Fifty years ago, Ralph Nader unleashed his scathing investigation of Detroit, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Time and age haven’t mellowed the 81-year old consumer activist, who’s still critical of the auto industry today and has another big target in his sites: Silicon Valley.
Nader, who doesn’t email or surf the web—and still writes on a manual Underwood typewriter—chides high-tech companies for making huge sums of money to produce apps mostly built for entertainment:
Speaking of seductive, Nader says Google is deploying driverless cars mainly as a brand-building symbol of “hypermodernity” to attract top talent. True to form, Nader has safety concerns.
“Until there is data in really complex, congested areas,” he says he remains unconvinced of their safety. He also suggests that “semi-autonomous collision controls will undermine the need” for driverless cars.
Nader sees auto computerization as the next frontier of auto safety, with a need to advance the positives of automation (like collision avoidance) while minimizing the downsides (privacy issues due to systems able to track drivers)
With safety features ranging from airbags to side impact protection – many of which Nader fought for—autos are far more safe than when Nader took on GM half a century ago, dropping from 5.4 fatalities for 100 million vehicles miles traveled in 1965 to 1.1 today, according to Nader, citing U.S. government data.
Still, scandals and recalls in today’s auto industry continue to give Nader plenty of fodder. Here’s what he had to say on some of them in our interview:
Takata airbag recalls. Nader says he’s baffled that U.S. auto makers “couldn’t have caught Takata.”
GM recalls: CEO Mary Barra “started out pretty well, [highlighting] GM’s corporate culture problem, the GM ‘nod’ of everyone getting along and going along. But she’s not as candid anymore. Nader called for “an independent ombudsman so engineers can go outside the chain of command and register their complaint about a defective product and not get fired.”
VW Scandal: “It’s clear it was premeditated criminal intent. You don’t hook up software to avoid emission control….inadvertently.” The case, he added, will test the adequacy of federal law, “which has no criminal penalties… That’s a battle we lost in 1966.”
Of efforts underway in Congress to add criminal penalties to auto safety laws, he says: “If the executives don’t fear being prosecuted, convicted, and going to jail we’ll get again and again this repetition of unaccountable out of control bureaucracy.”
Fortune senior editor Nina Easton launched her career 34 years ago as a writer for Nader–typing on an Underwood manual in the same office where this interview took place. Nader, who famously wore only the dozen cheap shoes he once bought in an Army PX, has never moved.