Impose a fine per car sold on those models which perform below average in the national accident statistics, and hand over the money to the automakers whose cars show above average? A crazy scheme? Well, the Polish government is considering such a plan, and if it is adopted (and Poland joins the EU next year as proposed) only Heaven and Brussels know where it might end. The idea has been devised by a UK advisor to the National Road Safety Council of Poland, which is looking for new methods to raise money to cut accidents after a long-running World Bank loan expires in 2004. It is just one of several actions now under committee study before a recommendation emerges for Warsaw to consider, but it raises some intriguing issues.
Not the least of these is the sort of machiavellian twist that Brussels loves, for no matter how much car safety improved as new models leapfrogged their rivals and predecessors and raised the average, there would always be that average below which half the models in the market must fall. This would be the fiscal equivalent of perpetual motion. Not so much a crazy scheme, perhaps, as an alarming precedent. The man behind it is road safety specialist Milton ertin-Jones, seconded to the Polish council by the Bobtie Group UK, a lasgow-based technical management consultancy specialising in developing economies. He argues that a market-orientated methodology picks up on design decisions as a component of accident costs, with good safety design of benefit to the community and bad design generating cost. "Companies that improve the level of safety of their products will increase their benefits, or the price of their products can be reduced - a clear difference from the current situation, where a manufacturer adding a safety feature is face with cost increases," says Bertil-Jones. He believes the system could replace current vehicle approval procedures, cutting costs to government and industry by making the issue and enforcement of safety regulations unnecessary. Manufacturers would take back complete ownership of vehicle design and could assess cost and benefit model by model in deciding when to discontinue a product. Using the average rate of accidents as a yardstick would exclude factors outside the manufacturers' control, such as accident black spots, while setting aside the question of the guilty party in an accident would take into account "different levels of aggressiveness built into the vehicles' design". Safety stats would also include pedestrian and bicycle accidents, "creating incentives to design more pedestrian-friendly vehicle and closing a back hole in an area which is not covered today by specific regulations". According to Bertil-Jones, the long term result would be "a continuous improvement in vehicle safety levels . . . the reduction in the number of persons killed would produce additional company income, and would reduce the average rate of accidents, creating a market pressure on other manufacturers to increase the level of safety offered . . . . the company board of directors would start to ask designers: will these new designs lower our average accident rate in real-life conditions?" There would also be a tendency to tone down commercial ads and reduce performance, says Bertil-Jones. "Ads that emphasise the maximum speed of the car or its acceleration rate, besides promoting this type of dangerous driving, will surely attract this type of customer. Vehicles can be made safer by preventing dangerous use by controlling the maximum speed or the maximum rate of acceleration. These vehicles will be less attractive to unsafe customers." He further suggests a free course in defensive driving for car buyers, and a retailer's right to refuse to sell a vehicle to "a dangerous driver, for example if he or she has speeding tickets".
Is it more flattering or more annoying to find the gist of your thoughts on a particular subject published by someone else before you got round to committing them to paper? Writing in a recent issue of Automotive Environment Analyst, Dr Peter Wells of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at the Cardiff Business School beat me to it on the relevance of ultra-luxury cars.
How many others share our view that huge and vastly expensive new models like the latest Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Maybach might indeed be the stalwarts of environmental motoring rather than the villains?
I always believed such cars to be a valuable part of the industry if only because they help keep alive the traditional hand-building arts and crafts under threat in our throwaway world. For the last hundred years top-flight cars and beautifully presented boats have together preserved skills developed during the era of the horse-drawn coach. Such skills endorse the environment, they do not threaten it. The sandal-clad tree-huggers may love animals and forests, but those who work leather and wood also adorn our world.
It seemed to me entirely logical that when BMW was putting its Goodwood workforce together, the company should remark that one reason for choosing the Sussex location was the availability - because of a current downturn in south coast boat-building - of craftsmen skilled in working with the natural materials of the coachbuilding tradition. One of the functions of the ultra-expensive durable is the recycling of the wealth that purchases it into the system that produces it. The two are inter-dependent. Great wealth often accrues unfairly and unreasonably, but it always seeks objects of extreme value with which to assert itself, especially if it is new wealth. For this reason alone the absurdly expensive car will thrive. Peter Wells' arguments go wider. The consumption of materials both during manufacture of an ultra-luxury car and during its use looks obscenely high compared with that of a mass-produced car, but over-production (a poorly documented auto industry environmental burden) is rare. Scrapping because of uneconomic repair costs does not arise, depreciation is generally low, and longevity will be 50 years and more against the probable 12 years of the mass-produced car. All these factors bear heavily on the environmental equation. Just as important, these are the cars whose viability allows new practices and processes. These are the structures in which new techniques and technologies are first applied, proved and refined before cascading into the mass market. The wealthy consumer funds them, the ordinary motorist benefits. "The very leviathans that leave the righteous aghast could indeed herald a new era in car design, production, marketing and use," says Peter Wells. Had I not dallied, I could have put it no better myself.