We fear the darkness, for it hides what we can't see.
That's a pretty dark opening statement, but it's true the darkness holds things we can't see. Cars at this moment in history rule the world. The idea spread like wild fire in the 1890s as the printing press distributed ideas globally like never before. These technical journals of spreading rumors of people creating horseless carriages with steam, internal combustion, and electric motors suddenly felt relatable.
These writings sparked the technically elite that it was the moment in history where this fictional prediction of the future was finally attainable. Through the industrial revolution and the OCD of Henry Ford the world became infected with the automobile.
Hind sight provides the clarity to say that likely Ralph Naders "Unsafe at any speed" to be unofficially the mid point of the automobile. It may be weird to look back on it that way, but it came at a turning point in the history of the automobile where the car transformed from a utility item to an item of equality, and immediately to an item of fashion.
This transformative moment was a cause of volume and accessibility. The ratio of humans to the ratio of vehicles reached a point where the car became an expectation of life, losing the gratitude of it's function for it's message of class and taste.
Now that the car was a staple of every day life, it was a sure bet for profitability. Naders book brought to light that fact that adding safety wasn't profitable, and that car companies wanted to make money.
Safety was finally a discussion of car design, but this offered a hurdle to manufacturers. Profits drive decisions, and so this new addition of safety was against the grain for the projected profits of these companies. Customers only cared about safety after a problem, they weren't used to shopping for it, so this was not only counter-profit, it was counter-culture. However, the government was convinced and slowly the general public, which, convinced the profits to begin to focus on safety.
With that introduction complete, we have a context of the evolution of safety. You'd think from that moment forward safety would slowly improve and refine over time to become safer and safer, and you'd be right! The 3 point seat belt, crumple zones, air bags, side intrusion bars, roll over structures, 5 mph bumpers, third brake lights, headlight cut offs, day time running lights, run flat tires, ABS, traction control, collsion detection, torque vectoring, collapsible columns, child detection sensors, seat belt warning lights, back up sensors as well as cameras, lane change warning lights, road surface warnings, satellite tracking, On-Star, etc etc etc. The list of improvements is extreme and long.
Safety has improved! Like the car, the safety of it evolved at an astonishing rate. Contrasting to that though, the humans that operate it, mostly stayed the same. So these safety improvements were designed for them right?
It's true that was the goal. Since the car's popularity was still increasing long after Nader's book, providing the masses with safety was the function.
It's interesting to note that when the car, as a general idea, became the societal norm that finding things that were extra, that added to it's value above and beyond it's intended use, made it more fashionable regardless of the abstractness of that addition.
This timeline of selling the fashion of the car over it's utility is constantly repeatable, and with the introduction of safety features, a cultural curve occurred where it was luxurious to be able to afford safety in your vehicle. This perpetuated the Jones versus the neighbors stereotype, and with the support of the law, the general populous not only was given safety in their vehicles but culturally they finally desired it.
Come the late 80s, early 90s, socially you were required by unspoken law to own and participate in cars, and equally true that car needed to be ripe with the required safety features as well. The law forbids the sale of vehicles that are too unsafe, and since owning a car is socially mandatory, it became fashionable to have at least a certain level of safety.
Profits drive decisions. It's so nice that we have a basic level of equality in safety and the buyers also demand it. The cars evolved to meet the needs, these needs drove profits, profits were had. But, a new problem arrised around this time: What's next?
A severe majority of the population not only owned a car, but a safe car at that.
Humans are still operating cars. They're still controlling the vehicle entirely, with some micromanagement from ABS and traction control. So I have a question that I don't think anyone has ever asked you before: Of your 5 senses, which one is the primary one used to drive a car? The best way to answer is to remove them, and keep removing them until you don't think you could drive a car anymore. We'll come back to this question, feel free to write down which sense is the only sense you need to operate a car.
It's now the mid 90s and everyone is equal again. We all have a general automobile that safely takes people and goods efficiently from point A to B. So where's our social advantage, and more importantly how am I to make decisions if the profits are not obvious anymore?
A new problem has arose; much the same as the car itself went from an item of utility to an item of fashion, so too did the safety. Naders book ultimately helped out, but I don't think he could've predicted how the manufacturers would grow from the mid 90s to convert safety from a utilitarian function of the car, into a fashion item we see it today.
Lane assist, rear crash avoidance, driver alertness monitoring, self leveling headlights, etc etc etc. These are all fashion accessory style safety features, not by my word, but ones that are not part of the vetting of the vehicles safety features. Purely add-ons.
