Thursday, February 7, 2008

Green vs. Safety New Trend of US Car Makers?

As originally published in
Recently, a lot of talk about cars have been about the alternative green vehicles -- electric, hybrid, biodiesel, ethanol, biofuel, fuel cell. We are served with ads after ads of car companies out competing each other on being green. Even if you are not wondering when you can buy it and are enjoying the positive vibe of these feel good ads, you may be getting sick of them like me. However, perhaps we are ignoring other critical issues, such as safety on existing vehicles. After all, more than 42,000 people die on American roads every year, with traffic accidents being the leading cause for people under 25.

A recent Newsweek article expressed concern that “safety may be taking a back seat to green technology.” According to Keith Naughton who wrote the Newsweek article, green generates so much positive publicity buzz that new safety breakthroughs are not being highlighted. The article mentioned innovations in collision mitigation systems, lane-departure warnings, and additional airbags that are being ignored in PR efforts.

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety expressed similar concern, saying that “Green is in right now and safety is taking a back seat.” The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is an independent, nonprofit, scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses — deaths, injuries, and property damage — from crashes on the nation's highways.

I was concerned about this issue and ran a Google search on the term “green vs. car safety”. It returned very few mentions and seemed to think I was looking into whether green cars are safe. It returned no mention on safety taking a backseat, except for the above article, but that does mean it is not an issue.

On the eco-friendly car front, there is some concern about the safety of new lithium-ion battery, due to precedence of a small number of laptop batteries exploding two years ago. However, this technology is not more dangerous than the gigantic combustible gasoline tank we are driving around.

There is also a lot of concern on the safety of hydrogen cars, as is usually the case with new technology. However, in truth, there is little danger of explosion too. Since H2 is the lightest element, leaked compressed H2 from fuel-cell cars will escape upwards at high speed, flashes, and only burns upon contact (instead of creating a fire that radiates outward at ground level like gasoline fuel will). The different piping architecture for delivering compressed H2 to the fuel cell compared to gasoline combustion-transmission systems however, means that automakers rolling out such vehicles have been training emergency first responders how to safely work with such cars. H2 is combustible at a wider range than gasoline, so bringing it into contact with heated extraction equipments is not a good idea.

Car safety is of vital importance, I am sure, to every single person out there. Hopefully all these money and effort devoted to developing and marketing the green car future to save the planet will not ignore the fact that humans are needed to drive the cars of today.


Auros said...

So, there's discussion in the chapter about cars, in Natural Capitalism, about the green-vs-safety mentality of the US car-buying public. The general public seems to be under the impression that they will be safer if they drive around in huge SUVs.

In fact, the hard data says: safety is positively correlated to having more volume; but it's negatively correlated to having more mass. This makes sense -- the amount of energy involved in bringing a car to a halt is smaller if the car has less mass; and if the car has more volume, there's more space in which you can have parts that are designed to crumple and dissipate energy.

And of course, SUVs are also less safe because of the higher center of mass (rollover hazard, and poor cornering performance).

So if you really want a safe car, you should drive a station wagon using a super-rigid ceramic frame and carbon-fiber body panels, with aerofoam crumple cones backing the panels to absorb impact energy. This would also be a green car, because it would weigh half as much as a comparable steel-frame car.

Yet another case in which the "either-or" mentality is Just Wrong.

busythinker said...

Dear Auros, nowhere in this article does it say large cars are safer. However your point is a great addition to the discussion. It is a problem when parents think that their kids should have SUV because they will be safer. In fact an SUV is more likely to roll over, so safer is a fallacy. I have a friend who swore off SUV mandated by his parent after landing on the roof after swerving. I think we environmentalists ought to adopt the "AND" mentality -- green AND safe, small AND safe, and look for cars that fit both criteria.