Time For a Smaller Car Standard?
Sometimes things just don't make sense. Not always by design, but by virtue of the Grandfather Clause, or what is accepted due to a particular lobby or pressure group. For instance, it is illegal some places to carry a knife over 3 inches, but you can carry a gun with a permit. You can't, on the other hand, get a permit to strap a big sword to your back, even if it's less effective as a killing tool than a Colt King Cobra revolver.
Motorcycles and car crash test safety standards are another example. You can speed down the freeway on a Suzuki Hayabusa crotch rocket, with little but your wits protecting you, but you can't drive a Suzuki Carry mini-truck, or a Suzuki WagonR on the roads here in the U.S. Some in the U.S. buy Japanese mini trucks for off-road and farm use, but don't you dare drive one on roads where mopeds and motorcycles are allowed, because your mini truck is "unsafe"!
A recent article claims High Gas Prices Have Consumers Looking At Motorcycles. Another says More Commuters Eyeing Mo-Peds, Scooters. With gasoline prices where they are, and few cars that get the kind of fuel economy a 1989 Geo Metro provided without some kind of pricey hybrid setup, some Americans are moving way downscale to very fuel efficient 2-wheelers. Or at least they're dusting off the bikes they bought on a whim and are driving them for more than the occasional weekend cruise.
But there's a gap between Aveo-sized cars and motorcycles and scooters that does not exist in many other countries outside of the U.S. And they are extremely fuel efficient and affordable vehicles that allow carpooling, something the U.S. government is trying to promote.
This I think, begs the question -- should GM make a point of engineering a car of at least Matiz size (if not smaller) to pass U.S. crash safety standards? A car that mixes extreme affordability with fuel economy due to decreased weight and size? A vehicle one step up from a motorcycle? Or is GM married to the idea that Americans want larger, heavier, expensive hybrid and plug-in solutions for fuel economy?
As an alternative, might the United States consider allowing a new class of car, like Japan's so-called "Kei Cars" (軽自動車 keijidōsha - literally "light automobiles"), also known as "City Cars" - or A-Segment cars in Europe - to be sold and driven here? GM has an alliance partner who sells them, and is in fact the number one maker of such cars in Japan - Suzuki.
Of course the cars would have some required level of safety so as not to be deathtraps - they just would not be held to the same increasingly tough standards that apply to larger cars, trucks and SUVs.
The Kei car standard originated in Japan after the Second World War, when most Japanese could not afford a full-sized car but had enough to buy a motorcycle. Kei car standards were created to help the auto industry in Japan, standards that placed motorcycle-type engines of small displacement in tiny car or truck bodies. The first Kei cars were hardly roomy and met the definition of "penalty box" -- but they were capable of carrying a family affordably. And the Kei standard has changed over the years to allow for bigger engines and different dimensions.
The Kei car standard did not evolve as a way to save gas money, but now, with city cars that make amazingly efficient use of interior space, and rapidly rising gasoline prices, a type of car like this might make a lot more sense than it did even a few years ago, when I wrote a similar rant here proposing that GM go to Subaru and Suzuki for a minicar to sell here in the U.S.
One of the first safety complaints from detractors of Kei or City Cars would be the idea of driving them at unsafe U.S. highway speeds, surrounded by large trucks. This would seem to be an easy arguement to defeat if City Cars were restricted as to where they could drive by the posted speed limit. A speed limit of over 55 for example, could be made off limits. Having been in a turbocharged Kei car driving around 60mph in Japan, I don't fear the speed aspect as much as others, but instability due to crosswinds at high speeds is something I experienced driving a larger Chevy Metro at 70mph with trucks whizzing by at 90.
Mopeds are generally not allowed to be operated at a speed greater than 30 MPH on public roads and highways. Would the creation of a similar rule for ultra small cars be so outrageous and hard for the American public to wrap its collective mind around?
Speed argument aside, what is left? The crash safety issue, and interior room. How is it that people like Ralph Nader managed to lead an ever burdensome and expensive crusade for vehicle occupant safety against automakers and yet the motorcycle came out more or less unscathed? If the Corvair was "unsafe at any speed", how is a Harley the model of crash worthiness?
As for interior room, I was amazed at how roomy some Kei cars, with high rooflines similar to the Scion xB, felt when I lived in Japan. Seats would fold completely flat across the rows, any you could lay on them like a bed. The interiors of some felt far roomier than an S-10 Blazer I drove for some time, and the leg room in Kei cars was not so bad if you pushed your seat back all the way and I'm just over 6 feet.
I'm not arguing against motorcycles, but rather am arguing for a similar exception. Once a tiny car is loaded down with 8 airbags and a beefier structure, it loses much of its fuel economy advantage. This is why we'll not see a Suzuki WagonR on our shores any time soon.
Some will say that culturally such vehicles would not be accepted. But of course they forget, or simply do not know, that such cars have been sold in the U.S. in the past. Crosley was an American Automaker that made such cars. During World War II and gasoline rationing, the Crosley cars were popular as they got 50 miles per gallon with their 2-cylinder engines.
Perhaps, as with the interior improvements in Kei cars in Japan and with the way the Japanese automakers have creatively pushed limits of the Kei Class rules (Kei class cars can avoid certain taxes in Japan - so it pays to stay within the class), they can also find a way to make the small cars crash worthy in the U.S. without requiring another class. And if they do that, GM had better not be caught with its pants down, this time.
And it's not just sedans and hatches that a smaller car class could offer. Wagons, trucks and (my favorite) tiny vans could also be allowed on U.S. roads. If limited to feeder roads alongside highways, that would be fine for me, and I'm guessing a lot of other people would take advantage of such small cars, especially if gasoline prices keep rising. They'll be less of a novelty and will simply make more sense if predictions of $10 gasoline ever come true.
At the very least, such minicars might make a good stop-gap until GM and other automakers find a way to make Hybrid and Plug-In technology truly affordable to the masses in such a nightmare gasoline scenario. Not everyone will want to buy a $20,000-40,000 car for the sake of fuel efficiency, and just because we have safety laws between motorcycles and cars that (to me) make little sense, we should not be denied the option of affordable, 4-seater, fuel efficent cars that slot between motorbikes and today's U.S. automobiles.