Matthew Romack profile picture Matthew Romack a year ago

Pump The Brakes; Stop The Regulation.

US spec 380 SL
US spec 380 SL

With the dawn of a new administration, one that vows to be the most progressive in history, industry and media alike are taking notice. The car community itself is largely apolitical, and most could care less who you voted for— it’s all about what you drive. Nevertheless, those in industry and automotive media are more politically active than we might like to believe. I’ve noticed numerous articles and option pieces cropping up over the last few months with an all too common theme: the need for more government regulation in the auto industry. These calls range from trivial complaints about how trucks are too big, to straight-up demands for government intervention in the market: green dreams of legally killing the internal combustion engine, or new regulations on self or heavily assisted driving tech. However, looking at the history of auto regulations, eager journalists would do well to take note of how well-meaning legislation can stifle innovation, design, and even safety.

As it happens, all the problems of overregulation are epitomized in one car: the Mercedes 500 SL. Or as it’s known in the US, the 380 SL.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot actually. You see, until 1986, anyone could directly import cars sold in other countries to sell the US. The process was pretty straightforward. First, you bought it overseas, then “Federilzed” the car for American registration, and then sold it to American buyers. These were referred to as “Gray Market” cars because they were sold outside the manufacturer’s intended market and without a corporate-sponsored dealer. So, if you weren’t happy with the American version of an import car, like Mercedes, you could buy a gray market car with features and styling available only in the foreign make’s home turf. For a long time, this provided a tidy niche business for auto importers.

However, in 1986, due to outcry from American dealers of foreign car brands, the Feds finally stepped in and put a stop to it, introducing the 25-year import rule that lingers with us today. From then on, no car could be imported into the states and sold as new unless it met all federal safety and emission standards, with the only exception being if the car was 25 years old or older. This effectively put an end to the gray market. Americans were now limited to purchasing “safer” cars, with the stamp of approval from Uncle Sam’s watchful eyes. A nice idea, but in practice, the result was sophisticated import cars refitted with ugly, ineffective plastic bumpers, and headlight tech stuck in 1940. Let me explain.

Eruo spec 500 SL
Eruo spec 500 SL

I want you to scroll up and look at the first pic at the top of the page for a few moments. just pause and take it in. That’s a 1985 380 SL. Now look at the picture right above this paragraph: that’s a 1985 Euro spec 500 SL. Notice a few differences? First, the slim Euro chrome versus the bulbous bumpers on the American model. All cars in the US at the time were required by law to have those specific 5MPH crash bumpers. It seemed like a simple, great idea. In a collision with a stationary object at 5MPH or less, or 10MPH with a moving object, they would act as an accordion, and absorb all damages leaving the car unscathed. The downside, besides offering minimal protection above 5MPH, was stylistic— they stuck out like a sore thumb, and would as soon take out your knees in a pedestrian collision as protect your headlights. Now, look at the 500 SL again for comparison. Notice no bumper sticks out 10 feet from the car. It has a flatter, smoother face, and a cleaner look overall. Is the European spec car less safe? Maybe, but there’s little to no evidence to draw from to make that argument. As it happens, modern cars have flatter front ends, because studies have shown that a flatter front end protects pedestrians more than ones that point or stick out, the way the big plastic safety bumpers used did. So thank you 5 MPH bumpers for being ugly, and for pulling a Tonya Harding on my knees. (Side note, I like Tonya Harding.)

Next are the headlights. The 380 SL has sealed beam headlights, while the 500 SL used a separate assembly that holds a bulb or blubs. The US passed regulations in 1940 stating every new car had to use standard sealed beam headlights. That rule stayed relatively unchanged for 40 years. So, when you bought your 1985 380 SL, you got it with sealed beam headlights, just like a 1940 Studebaker. They looked ugly, because the front end wasn’t designed with the sealed beams in mind, and they weren’t very bright to boot. The European 500 SL, on the other hand, had “aero” headlights. Almost every car you can buy today uses aero headlights. Back in the 80s, European cars had already been using them for years. Aeros were brighter, easier to aim, and more efficient than the government-mandated sealed beams. They’re also easier to modify— you can just swap out bulbs for brighter ones without having to trash the whole assembly, whereas sealed beams come in one style, with one set brightness level. But to be fair, there was some progress in sealed-beam regulation. In 1975, the Feds finally decided, after much consideration, that square sealed-beams were just as valid as round ones. Huge innovation, right?

