Automakers Pledge Safer, Greener Cars
Environmental groups also would like to see the manufacturers be forced to meet cleaner standards that recently were passed in California, and to take more care with the selection of materials they use in the vehicles themselves, Mills says. For example, lighter materials could be used, and some carmakers still use mercury in the light switches that control trunk lighting, even though better and safer alternatives are available.
"The automakers don't believe that the environment sells," Mills says. "But we think the consumer interest has been shown, and we want to see Detroit get into this clean-car race sooner than later. If human health were one of the key priorities of the designers and the marketers of autos, the environmental impacts of this industry would be far less. That has to be part of the core values of everything they do."
Consumers who want to compare cars on the basis of how "green" they are can visit www.environmentaldefense.org/tailpipe on the web. This site lists fuel consumption costs and levels of pollutants emitted by specific vehicles.
Of course, what happens to the vehicle, especially during a crash, also is a threat to drivers and passengers. As the auto show was in full swing in Detroit, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, D.C., released its first-ever rollover ratings. An estimated 10,000 people a year die in rollover accidents, which occur more frequently with SUVs, a fact borne out by the ratings. The government reported that of the more than 80 2000-model vehicles it tested, the most likely to roll over were the Chevrolet Blazer and the GMC Jimmy/Envoy.
Other popular SUVs were rated only slightly better, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Mitsubishi Montero Sport, Ford Explorer, and Lincoln Navigator. Among the vehicles rated least likely to roll over were the Chevrolet Silverado, Honda Odyssey, and Chrysler PT Cruiser. Full ratings are available at www.nhtsa.dot.gov/hot/rollover/Index.html.
While Ford announced plans to install a skid detection system designed to prevent rollovers, it and the other automakers also revealed new airbags that can come down from the vehicle ceiling in a kind of curtain. The inflatable seatbelt, called The Smart Belt, developed by Ford and BF Goodrich Company, also debuted at the auto show, although neither firm promised to actually install the seatbelt in vehicles.
While some of the new safety features sound good, they have yet to be proved successful, Rae Tyson, safety administration spokesman, tells WebMD. "It is difficult to assess emerging technology," he says. "We are in the process of researching how these systems work."
For their part, officials from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts crash tests and rates vehicle safety, would like to see airbags that are better designed to cushion a driver or passenger's head -- few do now -- and higher headrests that lock firmly in place when adjusted to ear level.