From the February 2018 issue
When BMW recently and “voluntarily” issued a stop-sale order on its i3 electric cars for failing a crash test, the first comment heard ’round these halls was, “Wow, the BMW dealers must be relieved.” That was not nice and it’s mostly untrue . . . probably . . . maybe.
Beyond instructing dealers to deliver to customers none of the 1159 new i3s currently in dealer inventory, BMW also pointed out that delivering one of the vehicles would be a violation of federal law and that “substantial civil penalties apply to violations.” That wasn’t really nice, either.
Also, all 29,383 BMW i3s that were already “retailed” over the model’s four-year run have been recalled until the repair is complete. What’s the repair? Well, it was still under development when we went to press.
To characterize any failed crash test as a small problem might sound a bit coldhearted. But in the grand scheme, that the i3 has come to a screeching halt amounts to almost nothing. It’s a curious little box riding on four pizza cutters, upon which BMW appears to have focused more attention on its carbon-fiber bits than the performance and range of its powertrain. And little doesn’t just describe the i3’s dimensions or sales numbers, it also describes the dummies that set the recall in motion. Specifically, it’s the dummies that stand (or sit) in for fifth percentile female humans that triggered this. For reference, a fifth percentile female is about five feet tall and weighs in at a wiry 110 pounds.
In NHTSA’s frontal-impact rigid-barrier crash testing, with the vehicle traveling 25 mph, the little dummies got their necks tweaked by the steering-wheel-mounted airbag. BMW notes that the allowable force limit was only marginally exceeded in NHTSA’s test and adds that when the company performed its own similar crash tests in the past, the forces to the dummies’ necks were well below the limit.
The i3 scores a “good” rating in the belted frontal crash tests performed by IIHS. Why should you care about such an edge-case scenario in a car that so few people care about even when it’s not crashing? Because these dummies were idiots. These dummies were not wearing seatbelts.
Unbelted crash tests? How is it that we could still be doing unbelted crash tests? According to a NHTSA study, seatbelt use was up to 90.1 percent in 2016. So it would seem that only 9.9 percent of people would like to demonstrate their freedom from government oversight by being thrown clear. Now consider how few of that 9.9 percent of drivers and passengers would fall into the fifth percentile female weight and height class and how many would choose to buy an i3. While I have not consulted with our tech department on this, I’m pretty sure that number is effectively zero. Maybe less than zero. And I don’t even believe in negative numbers.
In primary-seatbelt-law states (where police can pull you over for not wearing one), usage was up to 92.1 percent in 2016. So why are we going through the effort of protecting a small percentage of people who have apparently no interest in protecting themselves? Why are carmakers obliged to design interiors and safety systems in part for people who won’t use the easiest and most effective among them?
Lest you think me callous, understand that I have an interest in the well-being of such mini females. My wife and one of my daughters are roughly fifth percentile.
NHTSA said in 2000 that it continues with the unbelted crash tests because, while seatbelt usage rates were rising, 54 percent of drivers in fatal crashes were unbelted. By 2015, that figure had dropped to 44 percent, owing to ever higher seatbelt usage.
The IIHS does all its testing with belted passengers on the premise that it’s more beneficial overall to encourage vehicle improvements that maximize safety for the 90 percent of people who wear belts. And further, the insurance-company-funded group worries that rating vehicles with unbelted dummies may encourage vehicle changes, such as more aggressive airbags that could actually put people at higher risk in a crash.
About five years ago, BMW of North America petitioned NHTSA to be allowed to fit its cars with a seatbelt interlock feature that would limit the vehicle’s function if front-seat passengers didn’t buckle up as an alternative to the unbelted-crash-test requirements. The petition was denied.
And who exactly is still going unbelted? Well, some of them live in New Hampshire, the only state in the union where there is no seatbelt law for adults (minors are required to wear belts). Not surprisingly, New Hampshire has the lowest rate of seatbelt usage in the country, at 70.2 percent. The tagline on the state’s license plates should read Live Free and Die!
I don’t particularly like being told what to do, either. For example, I like to drive as quickly as I want to drive, anywhere, and under any circumstances I see fit. Indulging that kind of thinking resulted in my driver’s license being restricted before I made it to the age of 17. Eventually I wised up. Most of us do. Somewhere around 90 percent of us, I reckon.