Automakers and auto enthusiasts alike aren’t fond of the differing safety standards in Europe and the United States. Having to satisfy two different standards means increased costs for car companies that want to compete on a global scale and it also means that car enthusiasts on both continents are often deprived of desirable cars on sale in the other market. But according to Automotive News, lobbyists for automakers in the U.S. and Europe are hoping to use current negotiations over a free-trade agreement to harmonize safety standards and they are using academics to make their argument.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington D.C. trade group representing both domestic and international automakers, the American Automotive Policy Council, and the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association have commissioned the Transportation Research Institute of the University of Michigan and SAFER, a similar research group at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, to find common points between American and European automotive safety regulations.
“Regulators tend to believe that their standards are the best. They have ‘not-invented-here syndrome,’ ” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “We want to show them that our standards may differ in some modest ways, but the ones that we’re looking at harmonizing are essentially equivalent.”
Automakers are hoping to influence the results of the proposed U.S.-EU trade deal known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which the auto industry in both regions supports. About 10% of all trade between the European Union and the United States has to do with the auto industry, either components or assembled automobiles and trucks.
Robert Strassburger, a vice president at the Alliance, says that it’s not as simple as comparing the results of crash tests. There are differences in traffic patterns, driving speeds and weather between the U.S. and Europe and those factors impact the number of accidents and their severity.
“If the world were simple, we could just compare fatality rates in both regions per vehicle mile traveled and call it good. But the reality is: a mile driven here is different than a mile driven in Europe,” Strassburger said. “The study we’re doing is going to account for all those differences on an apples-to-apples basis.”
There are concerns by industry critics, though, that the businesses will try to align the standards by pushing for the least stringent of the rules. At the same time that car companies complain about the cost of meeting multiple standards, of having to engineer cars for each market, they are also fine with selling the same nameplates with differing safety standards if it’s cheaper to build a car for a market with lower standards. A recent TTAC news post described how cars come out of the same factories in Mexico with differing levels of safety equipment based on if they are bound for the U.S. or Latin America.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that automakers will have a hard time convincing both American regulators and American consumer advocates to embrace Euro standards. “I think there’s going to be quite a bit of angst about accepting that a European regulation that consumer advocates have had no opportunity to comment on is going to be the law of the land for the United States as well,” he said.
In the late 1990s, car companies doing business in the U.S. petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to consider U.S. and European side-impact crash tests equivalent. NHTSA rejected the request, saying that European regulations did not do enough to protect rear-seat passengers.
At the same time, the IIHS believes that American regulators have been slow to adopt some new technologies, citing, for example, Audi’s struggle to get U.S. officials to approve their sophisticated new automatically dimming high beam headlights.
“If you try to do some overarching equivalence, where a vehicle approved for sale in Europe is approved in the U.S.,” Lund said, “that clearly has pluses and minuses.”
The trade groups backing the academic study hope the researchers will have data compiled and a methodology formed by the summer with the finished report published by the end of 2014, in time for when U.S. administration and European Commission officials say that they’ll be hammering out final details on the free-trade agreement.