TRAVERSE CITY, MI – The auto industry has put its vehicles on weight-loss diets to meet federal fuel-economy targets. But does that mean lighter models will fare poorly in crashes with heavyweights?

At the Center for Automotive Research’s 2017 Management Briefing Seminars here, CAR CEO Jay Baron asks Florian Schek, BMW’s head of lightweight design and vehicle weight, if lightweight cars are as safe as heftier models, particularly older ones.

Schek responds: “It has nothing to do with weight in the end. Both must meet crash requirements.”

Mass factors in at some point. For example, in a crash involving a heavy-duty truck and a minicar, the truck will fare better.

But Schek cites a crash test involving a tiny Smart car and a Mercedes-Benz S-Class fullsize sedan. The Smart came out of it relatively well. Despite its diminutive appearance, it has strong structural integrity.

In such a crash involving different-size vehicles, “both have their chances,” Schek says.

Baron agrees the crashworthiness of today’s lighter vehicles is impressive. “I’d take a lightweight car today rather than a heavyweight car of 20 years ago,” he says.

Expect tomorrow’s vehicles to lose weight as automakers go from building cars to protect occupants in accidents to building autonomous vehicles that are designed to avoid accidents altogether, says Michael Robinet, managing director-automotive advisory services for IHS Automotive.

Half the mass of today’s cars is safety-related, he says. That ranges from reinforced steel to assorted high-tech collision-avoidance equipment.

“You can reduce that weight if vehicles are not going to crash into each other,” Robinet says of the impending world of self-driving vehicles.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com