Old Hat: European Sale Of Diesel Cars Overtaken By Gasoline For The First Time Since 2009

With a bailout of automakers moving from likelihood to inevitability, Congress and President-elect Barack Obama are talking tough on the conditions to be attached to the money, no doubt trying to avoid the angry reaction that nearly scuttled the finance industry assistance package.

Congressional critics, like Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, senior Republican on the banking committee, say that any Detroit bailout would be ineffective unless the automakers can quickly cut costs and produce more compelling, fuel-efficient cars.

What the politicians have not highlighted is that a relatively simple change of regulations — perhaps just a temporary exemption — at the same time Congress opens the purse strings could quickly alter the competitive landscape for the Detroit Three.

General Motors and Ford already make popular, high-quality, high-mileage automobiles. The trouble is, because of regulatory differences between the United States and the European Union, they’re sold only in Europe.

The automakers’ reluctance to sell those cars in the United States is not as simple as the cars’ inability to meet United States standards for equipment, safety and exhaust emissions; there’s also the cost involved in the certification process. Changing the law to allow the United States sale of cars compliant with European emissions and crash standards, even for just a few years, would allow G.M. and Ford to quickly add some of their popular, high-mileage European models to their lineups here in America.

Ford S-MaxFord S-Max, the 2007 European Car of the Year. (Uli Deck/European Pressphoto Agency)

It’s reasonable to think that within a year, G.M. could import the tiny Opel Agila, the sporty Chevy Spark, and the midsize Opel Insignia, which won the 2009 European Car of the Year award. Ford’s improved lineup could include the Ka subcompact, the universally praised Fiesta and the S-Max minivan, which blows the sliding doors off any current domestic competition.

Crash testing for new cars, often referred to as New Car Assessment Programs, varies by geographic region, though a 10-year plan is in place to define a global standard. The N.C.A.P. test results, summarized in the United States in easy-to-grasp star ratings (five is best, one is worst), provides useful information for consumers, though it is not the same as the federal tests conducted by automakers to certify new models before they can go on sale.

Currently, the United States and Japan each have their own standards, while Europe and Australia both use the European N.C.A.P. standard. The United States standard, administered by the N.H.T.S.A., involves the assessment the forces on a crash dummy after a full-width frontal crash into a concrete barrier at 35 miles an hour. A similar test for side impacts sends a 3,015-pound trolley at a 63-degree angle into the side of a stationary car at 38.5 miles per hour.

In Europe, the N.C.A.P. standards vary slightly -– the full-frontal impact speed is 40 m.p.h. rather than 35, and the side impact trolley weighs only 2,090 pounds and hits the car at 90 degrees rather than 63 degrees.

Opel InsigniaOpel Insignia, the 2009 European Car of the Year.

Additionally, the European N.C.A.P. standard adds an offset frontal impact into a deformable barrier to the testing regimen. This test is intended to simulate a head-on collision, and while the test typically imparts less energy to the safety dummies, it poses extreme stresses to the safety structure of the car and is especially helpful in determining the risk of intrusion injuries.

Critics consider the lack of an offset crash in the N.H.T.S.A. program to be an oversight, and advocate the wholesale adoption of European N.C.A.P. testing procedures. But given the usual similarity of results between the tests, the reasonable conclusion seems that either testing regimen can ensure safe automobiles.

Perhaps the biggest difference in the safety standards is that the United States standard requires a safety measure, typically an airbag, for an unbelted passenger in a frontal accident. In Europe, no such requirement exists. The N.H.T.S.A. says that the United States standard is required because seatbelt compliance in the United States is low, but critics contend airbags that comply with N.C.A.P. standards are too powerful and actually reduce safety for belted occupants.

Emissions standards would likely cause more consternation. The differences between European emissions standards and the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency are difficult to measure because the test cycles used to measure nitrogen-oxides and particulate-matter emissions differ. But European and American standards for gasoline-powered cars have been nearly identical since 2007.

European standards allow slightly higher particulate emissions for diesel cars, but nearly all cars sold in Europe could still pass both standards and even the stringent standards set by the California Air Resources Board.

Other compliance issues would need to be addressed in order to bring European-market G.M. and Ford models into the United States — English-unit speedometers and odometers would have to be fitted, as would United States-specification headlights and side markers. And United States acceptance of these standards might have to include some type of liability protection to prevent manufacturers from being sued for safety differences specific to these standards.

But allowing the sale of cars compliant with European standards, at least for a few years, would reduce the enormous costs of emissions testing and crash testing new models for the United States market. Such a move might even satisfy critics who charge that the domestic manufacturers have brought the crisis upon themselves by failing to build the right types of vehicles.

As an added benefit, American consumers could get a few great new cars.

Source : https://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/09/fast-tracking-some-good-cars/

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