'We would like to (keep testing cars in India), subject to everybody in NCAP agreeing to it.'

Max Mosley, chairman of Global New Car Assessment Programme (GNCAP), speaks to Sumantra B Barooah about the Safer Cars for India campaign and the GNCAP journey so far.

By Sumantra B Barooah calendar 26 Dec 2014 Views icon4869 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
'We would like to (keep testing cars in India), subject to everybody in NCAP agreeing to it.'

Max Mosley, chairman of Global New Car Assessment Programme (GNCAP), speaks to Sumantra B Barooah about the Safer Cars for India campaign and the GNCAP journey so far.

You come from a Formula One background. That’s quite a contrast to the entry-level cars that GNCAP has tested this year. Now, you have an interest in enhancing the safety of entry level cars. What led you personally to get involved in an initiative focusing on making cars safer?
Well, that’s quite interesting. Back in 1994, we had a weekend in Italy where Ayrton Senna was killed, and an Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed. So, I started a big safety campaign and I set up a committee headed by somebody who was a neurosurgeon but also a scientist to look scientifically at improving the safety of Formula One cars. At some point I said, ‘You know at the moment, 50,000 people are killed on the roads of the 12 EU countries. Let’s look at what the governments are doing because we could probably learn something from government research for Formula One.’

When we looked into it, nothing had changed since 1974 for 20 years. There were proposals in the EU commission to make changes but they were all being blocked by the industry. We campaigned for the standards, which is now the EU standard. We overcame the opposition. Our reply was: ‘We are independent, we are not paid, we do not have any commercial interest in this. This is objective, honest information.’ And, we went and started NCAP to bring these things and get an even higher standard and bring it to the attention of the consumer. But the whole thing started with that accident in Formula One.

How has the evolution of NCAP been since those days?
The thing is that what’s the lesson that we learnt in Europe. The conventional wisdom in Europe was that safety doesn’t sell. That’s what the car manufacturers used to say. It turned out that once the information was published, Euro NCAP it was in those days, then consumers took a great interest. It started to go up the ranks of people who were concerned about and I’m sure exactly the same thing will happen in India. The point of course is that when we started in Europe they could say, “this one won’t make much of a difference”, “it won’t change anything much” and so on. Well, experience says that it does. Consumer awareness and consumer interests are the key to everything.

Euro NCAP started in 1996. And you see what happened at that time, there were crash tests going on; the Swedish government did some, the German motor club ADAC was doing them, there were some in the United Kingdom but the standards were all slightly different.

What Euro NCAP did was to bring all the different parties including EU governments together and the German test facility and get them to agree on common standards and then those common standards became the Euro NCAP standards. The first time we published the whole lot of results, there was massive opposition from the car industry and they were very, very unhappy about it. In England, for example, they had a former Member of Parliament to say that everything we were doing was nonsense. The car manufacturers all agreed among themselves, in the mid- to late 1990s, that nobody would use the NCAP results in their advertising. But then one of them, Renault, made the first 5-star car, which was a great success because the conventional wisdom in the beginning was that 3 stars is really good, 4 stars might be achievable but 5 stars was not possible. But Renault demonstrated it was possible. They advertised it and then they all started.

The one in South America that Global NCAP was instrumental in starting has been an enormous success because they worked from really unsafe cars to the first 5-star cars very, very quickly. The same things happened with ASEAN NCAP. Actually just a few days ago, they announced that Nissan’s Teana had got a perfect score for adult passenger and 5 stars for child passenger. So, it’s a really remarkable success.

What has been the impact of the new safety standards?
It was killing 50,000 then and now, it’s actually not comparable now because instead of 12 countries, now it is 28 countries. But for example in Germany, between 1999 and 2013, the fatalities dropped by 60 percent. That’s massive. That is because of safer cars, better enforcement and also marking the roads properly, the infrastructure. Similarly in England, there were 7,000 road fatalities per year in the 1970s. Now, it’s 1,500-1,600. So, there are huge changes. Of course, exactly the same thing can be done in India. When people say “it can’t be done”, we know it can because it has been done!

