NPF: BLINDED

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 19th, 2016 by Ed

Ever wonder why outward visibility is so terrible in modern cars? It's not your imagination. It also is not a coincidence that features like "blind spot warning system" and "rear view backup camera" have become standard even on compact cars near the bottom of the new car price ladder. They're putting those things on everything from the Mercedes S-Class to the Kia Soul because visibility, especially behind and to the side (the classic "blind spot") is almost nonexistent in some modern vehicles.

Here's why.

Around 1990 when the SUV boom began in the U.S., auto manufacturers generally tried to economize by building big SUVs on existing platforms from cars and (pickup) trucks. In broad strokes, 1990s SUVs are some of the most unsafe vehicles you can drive today. They were almost uniformly top-heavy, poorly proportioned, and practically designed to flip and roll over during sharp handling. Something darts in front and you need to swerve to avoid it? Well your 1994 Ford Explorer is going to go full Michael Bay. Then of course there was the infamous Ford/Firestone rollover fiasco that was all over the news for the better part of three years and practically brought both companies to their knees. Firestone was making (and still makes) shitty tires that were exploding and causing Ford's tall, heavy, poorly balanced SUVs to do cartwheels. The public became sufficiently exercised for Congress to act.

In the early 2000s Congress and the NTSB mandated new measures to make vehicles either better at avoiding accidents or able to make accidents more survivable. Making cars better at avoiding accidents involves complicated and generally quite pricey technology like electronic stability control, torque distribution / all-wheel drive, and a whole lot of other electric nannies to bail out poor drivers doing dumb things like braking while cornering fast. The other option was to increase your odds of living through an accident, even a rollover. And that's much cheaper.

Your car's pillars (A, B, C, and in some vehicles like station wagons, D) have exploded since then. Some of them are so wide now that outward visibility is near zero. Why? Two reasons. One is that they are now stuffed full of airbags. The other is that they have been thickened to strengthen them so that the roof (per NTSB rules) can support the entire weight of the vehicle during a rollover. Here's the C-pillar in America's most popular family car, the Camry. Twenty years ago that would have been three or four inches wide, tops, to maximize driver visibility and exterior aesthetics. Now it has enough steel in it to support a 4000-pound load during a high speed impact.

Anyone knowledgeable about the industry over the years can confirm that the single biggest change in cars since, say, the 1960s and 1970s is weight. Cars today weigh twice as much or more as comparable vehicles did Back in the Day. The curb weight of a 1967 Ford Mustang was 2970 pounds. The curb weight of this year's model is over 3800…and the Mustang is a sports car with great pains taken to keep weight down. All that weight is about safety, period. "Classic" cars were and are death traps. If you got in an accident at highway speed you were probably dead. Today cars are full of airbags, safety cages, crush zones, reinforced everything, load-bearing A-B-C pillars – you name it. All that weight increases occupants' odds of surviving an accident.

If you happen to have a pre-2000 car as well as, say, a post-2010 car to compare it to, grab a ruler and measure the three main pillars. Or just sit inside and admire how much better your visibility is from behind the wheel of the older vehicle. Modern cars are engineering marvels for the most part, but unfortunately we are now relying on gadgets to allow us to see what's going on around us. Anyone who has survived a serious accident will no doubt argue that the tradeoff is worth it.