Improved Cars: Chu on It

Today, President-elect Barack Obama formally nominated Steven Chu to become the next Energy Secretary. While Chu wouldn’t be the auto czar — someone to manage Detroit’s use of any bailout money and ensure that those funds go for retooling and improved management — he does have some definite ideas of what U.S. cars should evolve into. Here’s what he told me back in September:

GUZZLERS NO MORE Hey Detroit: Lighten up, the incoming Energy Secretary recommends. duckycards / iStockphoto

“Lighter cars mean lower fuel consumption” and U.S. automakers “know how to make lighter, more energy efficient cars. GM and Ford know how to make these. They make them already in Europe,” where there’s long been a premium in fuel sipping, nimble cars.

The problem: Detroit has developed a business model that “the bigger the car, the safer the car,” Chu says. So, automakers “try to convince soccer moms that their children would be safer in a 4,000 to 5,000 pound car” when it turns out that “they can be equally safe in a 2,000 to 3,000-lb car.”

The trick to selling Detroit on smaller cars (if they haven’t already seen the writing on the wall with Toyota’s Prius sell-outs) is convincing them that “they can make a very small car that’s expensive. And the way you do this — and they’ve seen this for sports cars — is by loading these vehicles up with electronic gadgets.”

Take a tip from Boeing, Chu suggests: “In our modern jet fighters, the avionics is the most expensive part of the plane. Well, the electronics in a car could be the most expensive part.” Dealers could load up their cars with compelling bells and whistles that promise to make tooling down the road more enjoyable — but not burden the car with extra pounds.

Some people will be justifiably concerned about the safety of passengers in a 2,000-lb lightweight that’s hit by some 6,000-lb automotive bruiser. Chu acknowledges that the smaller car and its occupants could suffer mightily. “But,” he adds, “we can, on a regulatory basis, say okay, if you really want to drive a 6,000-lb vehicle, you should pay, yearly, some tax to account for the fact that you have a higher likelihood (and this is born out by statistics) of killing someone with your heavy car.”

Chu cites statistics that as the weight of a car doubles from 3,000 to 6,000 lbs, there is a 30 percent increased chance of surviving an accident. But driving that bigger brute also quadruples the likelihood that someone in the smaller vehicle will sustain lethal injuries.

“So I think we should propose a death tax,” Chu says. People could buy heavy vehicles, he says — but they’ll have to annually ante up some premium to account for their vehicle’s risk of “endangering others.”

And on a totally different front, safety-minded drivers may want to chew on this new development: a device that attaches to a car key to prevent the driver from using his or her cell phone while that key is in the ignition. A key in use transmits a wireless message to the driver’s phone that prevents its use for voice or text messaging. There are, however, exceptions: Phoning 911 escapes the jamming and certain override numbers (like mom’s cell) can be programmed in. The University of Utah developers anticipate the big market for their technology (which might be commercially available as soon as next summer) would be parents hoping to keep teens from being distracted by calls while driving.

( posted this Dec. 12 story — a verbatim copy of a press release issued by the university two days earlier — on its website.)

Certainly, the general idea behind this technology is a clever one and long overdue. It’s also one that kids will probably find a way around fairly quickly — such as by using a passenger’s cell. Or perhaps by borrowing the family Prius. I suspect it would be immune in that newer models of this car rely on a keyless ignition system.  

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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