Even after Ford finally convinced the Feds to change the rules, it took another 30 plus years for the rules to change again, keeping us perpetually behind the rest of the world in headlight tech. European cars get lasers with hundreds of tiny lights that can aim themselves away from oncoming traffic while still lighting the way, while we get one high beam bulb, and one low beam bulb with LED daytime running lights. Thanks, government, for keeping US drivers in the dark.

2021 Subaru Outback
2021 Subaru Outback

Government regulations that seem sensible in the short term have a habit of lingering on for decades, and can actually keep life-saving innovations away from use long after being adopted in other markets. Unlike an automaker’s decision to use different technologies or innovations, where they are free to make improvements or even drop something entirely if it doesn’t function desirably, regulations can force them to use it or keep using it whether it works well or not.

Cars are now safer than they’ve ever been, and you can thank government regulation for practically none of that progress. ABS and traction control became mandatory in 2012 for all US cars, but ABS had already been standard equipment on most cars since the early 2000s, and traction control was likewise standard on most new cars before 2012. In 2018, it also became mandatory for all cars to have backup cameras. Again by that point, most new cars offered them as standard equipment. Only a few cars, notably the Miata, didn’t have one, and plenty of affordable aftermarket options existed. Notice a pattern? Regulators aren’t the ones driving innovations. At best, they formalize them once industry adoption is already widespread, and the technology has been proven. Laws seldom make cars better than customer demand.

Think about this: blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning and assist, accident avoidance tech, rear cross-traffic alert, and automatic emergency braking are becoming standard on more and more cars. All but one new Subaru comes standard with EyeSight, which is all of that and more. Mazda, Toyota, Hyundai, GM, and basically everyone else offers similar features under different names. None of these things are required by federal regulation. So why do automakers offer them? Because competition and the consumer demands it. If GM didn’t offer these things, and Subaru does, some car buyers would skip GM and buy the Subaru. To avoid falling behind, and increase the likelihood of making sales, GM offers comparable systems. No one used to care about the IIHS safety data and its top safety picks, but now automakers’ promotional materials put that coveted top safety pick front and center in bold ink. The IIHS has high standards, and test cars differently and more comprehensively than the Feds. Automakers have no choice but to give the Feds their cars to test, but the IIHS tests are all voluntary— automakers give them cars just to get that valuable credential and all-important crash data, which is used to improve future cars.

But all these things are present-day, modern tech. They’re already proven and are nearly standard industry-wide. But there’s the future to consider, too. Self-driving systems are new and kinda scary. The idea of handing over control of a 3 ton wrecking ball on wheels to a computer is, frankly, terrifying. Anybody who owns a computer has a horror story about a freeze, crash, or malware incident. But data shows that self-driving tech can reduce accidents and saves lives. We’ve all seen the videos of the drivers asleep as the Tesla drives them home. It’s scary, but they made it home. Self-driving tech could make DUI charges a thing of the past.

That’s not to say there aren’t any bugs to work out, and concerns to be addressed. I’ve seen the videos of Teslas driving into stuff or off things because the computer’s pattern recognition was faulty, or some other unseen issue cropped up. It’s tragic, and we still have a long way to go. Maybe self-driving systems can never fully replace a human driver, or maybe there’ll be fully operational and standard self-driving systems available in a matter of years, we don’t know how fast or how far the tech will reach! But one thing is certain: automakers, automotive engineers, computer programmers, and scientists are far better equipped to handle these problems than politicians, who have no experience in the field outside the biased barks of lobbyists. Cadillac’s Super Cruise is already making strong competition with Tesla’s famous Autopilot. You can bet that both Cadillac and Tesla will tear into each other’s cars to learn and improve their self-driving systems. This will only make them both better. But if Government comes along and dictates exactly how each system must work, what program it must use, etc, etc. This stifles innovation and can result in the self-driving equivalent to sealed beam headlights, while the rest of the world is on autopilot.

The contrast to our expectations is stunning. “Greedy” automakers listen to and react to consumer demands, and have brought us safer cars that, for years now, have been able to stop themselves before an accident happens. This real progress continues, while the government maintains that only 20th-century headlight standards are permissible in the name of safety. Enough is enough. Let automakers duke it out to see who can make the safest, most efficient, and best car. Only then will we realize the car of the future. Because the future isn’t just tomorrow, it’s every tomorrow after that. And if today’s car of the future is codified into law, it quickly risks becoming mired in the standards of yesterday.