• Fuel Efficiency and Emerging Technologies
  • Transportation Efficiencies
  • Autonomous Vehicles

Ralph Nader Enters Automotive Hall of Fame: A Legacy

Sam Abuelsamid
Jun 24, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2

For more than 5 decades, many in Detroit and other automotive capitals have considered Ralph Nader to be public enemy number one. Despite the strong feelings against Nader throughout much of the auto industry, the lifelong consumer advocate will be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in July 2016. While Nader first came to prominence with the publication of his book Unsafe at Any Speed, the industry would probably not be where it is today without his efforts.

When Nader’s book was published in 1965, there were almost no safety-related automotive regulations. A year later, the U.S. Congress enacted the first Motor Vehicle Safety Act, and the era of automotive regulation began. Within the next few years, emissions and fuel economy were also being regulated and the automobile would never be the same.

Rules Are Good

Over the past 50 years, the industry has fought virtually every new regulation tooth and nail, and in the process, it has seriously eroded consumer trust. While repeatedly claiming that new rules were technically impossible to meet and/or too costly but ultimately managing to meet the rules (for the most part), automakers and suppliers have chipped away at their own credibility.

Thanks to those rules, engineers were forced to convert vehicle systems from mechanical to electronic controls. Beginning with basics such as ignition and later anti-lock brakes, today’s vehicles have up to 100 computers and more than 100 million lines of code. There are already production vehicles on the road from Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, and Tesla with semi-autonomous capabilities. Fully autonomous vehicles aren’t far off.

Despite the animus between them, the efforts of Nader and colleagues like Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow on issues such as airbags have spurred the industry to develop and adopt more capable and affordable sensing and processing systems. Those same systems have become the enablers for the transformation of urban mobility that is projected in Navigant Research’s Transportation Outlook: 2025-2050 white paper.

While there have undoubtedly been backward steps along the way—such as the ongoing Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal—overall, today’s vehicles are safer, more efficient, cleaner, and better performing than at any time in the 130-year history of the automobile. The industry also remains incredibly profitable, with more vehicles being sold than ever. The reality is that regulations have enhanced the transportation industry and personal mobility, rather than killing it.

An Inflection Point

The industry now stands at an inflection point, as mobility is about to be transformed. This is uncharted territory, and there are no rules that govern it. There are countless new players stepping up and hoping to grab a piece of the mobility pie. The potential to make a quantum leap in safety is there if autonomous vehicles are executed properly.

However, many of these new players are coming into vehicle control from a software-based technology space, where “fail fast and iterate” is the model. That’s fine when talking about apps. If they crash, it’s an annoyance. If an autonomous control system fails, lives may be at stake. If autonomous vehicles are executed poorly, it could drastically undermine a half-century of work by Nader and many others.

The time is right for the industry to step up to the plate and work with regulators to develop common-sense rules for autonomous vehicles that don’t stifle innovative ideas. At the same time, they must set standards for system performance and mechanisms to validate that performance.

Ralph Nader upset the apple cart 50 years ago; he deserves a place in the hall of fame. The auto industry needs to embrace that legacy for the future.