June 17, 2016

Horse 2126 - Why Left Is Right, Right Is Wrong And Why Switching Sides Goes Backwards

With production of the Ford Falcon coming to an end in a fortnight's time and the Toyota Camry and the Holden Commodore also ceasing production in 2017, it means that by November 2017, there will be zero cars being produced in Australia. From November 2017, we will be the only nation in the G20 who will be incapable of making motor cars.
Partly this is because Australia has never been in charge of its own destiny with regards to this, with decisions being made in Detroit and Tokyo and partly this is due to government policy, as embodied by the then Treasurer Joe Hockey thundering and daring the auto makers to leave, from the floor of the parliament.

I heard an argument this week that Australia should consider changing which side of the road that it drives on, to allow the import of cars from more places. While there is some merit in that, I think that there is a better case for staying on the left hand side of the road.

As it stands, the only places that do drive on the left side of the road are those places which are the remnants of the British Empire and Japan who kind of inherited driving on the left side as a result of the protocols developed for railways and tramways, both of which the British helped to set up in Japan. This means that the market for right hand drive cars in the world is considerably smaller than left hand drive cars. In consequence, cars which are built in right hand drive, tend to be built to the highest standards of safety so that they'll be compliant in those countries and the country with the highest safety standards in the world is none other than Australia.

Even though side impact protection bars are not mandatory in Japan, Japanese cars which are built for export tend to have them anyway. Even though design regulations for the United Kingdom also do not mandate side impact protection bars, they have them anyway. By forcing the car makers in Australia to comply with the toughest safety standards in the world and forcing importers to make their cars compliant with those same design regulations, a relatively small market like Australia has forced the hand of multinational corporations, to the point that if they need to comply with a set of standards for one market, then they may as well do it for all of them. The cars which tend not to comply with the Australian Design Regulations are those which generally are cheaper and are never intended for export beyond their domestic markets.

I expect that the car makers will want to exercise some sort of force and push back against the Australian Design Regulations. They will argue that it is only Australia who has made some things mandatory and that this just adds unnecessary expense to the cost of motor cars. However, unlike practically every country in the world, Australia has vast distances where the roads don't have hard shoulders and so the government should stand strong on this issue. Of course this also means that cars produced for Australia are invariably more expensive and this has a secondary effect. We get better quality stuff.

Although it isn't mentioned very often, the build quality of the Chevrolet SS is better than the Cadillac CTS. You can see this even if you pop the hood and look at things like welding in the engine bay. The reason for this is that the Chevrolet SS, is really just our Holden Commodore which has been built in left hand drive and carries golden bowties rather than the lion on the front. In the United States, the equivalent car in the Chevrolet lineup is the Impala. I suspect though that if we switched to driving on the right hand side of the road, cars like the Impala, the North American variants of the Malibu, Cruze and Aveo as well as Ford's Taurus, Focus and Fiesta built in Mexico would be foisted upon us; without any reduction in price despite the obvious reduction in build quality. It wouldn't just be GM and Ford either. Every single auto maker would look at this nation as a wide brown wallet, just ready to be pickpocketed.

By staying on the left hand side of the road, we continue to ensure that we get cars built to a higher price point, such as suitable for the United Kingdom or Japan; that means that we're far more likely to get cars which are capable of surviving the conditions which we make them suffer in Australia.

There is one incidental and practical reason why we should remain on the left hand side of the road. The last two countries to switch over were Sweden and Iceland in the late 1960s. Both of them would fit into New South Wales and still have room to spare. Changing over to the right hand side of the road means turning all of the signs around and altering the shapes of many intersections. We wouldn't be doing that on the scale of a country the size of Iceland or Sweden but of a country which occupies an entire continent. We live in a country where distances are sometimes measured in days and not kilometres; where you sometimes don't even see the name of the town that you're driving to on highway signs and when you do, the distance comes with a four digit number.

My question is this. Is it really worth our expense to buy lower quality motor cars, to lower the safety standards to which those cars are built and to go to the effort of changing tens of thousands of kilometres of road infrastructure, just to ultimately satisfy the whims of the auto makers who will abandon us and have already done so in some cases?

I don't make the argument that driving on the left hand side of the road is somehow safer or better because the statistics are so close together that they may as well be identical but I do say that the net benefit to us to change over is worse than zero.

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