Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Protecting the Lowly Pedestrian

This article mentioned by the instapundit caught my eye. Apparently, Cranfield University in England has prototyped a novel airbag technology to protect pedestrians hit by cars.

From the photograph, it looks to have a somewhat Rube Goldberg flavor to it. To my unpracticed eye, it also looks to be somewhat expensive although a spokesman for the project reassures us that, "it would add little to the cost of the vehicle." Why does this seem unlikely to me?

There is essentially no limit to the features that can be added to automobiles to make them safer. The problem is of course figuring out how to pay for them. There is also obviously a difference between technologies designed to protect innocent third parties (e.g. pedestrians or people driving other cars) and the cars' occupants. This is why all cars must have brakes but not bulletproof windshields.

It's one thing for a consumer to be willing (or not) to pay for things that will directly benefit that consumer. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that he or she would be interested in voluntarily paying extra for something that will only be of very remote benefit to oneself. External airbags as described in the article seem destined to be a marketing and pricing nightmare.

I wonder though, in our current atmosphere of government regulation, how far might the White House and Congress might go in mandating technologies such as this one? I also wonder what actual public health benefits might be realized. I can easily imagine such a device having only a marginal benefit in terms of morbidity and mortality. We will study this in a meaningful manner before broadly demanding its application?

As an aside, I think it's ironic that this device was first tested on a Fiat Stilo. Fiat is of course a company soon to own 20% of Chrysler which is in the process of becoming nationalized by the U.S. How long before the powers that be declare that all Chryslers (and or Fiats) are required to have it installed?

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