At first I was smitten with Volvo's decree that by certain year in the future, no one would ever die in a Volvo. This shouldn't be a problem, even alluding that it is a problem feel weird to type. However, I realized that I still like Volvo. I am mad at them for using safety as their primary marketing tool. It feels kinda gross and corporate for them to possibly abuse this approach, but I must confirm that although a disgusting marketing angle, they truly are the more ahead of the curve of safety. Or atleast they were, until they were sold and their strategies shifted.
Remember that question I asked you a few paragraphs ago? Vision. Driving is 95% visual. Vision is the only sense of the 5 that a human needs to drive. All information of the vehicles current and future path and it's surroundings are collected visually. Give yourself a pat on the back if that's what you wrote down and a second one for making it this far in my rant.
I want to introduce you to the hero and villain of our story. Naders push for car safety brought us this agency. They created, mandated and monitored these safety tests in a scientific way. They found the best approaches and ideas to both test, but also rate safety. They also came up with the a way to simplify and communicate these results to the public using an easy to comprehend system of 5 stars. More stars, more better.
By the 90s though, a majority of affordable cars had 4 or better stars. It was almost impossible to walk into a dealership and buy average cost car that didn't have 5 stars. Job done! NHTSA finally achieved a standard of excellence for the public!
But alas, profits drive decisions and like any government agency, if they don't spend the budget this year, they'll get less next year. Quietly profits began taking the wheel at the agency and something really important happened: A ripple in the timeline, a fork in the road to our future.
I wish I could've been witness to this soft but important fork, as it's defined nearly the last 35 years of cars, almost globally. Rather than adapting the old standards of safety that were finally met by both the industry of manufacturing and the culture of the buyers, NHTSA doubled down on their original standards. They completely skipped the opportunity to re-evaluate and redesign their rating system. To change from Naders dream of surviving a collision, to a new dream of avoiding them entirely.
Your next task today, after finishing this article, is to go for a walk and hang out near a busy intersection (please in a safe place that isn't confusing or distracting to drivers). Buy a drink, bring a chair, I don't care, just chill and observe. I want you to watch left turns (in a country that the cars drive on the right side of the road. If you're in Australia, Japan, the UK or somewhere else that drives on the other side, then please, evaluate the right turns).
I want you to watch the eyes of the driver, and their head. You'll notice a huge number of drivers have to lean to see around the corner. They've got to shift inside the car to view their turn clearly.
By the early 2000's the NHTSA's mistake became obvious. Their antiquated focus, Naders fulfilled dream, that drivers survive their collisions was still the focus. So companies kept designing to these standards and kept having to double down further in order to maintain sales of new cars. Profits driving the decisions again, as buyers only had two things to focus on primarily; more safety and more gadgets. (Note: Some vehicles from this era became almost valueless today when they would no longer 'pair' with phones newer than their era, regardless of the vehicles ability to drive people and goods from A to B).
The reason you see drivers leaning in their seats, was because they bought cars with hugely swollen A pillars. Packed with more air bags and stronger roll over rigidity.
The ironic thing about this is this:
Driving is visual. Drivers make their decisions by what they can see. When the items to survive collisions block their visual decision making process, then they are more likely to survive a crash that is more likely to happen.
Today is March 14th, 2022 and if you're tuning in from the future, I can only guess that the automotive design bubble is about to burst shortly. The average size of the average car has skyrocketed in contrast with the cost of fuel. (Top Tip! Fuel economy is primarily based on the weight of a car, and not how new a vehicle is. The physics can't be changed. It takes Energy amount 'X' to move weight amount 'X')
Shadows are scary, they hide the things we don't see. When we can see where we are going, when we can't see a person in a car, walking or on a bike, when we can't see a hazard or obstacle, then we're blind to the dangers that may harm us or the things we may harm.
Reducing harm was the whole point of trying to improve safety, and now that safety is a fashionable accessory we've removed it's function and purpose almost entirely. The NHTSA's job was to make us safer, and they did that for a very long time, but now they just help sell cars.
For Matt Tregar who asked why the first photo in this article was important.
Quinn's alternative timeline: Had NHTSA noticed that they'd achieved the original intentions of the program and reassessed, I would've hoped that the alternative future looked like this:
Inside the car is a light, placed exactly where the drivers face would be. Light travels in straight lines for the most part, so by casting a light from where the driver would see from, Toyota is planning what that driver would see, but more importantly what they might miss.
Reducing the 3D volume, the foot print of the vehicle, greatly reduces the chances of a collision.