versus a massively complex system that moves likely sticky-out bits away from the driver (like the steering wheel and the engine - not messing around) and pulls them into their seat a little.
posted by Brockles at 10:09 AM on May 28, 2010


adipocere, Brockles --

Would this system really do much more than just putting in (and using) a good 5-point harness would?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:27 AM on May 28, 2010


"Old vehicles, 1995 and older, often used a propellant called sodium azide."

Interesting. I worked for Autoliv some years ago, and they were still using sodium azide. This would have been 1997-98 or thereabouts. I did not know it had been supplanted.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 10:31 AM on May 28, 2010


gull wings (which every car should have IMO).

Right up until you try to open your door in a parking lot and have to crawl on the ground through an 18-inch gap between the door and rocker panel because the door has hit the car next to you.

Gullwing doors look cool. Lambo-style scissor doors look even cooler. But normal doors are better for so many safety, practicality, mechanical, and reliability reasons that it doesn't make sense to have anything but normal doors. Note, for example, that even Lamborghini doesn't use Lamborghini-style doors on the Gallardo.

Now, the doors to have are Ford GT40 doors, which open like normal doors, but have a horizontal bit that cuts into the roof of the car. Why are they good? Well, for one thing, if you're in a tight parking spot, you're stuck in the car because the overhead door piece traps you. For another thing, if you don't duck your head when you close the door, you scalp yourself.
posted by The World Famous at 10:34 AM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


ROU_Xenophobe, I have no idea. I was just a scrawny kid at the time. I leave out the "ignorant" part because that has yet to change.

I think you have hit upon the and using part, though. Brockles is dead on. Americans? Use a five point harness? I have gotten into yelling matches with friends and acquaintances about buckling in their kids with just a regular belt. A five point harness suggests that people would have to actively participate in safety, which is always someone else's problem. And then someone would bring up the much-less-likely scenario of being trapped in a river in your five point harness, drowning slowly, and that would be the end of that discussion.
posted by adipocere at 10:43 AM on May 28, 2010


Would this system really do much more than just putting in (and using) a good 5-point harness would?

That'd be a better solution and produce similar results, to my mind, but only from an engineering eprspective. It'd be easier to integrate the structure to hold the shoulder belts than it would for the curved seat runner deal. however full harnesses are impractical in road cars as they are only really effective if they are tightened properly, which is extremely uncomfortable for extended periods. By 'tightened' I mean at least enough that you can't move any appreciable distance from your seat - say with the belts at least touching your body in the relaxed position all over the contact area.

For proper and moist effective use of full harnesses, you'd need them to be tightened more than that - race drivers usually have them tight enough (against a purpose moulded seat to match their body shape) that it slightly affects breathing when you first strap them in. This sounds silly, but once you get going and everything settles in, you hardly notice the belts unless they are too loose. A lot of that is due to the extra g-force and movement during cornering having an implication on control, rather than on safety in an impact, but the effectiveness of the belts in an accident is increased by total support of the body. The belts then stretch during an accident and need replacing.
posted by Brockles at 10:45 AM on May 28, 2010


And then someone would bring up the much-less-likely scenario of being trapped in a river in your five point harness, drowning slowly, and that would be the end of that discussion.

They'd be totally wrong, though. It is far, far easier to get out of a full harness than a normal seat belt. The seat belt wraps around your body and your arm goes through part of it. You can get caught up trying to get out of one of those even in normal times of getting out of the car.

With a full harness, all the elements meet at a central buckle just below your navel. All pieces are straight and end in a tab. The buckle itself has a large quarter turn lever that pops all the belts out simultaneously and you end up with 5 or 6 loose ends and no loop to get caught up in. It's far, far easier to get out of and it'll only get caught when you try and shut the door and it hasn't retracted. Removal of a full harness from the person is pretty much instantaneous.
posted by Brockles at 10:49 AM on May 28, 2010


It would be totally wrong, and totally convincing. Bless your Canadian sensibility, but you must realize, Brockles, these are Americans we're talking about. We stampeded into a completely wrong country because someone made some shadow puppets on the wall. Five points sounds like two more points than three points, and that's all you need to sound like you want to put a stop to American freedom (of motion into some part of the car). Logic and reason have little to do with American concepts of safety. Rhetoric, fear, improbable scenarios, and misconceptions rule.

The United States has some fairly decent things going for it, but our collective reasoning about risk is not amongst them, especially about cars. Our homes are our castles, but our cars represent freedom, the option, never taken, to head into a no longer extant frontier. Trifle with that? No.
posted by adipocere at 11:17 AM on May 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


NHTSA also built what they thought would be a safer motorcycle, in 1977. It had rear-wheel steering. I haven't found any links that do more than provide the date, but here is what I recall about it (please bear in mind this stuff is 43-years-old memories):

It cost $50k (1977 dollars)

No one could ride it; everyone who tried to crashed.

They had obviously not consulted with one single person who'd ever tried to control a motorcycle rolling backwards down a hill. An experienced trials rider might be able to stay upright, but mere humans have no chance.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:41 AM on May 28, 2010


Perhaps if they had used an American spokesperson, rather than some pinko Canadian, the idea would have caught on better.

(Just kidding - I love Lorne Greene and Canada.)
posted by The World Famous at 11:55 AM on May 28, 2010


"Right up until you try to open your door in a parking lot and have to crawl on the ground through an 18-inch gap between the door and rocker panel because the door has hit the car next to you."

