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Archive for Friday, August 29, 2008

National automakers struggle with conflicting safety rules worldwide

August 29, 2008

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— It seems like an easy solution: Americans are looking for more fuel-efficient vehicles, so Ford Motor Co. is bringing over some of the small, gas-sipping cars it's been selling to Europeans for years.

But introducing the cars to the U.S. market isn't as simple as changing the speedometer from kilometers to miles. Ford has to reconcile American and European safety regulations - everything from the color of rear turn signals to the positioning of crash test dummies - that will keep the cars from hitting U.S. highways anytime soon.

Competing interests among automakers, governments and the insurance industry are hampering efforts to standardize safety requirements worldwide. That means extra engineering to make different versions of vehicles for different markets.

"Each party negotiating this has their own views about their own standards being better," said Ronald Medford, senior associate administrator of vehicle safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets U.S. standards.

Some differences are significant, like the U.S. rule that requires protection for passengers not wearing seat belts, which has no European equivalent. Others are small, like the U.S. requirement that vehicles have side lights, which are optional in Europe.

Ford isn't the only automaker facing this issue. The ultra-compact Smart car was sold overseas for nine years, but before Daimler AG could bring it to the U.S., it had to make the car longer to meet U.S. crash standards, spokesman Ken Kettenbeil said.

But Ford's promise to bring six small, fuel-efficient vehicles from Europe and start building them in North America in 2010 puts a new focus on the challenge of satisfying governments' varying requirements.

These global models are the cornerstone of Ford's plan to return to profitability after losing $8.7 billion last quarter. The Dearborn-based automaker says its small European vehicles sell well and are superior to those in the U.S.

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