Varying Auto Safety Standards Interfere With Trade Negotiations

The U.S. and Europe have different car safety standards. Some of them are small while others are more dramatic. All car makers agree that the different standards are a pain. So why the difference?

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This next report examines ways the global economy is still not entirely global. Many countries are always trying to reduce trade barriers; they'd like to make it easier to sell goods everywhere. The automobile is a product that's in demand everywhere. Plenty of cars are exported around the world but that's not as easy as it seems. That's because cars in different countries have to comply with different rules.

Here's Robert Smith of NPR's Planet Money Team.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: OK, pick out a brand-new car, made in America.

STEVE: Welcome to Camp Jeep, you guys. My name is Steve and I'll be your operator.

SMITH: Throw some radio reporters in the back seat and head out for a test drive.

STEVE: In our 2014 Jeep Wrangler...

SMITH: Steve takes us over a series of fake hills and bumps.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, are you OK? Ahh...

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're going to destroy this thing.

SMITH: Alright, could you drive this Jeep off-road?

STEVE: Yeah, absolutely.

SMITH: Could you drive it through a river?

STEVE: You can water ford with it.

SMITH: So can you drive this thing anywhere?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can drive it a lot of places you can't drive your Cadillac.

SMITH: But there is one very obvious place that you cannot drive this Jeep: Europe. This particular car cannot be driven on the roads of Paris or Milan because there are hundreds of standards a car has to meet in order to drive it in Europe and those rules just happen to be different than the standards in the U.S.

European cars have the same problem. Christian Boolman from Volkswagen shows me a new Golf R. This one's been manufactured to European standards, but not American.

CHRISTIAN BOOLMAN: Right now it's actually the case that you develop a vehicle twice, once for North America and once for Europe.

SMITH: That means you can't just roll a car off the line in Germany and sell it anywhere in the world. Now, some of these differences are easy to fix. In the United States, turn signals are amber. In Europe they have to be clear. But the rules get more complicated. At the New York auto show, I met up with David Shepardson from the Detroit News and he showed me the Fiat 500.

It's a car that you see everywhere in Italy, but Fiat had to redesign it for America.

DAVID SHEPARDSON: The windshield wipers, American regulations require that the windshield wipers capture a larger part of the windshield versus European ones.

SMITH: What is the even logic behind that?

SHEPARDSON: You know, I guess Americans might be taller on average, therefore they would be looking at a different part. I mean I'm struggling here - I agree with you - to come up with a rationalization.

SMITH: Now, why can't regulators in Europe and the United States get together and just come up with one kind of windshield wiper? They have been trying for years, but countries get very touchy about their rules because it all comes down to safety. Every culture has a different opinion about what's safe and what's not.

So you know in the U.S. they have crash tests, right? They put a dummy in the car and they slam it into a wall. In Europe they do the same test, but they also make sure that the cars are safe for pedestrians. Literally they test cars to see if you can hit someone and have that person survive. Trent Warnke(ph) is with Porsche.

TRENT WARNKE: And the hoods in Europe actually have to have a different standard than in the United States. They have to be able to, for lack of a better term, absorb somebody's head hitting the hood if a car were to hit a pedestrian.

SMITH: So if I'm a pedestrian hit by a car, it's probably better to be hit by a car on the European standards than it is one of these American cars over here.

WARNKE: According to the standards, you'd be safer.

SMITH: Now, hearing that, it would be easy to think that the European standards are safer, but this is not really the case. The U.S. has a bunch of extra safety standards that the Europeans don't. For instance, in America car manufacturers have to design airbags to protect people who are not wearing their seatbelt.

In Europe they just assume that you're buckled up. These rule differences drive the car companies nuts. Every manufacturer I talked to at the auto show said, hey, just put all of us into a room and we'll agree on one set of safety standards. David Leone is an engineer for Cadillac.

DAVID LEONE: It's millions. It's not thousands. It's millions of dollars that we spend annually to make sure that our vehicles meet the requirements of the global market. We sell Cadillacs in over 40 countries around the world.

SMITH: Every time there's a big world trade negotiation, regulators try to settle on just one set of rules. In fact, they're working on it right now. But so far there has been very little progress. The human body may be the same wherever you go, but every country feels like it knows the best way to protect it. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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