One of the greatest frustrations facing developers of more efficient vehicles is the necessary evil of meeting safety regulations. To state the obvious, cars are not iPods or T-shirts or PCs, not just because they cost a lot more, but because they can and do kill people. In the USA, some 45,000 people a year. In its ongoing battle against this carnage, the lead US government authority is the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), which implements vehicle safety rules through the FMVSS system (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards). For those with lots of free time, you can browse the standards on the NHTSA website (FMVSS Overview). These incredibly elaborate rules cover everything from windshields to seat belts to crumple zones to airbags and more. Estimates of the cost of their implementation abound, but a good working figure is $2,000/car... for a manufacturer cranking out a few million cars a year. For smaller firms, such as those the X Prize would try to encourage, the per-car amount is much higher, because of the inability to amortize huge investments such as test tracks and supercomputers across massive volumes. There are ways around some of this burden, with the most tried-and-true method being to retrofit an existing vehicle with a nifty new powertrain: it's a lot cheaper to put a methanol powerplant into a Honda chassis (for example) than to develop a whole new car. In any case, the X Prize staff is working hard to set prize rules that take this challenge into account. One trade-off to determine is that of safety versus public acceptance: if the competition produces incredibly green cars that are also incredibly unsafe, no one gains; but if every car must meet every FMVSS, does the added cost block out many of the most innovative entrepreneurs?
All this came to light again recently in a humurous way, as covered in the Financial Times (FT - subscription required). The VW subsidiary Bugatti, makers of the world's most expensive ultra-car, the Veyron, said:
"Bugatti could be driven out of business if the supercar manufacturer is forced to comply with new US airbag rules which come into force next month, the French subsidiary of Volkswagen has told safety regulators. Bugatti told the NHTSA in a letter last month that it would face "substantial economic hardship" from the new rules, which would require it to redesign its only model, the 1,001 horsepower €1m ($1.28m) Veyron. The cost would push up the price of the car 10 per cent and have a "catastrophic" effect on sales, it said."
One might wonder what kind of "economic hardship" the producer of a million-dollar car might face (can't Veyron buyers just sell one of their five or six condo's in Monaco to scrape up the extra quarter-million?), but the point is made in any case: it costs a lot to meet safety standards, especially as they continue to evolve.