The doors on a Delorean only need 11 inches of free space to operate(youtube) and fully open. Pick any car you want and try and get out when there is only 11" of space to open the door; unless you're driving a 70s Civic or something with similarly skinny doors you won't be able to exit your vehicle.
posted by Mitheral at 11:55 AM on May 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


Damn government can't do anything right. This here's just more proof. They invent safer, more fuel-efficient cars and then just scrap them. Stupid government.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:56 AM on May 28, 2010


I'm not sure how we got this far without mentioning the Bricklin SV-1. It was actually manufactured and sold from '74 - '76. The SV stands for Safety Vehicle and as the Owner's Club will tell you,
It had a built in roll cage, side guard rails and shock absorbing, 5-mph bumpers that receded into the car. It was not only safe in an accident, but had the power and handling to avoid one. The Bricklin far exceeded safety requirements of the time.
Add in the Gullwing doors and that it predates the DeLorean and RSV and you're talking a car that's majorly deserving of your love. There was one at the shopping mall near my cousins' house.
It was when my dad told me how the engine would drop and the front end would crumple to protect the passenger cabin that I first knew a machine could be awesome.
posted by putzface_dickman at 12:02 PM on May 28, 2010


The doors on a Delorean only need 11 inches of free space to operate

Yep, for some reason people always think those doors work on a single hinge and swing out instead of up.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:53 PM on May 28, 2010


posted by davelog It was obviously killed to protect the Federation - look, it has a Klingon insignia on the front.

Today is a good day not to die!
posted by mattdidthat at 1:20 PM on May 28, 2010


The doors on a Delorean only need 11 inches of free space to operate(youtube) and fully open.

Nifty! I didn't know that. Hydraulic failure would still be terrifying, but I guess I wouldn't worry about clearance.

They invent safer, more fuel-efficient cars and then just scrap them. Stupid government.

What should they have done with them?
posted by The World Famous at 2:08 PM on May 28, 2010


"Hydraulic failure would still be terrifying"

The doors are counter balanced with a stainless steel torsion bar, not hydraulics. The gas strut is there to provide dampening. If you don't worry about the suspension springs in your cars failing you shouldn't worry about the door torsion bar.
posted by Mitheral at 2:13 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you don't worry about the suspension springs in your cars failing you shouldn't worry about the door torsion bar.

If my car was as old and unreliable as a DeLorean, I might worry about the suspension springs failing.
posted by The World Famous at 2:16 PM on May 28, 2010


lester's sock puppet: "i don't know ... looks like a bunch of pacers to me."

You say that like that's a bad thing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:19 PM on May 28, 2010


only because pacers never seemed to me to be a very safe car. of course i was driving a pinto at the time. at least it was a pinto wagon.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 2:34 PM on May 28, 2010


For proper and moist effective use of full harnesses

Dude, I meant seat belts, not Rule 34 kinds of harnesses.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:55 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's all about removing the chafing, see.
posted by Brockles at 4:05 PM on May 28, 2010


The most shocking part of that article is the seatbelt statistics. A quick googling suggests that 75% is the maximum saturation of seatbelt usage in the US.

WTF, US?
posted by lekvar at 4:28 PM on May 28, 2010


They invent safer, more fuel-efficient cars and then just scrap them. Stupid government.

What should they have done with them?


They should've given them to Burt Reynolds.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:30 PM on May 28, 2010


They should've given them to Burt Reynolds.

Well, sure, if they could catch him.
posted by The World Famous at 4:35 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


fixedgear wrote: "How The U.S. Government Built, Then Killed The Safest Ugliest Car Ever Built."

Looks pretty good for the 70s. Hell, it looks pretty good for just about any year. Only minor changes would make it look like any recent small hatchback.
posted by wierdo at 4:36 PM on May 28, 2010


Only minor changes would make it look like any recent small hatchback.

Really? What minor changes would be necessary to make it look like, say, a Mini Cooper S or a Mazda3? Or is there some other recent small hatchback that I'm not aware of that is a body-on-frame gullwing as wide as it is long with a 3-foot front overhang?
posted by The World Famous at 4:48 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


lester's sock puppet: "at least it was a pinto wagon."

Ah! My first car!
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:31 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Only minor changes would make it look like any recent small hatchback.

Really? What minor changes would be necessary to make it look like, say, a Mini Cooper S or a Mazda3? Or is there some other recent small hatchback that I'm not aware of that is a body-on-frame gullwing as wide as it is long with a 3-foot front overhang?


Only minor changes like melting it down to raw steel and using the resulting metal to build literally anything else.

Jesus, are all you people defending this thing's aesthetics blind? None of the body lines line up, the front clip looks like it was cut off some other car completely and stuck on with bubblegum, the greenhouse looks like it was stolen from a Piper Cub. I understand that styling wasn't the point, but seriously that thing makes me want to claw my eyes out... and I say this as someone who'd rather look at a '77 Pinto than an '07 Fatnormo Crossover CXi Hybrid.
posted by arto at 6:26 PM on May 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


October 1972 Popular Mechanics

Considering that US car deaths in 1960 were over 50,000/year when the population was 180 million, it looks like it was worth the effort. Deaths per vehicle mile had dropped 60% by 2000.
posted by Twang at 6:37 PM on May 28, 2010


Fucking Reagan. I take back both the letters I wrote in 3rd and 4th grade. Ass.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:50 AM on May 29, 2010


Instead of destroying these horribly ugly unsellable cars (which, really, is the only sensible thing to do), they should have donated them to a traveling crypto-Christian frisbee demonstration motivational speaker team. Seeing one of these monstrosities drive into a high school gym circa 1987 carrying about 7 tie-dyed frisbee demonstration college dropouts singing some "Up With People" knockoff motivational song would be just about perfect.
posted by The World Famous at 10:13 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suppose the smell of conspiracy is a bit too strong here to resist but, if something isn't being used by anyone, why bother keeping it? Clearly these cars weren't providing lessons to the auto industry by mouldering in a basement.

I've always thought that the Pacer looked like a very safe car. Now I have proof.
posted by nayrb5 at 4:50 PM on May 29, 2010


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