How Congress is Designing Your Next Car

July 23, 2010

The auto industry won a major victory in Congress this week, when the landmark financial bill passed by both houses on Congress excluded auto dealers from regulation -- so Congress can't stop them from taking a kickback for funneling you toward a particular lender, or marking up a loan to a higher rate than the lender is offering and pocketing the difference.

But Congress is still discussing cars, and before they adjourn for their August recess, your Senators and Representatives may have done a lot to redesign your next car.  Congress is debating a major overhaul of auto safety legislation.  Among the changes we may see:

Standardized Automatic Transmission Shift Gates  -- In a Toyota, the automatic transmission shifter moves back and forward.  In a Jaguar, it moves in a J pattern.  In a Mazda, a reverse J.  Legislation under consideration now would require simpler systems, that all follow the same pattern.

Mandatory Brake Override -- Brake override is a simple safety device that ensures that, if both pedals are pressed, only the brake pedal works.  It's designed to prevent the sort of uncontrolled acceleration that investigators believe may have contributed to as many as 57 deaths in Toyotas, which don't have a brake override system.  Many cars, including those built by Nissan and Mercedes-Benz, already use the system.  Other automakers, including Toyota and GM, are in the process of adding it to all cars.  Automakers don't oppose this portion of the legislation, since most of them are already adding the system.

Mandatory "Black Box" Data Recorders --  In the aftermath of the Toyota sudden acceleration scandal, media attention focused on so-called "black boxes," or Event Data Recorders, that track how your car is driven, and may record vital data to help investigators reconstruct an accident.  Today, some cars have them.  Some cars don't.  And those that have them differ widely -- from catch-all recorders that collect mountains of data to tiny devices that record little more than a few minutes' worth of information.    The legislation being debated now would mandate them, and set minimum levels of information they must track.

The auto industry, however, opposes the move.  Industry lobbyists have already altered the language of this provision.  The first draft of the legislation gave them five years to install the boxes in all new cars.  The current version? It sets no deadline at all.

Standardized Push-Button Ignition Systems -- In the first accident that triggered the Toyota sudden acceleration scandal, a California Highway Patrol officer and several members of his family were killed when the Lexus they were riding in accelerated out of control.  The officer's wife called 911 from the speeding car, and explained that they couldn't figure out how to turn it off.  Pressing push-button ignition to turn the car off didn't seem to be working.

In fact, push-button ignitions work differently in all kinds of cars.  In a General Motors product, you can tap the button once to cut the engine, even at high speed.  In a Toyota, you must hold it for more than three seconds to turn it off, unless the car is in park.  The legislation would require buttons to kill the ignition with a tap.  Keyed ignitions aren't affected.

Possibly, a Built-In Breathalyzer -- At the request of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a provision of the bill will provide $60 million to study technologies that prevent drunk driving.  The bill doesn't mandate anything more than a study.

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