Destruction of the Research Safety Vehicle (RSV)

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Since the successful completion of the Research Safety Vehicle (RSV) Program which saw the building and testing of some 60 vehicles, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been haunted by the specter of these vehicles which demonstrated that safe, fuel efficient cars could be built. In the 1970’s DOT was committed to demonstrating that fuel economy (CAFE) standards of 40-50 MPG could be met with cars that had 50 MPH crash protection, better than any car on the road today.

In the 1980’s, DOT reversed course and opposed higher CAFE standards. But at Congressional hearing after Congressional hearing and public forum after public forum, advocates of increased CAFE standards cited the RSV’s as examples of how higher CAFE standards could be met with increases in safety. Frustrated by these examples of technological innovation and fearing they could be used to spearhead the campaign for increased CAFE, NHTSA Administrator Jerry Curry personally ordered their destruction through non-scientific crash tests. Administrator Curry tried to cover up the destruction by keeping it secret from top agency scientists and falsely said the Inspector General told him to do it.

The RSV program was completed in 1981 with a final presentation on the program at the Ninth Experimental Secretary Vehicle Conference in Kyoto, Japan in November 1982. Of the 60 RSV’s built by Minicars and Calspan, three pristine vehicles were saved representing the full range of RSV’s — a compact RSV built by Minicars, an intermediate RSV built by Calspan, and a full size RSV built by Minicars. (A fourth compact RSV plus three partial vehicles were saved in less than pristine condition and stored outdoors for several years.) The compact RSV was the so-called show which had been licensed to operate on the road and was used in demonstrations and shows around the country.

During the 1980’s, the RSV’s were stored at the Department of Transportation headquarters in Washington. DOT even refurbished them for inspection by Secretary Skinner and the Smithsonian in the late 1980’s. The Smithsonian Institution expressed an interest in obtaining the vehicles for its permanent vehicle collection. Even though the Smithsonian did not acquire the RSV’s, it recommended they be preserved. In April 1990, DOT transferred the three RSV’s to the automobile safety laboratory at the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering as shown in Document 1. According to DOT’s Inspector General, this transfer was “for educational purposes and to augment NHTSA’s ongoing research program at the University. (Document 4.)

On October 22, 1990, shortly after DOT announced its opposition on September 14 to increased CAFE standards because of new concerns over small car safety, NHTSA Associate Administrator George Parker authorizes the destructive testing of three of the remaining RSV’s. (Document 2.) Mr. Parker later testifies before Rep. Sikorski:

“The Inspector General of DOT recommended that we dispose of these vehicles because they could see no use for them.”

In fact, the Inspector General had not made such a specific finding and had noted on March 13, 1991, that “NHTSA relocated the three experimental vehicles to the University of Virginia for education purposes and to augment NHTSA’s ongoing research program at the University.” Moreover, NHTSA violated a specific requirement of the Inspector General (Document 4) that:

“Project engineers should be requested to review . . . the test vehicles assigned to their projects to determine when they can be releases for disposal. Disposal can not be started until project en-gineers notify the Property Custodian . . . of vehicles that are no longer needed. (Emphasis added.)”

The RSV project engineers were never notified that these vehicles were to be destroyed.

Within a month of the Inspector General’s report being issued, NHTSA moved the RSV’s from UVa to its Vehicle Research and Test Center (VTRC) in Ohio. NHTSA waited for the Inspector General to conclude his investigation and report before moving the RSV’s to Ohio for destruction. on May 20, the destruction begins with the side impact test of the one Minicars compact RSV that had been stored outdoors and was in less good condition the three from UVa. The Calspan intermediate RSV quickly followed on June 4 and turned in some of the best side impact scores ever recorded. on June 27, NHTSA destroyed the Minicars Large RSV in the final side impact test “authorized” by Associate Administrator Parker’s destruction order of October 29, 1990.

On June 24, 1991, NHTSA approved the destruction of the so-called show car RSV — the Minicars compact RSV that was highlighted in DOT’s Public Service Announcement with Lorne Greene and the one that had appeared in numerous auto safety shows. Just 7 days later on July 1, the show car is driven into a concrete barrier at 50 MPH in a 50% offset that represents a crash that is 2.8 times more severe than the standard which present cars must meet. According to Don Friedman who headed up the Minicars project:

“The frontal test at 50 mph into a half barrier requires 1.5 times the energy absorption for which the vehicle was designed and yet the structure performed remarkably well. Since the purpose was destruction, the government failed to install dummies and activate the airbags so we will never know how much better it would have protected occupants than today’s large cars. What a waste.”

The fact that this was a spurious test program is best shown by the lack of instrumented crash dummies in the show car. What scientist would refuse to gather such valuable data from one of the most severe crash tests ever conducted. The airbags were not activated due to the failure to bring in the project engineers who knew the Minicars RSV had a separate on-off switch for the airbags which was designed to be turned on before a legitimate crash test.

As shown in Document 5A, NHTSA Administrator Curry retroactively approved the destruction of the RSV’s on June 5 after two had already been crashed. Administrator Curry continues to cover his trail by writing to the General Services Administration on July 8 to seek approval for destroying the RSV’s. His letter states the four RSV’s “are, or will be, crash tested.” Apparently, Administrator Curry did not have the candor to tell the GSA that all four vehicle had already been crashed.

The RSV crashes were not scientific tests but political executions. Internal regulations were violated. Scientific principles were ignored. Key engineering staff were kept in the dark. It is yet another example of how DOT will stop at nothing in its efforts to block increased fuel economy standards needed to reduce oil imports and global warming.

For more information on the RSV program, contact us.

See also “How The U.S. Government Killed The Safest Car Ever Built