Ralph Nader never expected to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
The 82-year-old safety advocate spent most of his career ruffling feathers and demanding change ever since his book, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” exposed dangers in the Chevrolet Corvair in 1965.
But Nader was inducted Thursday night in a ceremony at Cobo Center alongside former Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally; Roy Lunn, engineer of the Ford GT40 that swept the podium at the 1966 Le Mans race; and Bertha Benz, wife and business partner to Karl Benz, founder of the German automaker Mercedes-Benz.
Nader said it felt like validation. And appropriately enough, there was a Corvair on the floor.
“What’s happened is that they’re now marketing safety; when I started out they said safety doesn’t sell and would have never mentioned the possibility of seat belts,” he told The Detroit News. “They didn’t even want to talk about crashes because it would reduce the fantasy of buying cars. ... It’s like saying, ‘You were right.’ ”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News ahead of his induction, Nader acknowledged the tremendous strides the industry has made in reducing traffic fatalities, but called for tougher mandates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that include civil and criminal penalties for automakers and executives.
“We’re dealing with a global industry,” he said. “You have everything from sleazy behavior at VW to GM and the ignition switch. These were known hazards to human life and limb. You have to have civil and criminal laws that are enforced.”
Nader placed blame on General Motors Co. for not doing enough to raise awareness about problems with Flint’s water after discovering corrosion on auto parts at a plant there. Earlier this year, the outspoken political activist sent a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra questioning if the automaker could have done more. He said Thursday the response he got from the company wasn’t enough.
“They didn’t exercise their corporate responsibility,” he said. And he said that, despite changes by Barra, “It’s the same old GM bureaucracy.”
Autonomous cars present a new safety challenge, Nader said. He doesn’t envision the technology will ever make it to city streets.
“The country’s traffic patterns are not ready for these vehicles; drivers are not ready for these vehicles,” he said. “They are scared of hacking from the outside and they’re scared of what happened with the Tesla. How many will have to happen before that fear expands?”
“Techno twits” is what he called those who believe fully autonomous cars will hit streets before the end of the decade. He said Tesla CEO Elon Musk is operating with “irrational exuberance” and should not offer Autopilot.
“I think he’s an innovator and jolts the stagnant industry he wants to upend and he’s done quite a bit of good, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing,” he said. “To put Autopilots on the highway without having a warning is reckless. It’s using our highways as guinea pig tests.
“He’s going to be sued heavy on this.”