When Air Bags Aren't Enough

Detroit has to address new safety issues raised by the success of light trucks

It could have been the sort of accident that too often shows up in grim highway fatality statistics. On Jan. 17, a Ford F-150 pickup truck traveling at 50 mph broadsided Linda Rasmussen's 1998 BMW 740il in Plano, Texas. The impact crumpled the BMW but caused only minor injuries to Rasmussen, her 12-year-old daughter Jennifer, and their dog Miko. Their salvation: side air bags. "It scares me to think what would have happened without them," Rasmussen says.

Trouble is, most Americans don't own $66,000 luxury sedans packed with the latest in safety innovations. The typical subcompact, by comparison, is no match in a collision for the pickups and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) that now account for more than a third of all vehicles on U.S. roads. It's an increasingly urgent dilemma for Detroit: The Big Three must make their cars more crashworthy, like BMW's--but their highly profitable trucks may need a safety overhaul, too. "We're looking more closely than we did in the past at the compatibility of different vehicles," says Jacques A. Nasser, president of Ford Motor Co.'s automotive operations.

CANADA CONFAB. On June 1, when high-level officials from auto makers, federal regulatory agencies, and consumer groups meet in Windsor, Ont., to thrash out auto-safety issues, the car-truck problem will be at center stage. Auto makers say they are addressing the mismatch by adding side air bags and beefing up the passenger cars' structure. Government officials and safety advocates say Detroit must do more--namely, make trucks lighter, lower, and less menacing. "They have to retool these vehicles, and that's going to cost money," says Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington and a persistent critic of Big Three trucks.

Big Three execs admit they are under attack. "Do we have the trust of the public on safety that we'd like?" asks Chrysler Corp. Chairman Robert J. Eaton. "Definitely not." The rub: Light trucks and big SUVs such as Ford's Lincoln Navigator and Chrysler's Dodge Durango accounted for most of Detroit's combined record $16.4 billion profit last year. High-riding sport-utes can't be lowered overnight without dramatic redesigns costing billions--and denting the appeal of such vehicles to buyers who crave heft and height.

Certainly, U.S. highways are safer than ever, with traffic fatalities down 24%, to 41,660, last year from their 1972 peak. The improvement came from a combination of regulation and societal changes--increased seat-belt usage, stiffer drunk-driving laws, better driver-education programs--but also from more solid, better-engineered cars.

In the 1990s, though, highway deaths have stopped their decline, in part because of the growth of light trucks, which account for 47% of all vehicles sold in the U.S. so far this year, up from 33% in 1990. Car fatalities attributable to collisions with pickups, vans, and sport-utilities averaged 18% of all highway deaths from 1991 to 1996--but the toll was decidedly lopsided. In 1996, car occupants accounted for 81% of the 5,259 killed in truck-car collisions, government statistics show.

That's one reason safety has become a big selling point. Indeed, 93% of respondents in a recent BUSINESS WEEK/Harris Poll called vehicle safety an important factor in car-buying decisions. More than half indicated they would pay extra for new safety features like side air bags, and 26% said they would spend $1,000 or more. "As soon as new safety features are on the market, the appetite is there," says Jacques daCosta, product research manager at consulting firm J.D. Power & Associates Inc. in Agoura Hills, Calif.

So Detroit is looking for safety solutions--many of which are coming from Europe. The design of Mercedes Benz's new, fast-selling M-class SUV, for one, shows what a top-to-bottom redesign can produce. Mercedes engineers "addressed compatibility [with smaller cars] from the get-go," says National Highway & Transportation Safety Administration chief Ricardo Martinez. As a result, the M-class's frame and bumper is about 19 inches off the ground, up to nine inches lower than Detroit's SUVs and closer to the height of a typical sedan. In a head-on collision, then, its lower frame will more often hit the frame of a passenger sedan, rather than the unprotected body steel above. Mercedes also built in a softer "crumple zone" in the frame to absorb crash energy that, in a stiffer frame, would be absorbed by the lighter car in a collision.

Such engineering doesn't necessarily cost consumers huge bucks: M-class models start at around $34,000, close to the price of a high-end Ford Explorer. But Big Three safety experts contend that softer crumple zones could lessen the protection of SUV occupants. And Chrysler's safety chief, Susan M. Cischke, is skeptical that a lower frame and bumper would greatly reduce how a heavy SUV damages a lighter car in a crash. "The bottom line is still the weight difference," she says. SUVs average 2,000 pounds heavier than typical compact sedans.

In any case, the Big Three can't replicate Mercedes' feat any time soon because their biggest SUVs are built on existing pickup truck frames--which require clearance for a drive-shifting mechanism and heavy off-road use. A lower frame won't happen before the next generation of trucks arrives several years from now. Until then, Ford is studying a grille-like mechanism on the front of its SUVs that would lower when a sensor detects an imminent crash. Toyota's Lexus division is introducing a height-control system on its new LX 470 SUV that lowers the vehicle by four inches when driven at highway speeds. But the Lexus sells for $55,000, and Ford's proposal is unproven and could end up costing thousands.

That's why, in the near term, Detroit will focus more resources on cars, seeking to lessen the damage in accidents with trucks. "We need to address the entire vehicle population," rather than just trucks, says Robert C. Lange, engineering director for General Motors Corp.'s North American operations. Safety advocates say the Big Three would do well to emulate Volkswagen's new Beetle, a moderately priced car that uses straightforward design to protect its occupants. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced in May that the Beetle (base price: $15,700) was the safest of a dozen small cars it evaluated in high-speed crash tests.

The Bug's attributes? Nothing revolutionary. The car has dual door beams to protect front-seat passengers in side impacts, a stiff metal bar behind the front bumper, and a beam that supports the steering column and is attached to windshield pillars. Moreover, the Beetle's unique bow-shaped roof reduces frontal-crash forces by transferring them to the rear of the vehicle. Side air bags, available on very few Big Three cars, are standard on the Bug.

Detroit surely is getting side-air-bag religion. General Motors Corp. has introduced side bags on nine of its car models and plans to increase that next year. Ford will offer the bags on cars and minivans as they're redesigned over the next three years. Chrysler Corp. has trailed its rivals on side bags, but a company insider says "we are moving very quickly in that direction."

Detroit's engineers also are studying a variety of future technologies that could reduce accidents. Among the gadgets under study in Motown's labs are "intelligent" cruise controls that adjust to keep a safe distance from other vehicles and sensors that detect when a driver is falling asleep. Detroit has been talking up such gizmos for decades, though, and most won't be available until well into the 21st century.

In the meantime, carmakers are experimenting with hybrid vehicles that combine the popular cargo space and off-road capability of an SUV with the size and shape of a passenger car. As such vehicles roll out in the next few years, consumers who don't need a monster to drive up mountains will be able to buy a vehicle that's powerful, roomy, and sporty--and a lot safer. The question is whether that safer model will still be a money spinner for the Big Three.

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