Study: No Trade-Off Between Higher Fuel Economy and Vehicle Safety
10 June 2007
|Sample safety risks of existing vehicles with high (green) and low (red) fuel economy. Click to enlarge.|
A new study concludes that there is no trade-off required between higher fuel economy and vehicle safety.
The study, informed by an October 2006 experts workshop titled Simultaneously Improving Vehicle Safety and Fuel Economy through Improvements in Vehicle Design and Materials, concludes that manufacturers can use advanced materials to increase both fuel economy and safety without reducing a vehicle’s functionality. It also finds that reducing the weight and height of the heaviest SUVs and pickup trucks will simultaneously increase both their fuel economy and overall safety.
|Technology options for increasing fuel economy and/or safety. Click to enlarge.|
The authors conclude that existing technology options can improve light-duty vehicle fuel economy by up to 50% over the next 10 years without reducing the weight or size of vehicles. Any extra cost associated with the auto-manufacturing changes would be more than offset by savings generated by more fuel-efficient vehicles.
A common argument against mandating significant increases in fuel economy is that such efficiency requirements would greatly decrease the safety of vehicles, thereby leading to increases in traffic fatalities.
The potential to improve the fuel economy of light-duty vehicles while also improving traffic safety is debated because of the claim that lighter vehicles are, and will forever remain, more dangerous for their occupants. The critical issue is whether these historical tendencies are intrinsic, or whether they continue to change over time with new designs, testing, and sound regulations. The reality is that these relationships are not intrinsic to motor vehicles. Rather, the linkages among fuel economy, vehicle size, weight, and safety are manageable and are more a function of smart vehicle design than any other single factor.—Sipping Fuel and Saving Lives: Increasing Fuel Economy without Sacrificing Safety
The authors of the study, Sipping Fuel and Saving Lives: Increasing Fuel Economy without Sacrificing Safety, are Deborah Gordon, a transportation policy consultant; David L. Greene, a fuel-economy policy expert; Marc H. Ross, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Michigan; and Tom P. Wenzel, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
The study’s authors reviewed a decade’s worth of recent research in the field and concluded:
Most technologies to increase fuel economy do not affect safety; most technologies to increase safety do not affect fuel economy.
The inherent relationship between vehicle safety and fuel economy has long been the subject of discussion. The many technologies available to improve vehicle fuel economy (particularly those that do not involve weight reduction) have no impact on vehicle safety. Those approaches that strategically reduce vehicle weight (using new lightweight materials to reduce weight while holding vehicle size constant and reducing the weight of the heaviest trucks and SUVs to make them less aggressive) also improve fuel economy while maintaining, and perhaps even improving, vehicle safety.
Reducing car mass while improving vehicle structure, using advanced materials and designs, can simultaneously increase fuel economy and safety.
Reducing the weight and improving the structure of truck-based SUVs and pickups can increase their fuel economy and improve the safety of all vehicles on the road.
The study recommends that policymakers:
Set fuel economy and safety performance goals at cost-effective levels, and allow adequate time for phase-in of vehicle redesigns.
Develop short-term goals that use existing technological potential and long-term goals to spur continued innovation.
Apply the same fuel economy and safety standards consistently to all vehicle types (cars, SUVs, and pickups).
Encourage driver behavior that improves fuel economy or safety—e.g. seat belt use or reduced driving speeds.
The report was presented by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation convened the experts meeting that led to the report.
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