Some 32,367 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2011. That's nearly 100 a day dying on our nation's highways, yet any apparent outrage remains muted at best.
Though the figure is the lowest in decades, it's still an outrage in a country where education, technology and awareness should add up to much lower numbers.
With sales on a generally upward trend worldwide, the auto industry finds itself in a bit of a holding pattern as far as new product goes, especially in regards to safety.
The gigantic North American International Show in Detroit opens soon, but the recent Los Angeles Auto Show gave a fair indication that manufacturers are content to remain conservative as far as all-new car and truck introductions. This is a reflection of the sales disaster years of the Great Recession and the fact that carmakers hope to pound every last penny out of current technology before bringing out higher-mileage, cleaner and safer vehicles.
They can't be blamed for this, of course. Any business wants to rest on its laurels as long as possible before making (in the case of the car business) the massive amounts of investment needed when the public calls for better, newer product.
As we've stated many times in this blog, fuel prices remain the single most important factor in all things automotive. Hybrids, EVs, plug-ins and the like are growing in sales, but our belief remains that as long as the average gallon of fuel can be had for under $5, these technologies will remain but a small portion of the overall sales figures. In the U.S., there have been some 2.5 million alternative fuel vehicles sold, with about 10 percent of them sold in California alone, and that figure will remain fairly constant as the delicate balancing acts of oil finding, drilling, refining, delivering and pricing continues.
Recent word that by 2040 the U.S. will be the world's energy producer does not bode well for futuristic or even now-possible auto technologies with which we were all agog just five years ago.
Simply put, auto demand is driven by gas prices. Lower perceived prices and pain at the pump equal conventional technology for mileage and emissions. Prices which went up throughout the summer, with still no sensible explanations, suddenly started dropping when two California senators called for hearings into the subject this winter. Funny how that works, and many people now think that gas prices have become one less thing to worry about.
While the industry is arguably building better, higher-efficiency and more exciting products than ever before, there's still tremendous room for improvement in all areas. Compared to western Europe, emissions are still too high in the U.S. and mileage figures are too low.
And the U.S. still sees over 32,000 deaths a year from accidents involving cars and trucks of all kinds, a figure which seems to fly under the public radar. As one who has spent a working lifetime analyzing the worldwide transportation business, it's clear that the power (and advertising dollars) which flow from Detroit, Munich, Tokyo, et al, into the marketplace, help keep negative auto news at a minimum in many media outlets.
As politically difficult as it is to even broach the topic of gun control in this country, the deaths of near 100 Americans daily using our most popular and personal forms of transportation goes almost unmentioned.
So while sales solidify after several seasons of recession-era economics, carmakers will be content to let their products remain somewhat staid. There are exciting things on the horizon, as is often the case, but given the amount of money the manufacturers are making, these changes are not coming fast enough. The auto show season serves this year to remind us that, product-wise, the industry is still digging itself out of a hole.
Though President Obama has set some laudable goals for mileage and emissions in the coming years, more of a laser-like beam needs to be focused on safety. While Obama has suffered along with us through the recent horrors of gun-enabled mass murders, when he talks about children it would be good if he'd keep this in mind: someday soon his daughters will be driving and there are things he can do now to make that experience safer for them.