Consumers around the world are buying cars that are more alike than ever -- from Volkswagen Golfs to Ford Fiestas, but national regulations still vary in bizarre, costly ways.
Some differences have merit, such as stronger doors for the United States, where there's a greater possibility of being T-boned by a 5000-pound SUV. But there are rules that require different headlights, for example. In the U.S., automakers have to shell out millions of dollars per vehicle program to protect people who don't wear seatbelts.
These variances are a hidden tariff that raises trade and investment costs by one-quarter, a European consulting firm says. Enthusiasts miss out on low-volume cars that can't justify those costs.
"The question I always get is, 'When are we bringing the Scirocco?' I say, 'never,' because it does not meet U.S. regulations," says Oliver Schmidt, who manages VW of America's engineering and environmental office.
The industry wants what it calls harmonization, "where we could engineer, certify, and make ready for sale a vehicle in one region and have it for sale in another," says Barbara Kiss, GM's vehicle-efficiency and energy-policy manager. There's a precedent; European countries agreed to common rules in 1992, after decades of negotiation. (Most other markets follow the U.S. or the E.U.) But there are obstacles. Foremost is not-invented-here syndrome.
"The usual attitude from governments is, 'You copy what I have, then we'll be harmonized,' " says the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers' Yves van der Straaten. Countries could recognize each other's certifications without parsing individual rule, an idea gaining traction as part of a potential U.S./E.U. free-trade agreement. Even if that happens, automakers fear Americans would sue over noncompliance with certain standards. "You have too many lawyers," van der Straaten says. Automakers accept that meeting regulations, and then meeting them again elsewhere, is simply the cost of doing business.
Different glass, to pass slightly different fracture tests.
The hood bulges to meet pedestrian-impact requirements, which don't yet exist in the United States.
Europe strictly regulates the positioning and aim of headlights...
...and the United States forbids advanced active headlights, like those available on the European Golf.
The U.S. model needs a stiffer bumper to meet 5-mph crash requirements. It's too stiff to meet European pedestrian-safety requirements.
The unibody has been engineered from the outset to meet U.S. roof-crush and side-impact standards.
Brakes are brakes, thanks to harmonized worldwide standards.
Automakers often develop three emissions-control systems: one for most of the world, one for most of the United States, and one to California's standards.
Airbags for U.S. cars are different and more expensive than those installed in other parts of the world, because they have to protect occupants who don't buckle up. They may be less effective for belted occupants, according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study.
A new U.S. regulation requires side-curtain airbags that protect unbelted occupants in a rollover.
Europe strictly regulates the radii and protrusion of switchgear.
American cars get extra padding on the ceiling and the roof pillars to protect unbelted occupants in a rollover. The glove-box door is sometimes stronger in American cars to hold back an unbelted passenger.
Combined fuel economy -- or consumption -- numbers tend to be about 20 percent lower in EPA testing than in the European cycle. VW says the disparity is even greater for diesels.
European NOx standards are moving closer to those of the United States. VW developed a single cleaner turbo-diesel for both markets that requires less after treatment.