Automakers have an opportunity to seize market leadership by championing more vehicle safety.
I don't mean just continuing existing safety efforts. Automakers shouldn't do the minimum, but the maximum. Perhaps even lobby regulators to increase safety requirements.
Look, manufacturers already work hard to make autos safer, typically exceeding legal requirements. I remember the state-of-the-art safety features on my first car, a '53 Buick Super: big brakes, bright headlights and laminated safety glass. I also remember no seat belts, a metal dash and a rigid steering column extending beyond the steering wheel.
So thanks for today's belts, multiple airbags, crumple zones and all the other life-saving devices that protect us.
But I'm urging more than current efforts. Double down on safety. Get out in front of customer and regulator demands and exert leadership.
Yes, I know the objections. That's too expensive. Don't automakers already spend too much to meet fuel economy and other regulations? Don't they need capital reserves against an uncertain future?
Yes, they do. And car-biz margins are generally thinner than in other industries.
But I think there's an opportunity to boost long-term profitability by grabbing safety leadership.
First, everybody will have to boost safety anyhow. Regulators will keep requiring more safety features. And globally, watchdogs are raising fines for violations and noncompliance. So pay now to add safety and reliability? Or pay later on recalls, fines, lawsuits and perhaps reputational damage?
Second, most advanced safety features go beyond passive safety to helping avoid collisions -- active safety. And those features are necessary steps leading to autonomous vehicles, likely a lucrative segment for the first to get there. Why not ask to make them required equipment?
Third, consumers increasingly want safer vehicles. The good news: They'll pay extra for safety devices. The bad news: Recent Boston Consulting Group research shows most consumers won't pay the full price charged on new safety features.
Which brings me to a potential breakthrough opportunity. It's there, in part, because auto safety advances catch on slowly. It's a Catch-22 situation: A new feature costs a lot to develop, and market appeal is uncertain. So it debuts as a high-dollar option on a few vehicles to cover costs. Achieving near-universal use with economies-of-scale pricing takes years, but unilaterally installing a new safety feature puts one automaker at a price disadvantage to rivals.
What can shorten that clumsy process? Well, a federal requirement to install it.
Changing U.S. auto rules also takes time, but an unconventional bureaucrat such as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration boss Mark Rosekind could help. Right now, he's best known for imposing big fines for safety lapses.
But his takeover of the Takata airbag inflator recalls shows Rosekind cares deeply about public safety.
Automakers should consider publicly asking Rosekind to fast-track one or two of the best advanced-safety technologies.
Getting safer vehicles on the road more quickly would save lives. It might even improve U.S. public perception of the auto industry, which, after belated revelations of bad ignition switches and exploding airbags, could use some help.