Design

Cars Got Heavier In The 21st Century

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In the late 1980s, the average new car weighed 3,221 pounds. By 2010, the average new car weighed 4,009 pounds. Despite that fact, fuel efficiency has improved and emissions have fallen. So what's the big deal? As long as they're more fuel-efficient, can't we call it even? Well, fuel efficiency isn't everything. Our modern oversized cars also come with a safety risk.

Safer for You, More Dangerous for Others

But why the weight gain? Cars in the 1970s and 80s were tough hunks of metal with big, gas-guzzling engines. The cars of today have small, eco-friendly engines and rely on weight-reducing construction elements like unibody designs and lightweight materials. In short, the weight comes from all the bells and whistles: the legroom, the comfortable seats, the extra safety features. Plus, the small engines might be fuel efficient, but they're also made to be more powerful.

That weight has a cost. Driving a heavy car—especially one that's big and tall, like an SUV—feels safer than driving a lightweight vehicle. And it is, for you. But drivers of lighter vehicles are less safe with your tank of a car on the road. University of California, Berkeley economists published a study in the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that being hit by a vehicle that's 1,000 pounds heavier than yours—that's only the difference between a Toyota Yaris and a Toyota Camry—increases your chances of dying in a crash by nearly 50 percent. As a result, they found that the number of fatalities caused by the weight imbalances on the road costs the U.S. billions of dollars per year.

Smaller Cars On The Horizon

There's good news: car companies know they're gaining weight, and they've pledged to make changes. It helps that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has required automakers to nearly double fuel efficiency by 2025. One of the easiest ways to make a car more fuel efficient is by making it as lightweight as possible. If the trend holds, the result could be safer roads, fewer deaths, lower fuel costs and dependency, and a cleaner planet.

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