What led to GNCAP launching the safer cars for India campaign in 2014? What factors made it choose 2014 as the launch year of this campaign?
It’s well known that in India something like 380 people are killed (in road accidents) every single day. So, it’s clearly a big road safety problem. We thought, ‘Well this is something that Global NCAP ought to do something about.’ We already had done something similar in South America with great success and now there is a South American NCAP.

So we thought that the next big target was India because it’s such a big country with so many people, such a high rate of casualties. So that’s when we got hold of five cars and took them to the ADAC test laboratory, Germany. And the results were not good, particularly the Tata Nano. So, off we went. It was a very obvious target particularly as now the recent ASEAN NCAP with a test centre in Malaysia. So the whole of, as it were, the east is an area where a lot can be done.

How long do you plan to drive the Safer Cars for India campaign?
I think until the government brings in legislation because the government seems very willing. They announced on December 1 that they are going to mandate frontal and side impact testing and they are going to set up a test centre. What we hope is, two things: one is that this done very quickly because the quicker it’s done, the quicker we’ll get results. Secondly, we hope that the standards of Indian government mandate would be the United Nations’ standards, United Nations Regulation 94-95, which were actually the same as the legislation that was brought in by the EU commission in Europe in 1998 and 2003. So they are now world standards.

Would you continue to test cars after the government comes up with new safety guidelines?
I think we would like to, subject to everybody in NCAP agreeing to it. It gives a manufacturer an incentive if somebody has the best car, for example, like the Nissan Teana. The ASEAN NCAP greatly exceeds the United Nations’ minimum. That encourages people to go and buy that car rather than another car. But the United Nations would be a platform below which no car would be allowed to think.

The test which included the Suzuki Swift and Datsun Go created quite a stir in India. Some may say Nissan was criticised a little too much for the Go. What’s your comment on that?
The thing with the Datsun Go is that it’s such a weak structure that even if you fitted airbags, it wouldn’t save the passenger; it completely crushes the driver and the (front) passenger. It is a question of the steel and how it’s welded. Nissan, the same company, made this extremely safe car revealed at the ASEAN NCAP.

To make the car, to weld the car in the right place, to put the bits of steel in the right place and not the wrong place. It’s just a question of design. It doesn’t add to the cost of the car other than at the most, marginally. It is not a cost issue. It’s a design and engineering issue.

Did you receive any acknowledgement or response to your letter which you sent to Carlos Ghosn?
Not yet. We are going to wait a little bit longer and if we still don’t get a response then we are going to write to the prime minister of Japan because it’s a Japanese company. And, it is wrong that the company should be selling cars into India which are much less safe than the cars it sells into other markets.

Given the demographics of India, a two-wheeler is the most preferred mobility option for Indians unlike in most places in Europe where it is more of a recreational vehicle. What do you think is the right way to migrate two-wheeler customers to a relatively safer mode of transport, i.e. four-wheelers without having a huge burden of cost?
A car is always going to be more expensive than a motorbike. Even now, I believe that just over 17 percent of fatalities on the road in India are people in cars. So if we can improve the cars, that already can make a big difference. The transition from motorbike to the car in the end depends on the economic circumstances of the person concerned. Plus, wanting to move to a car is when people appreciate that the car is much safer and economic conditions improve. Of course, what we need to do is that even the most modest car is built to modern engineering standards, which wouldn’t make it more expensive. It just makes it safer.

There’s an argument that making a car safer with extra features adds to the cost which may make many two-wheeler owners in a price-sensitive market like India not shift to a safer mode of transport, like a car. So what is the balance you think?
Yes, it’s a perfectly valid point — a car is safer than a motorbike, that’s unquestioned. Particularly, the way motorbikes are used in India where sometimes you will see a man riding a motorbike, the wife sitting side-saddled on the back with two children in between! There’s no question that a family of four people will be much safer in a car. But, what we are saying is that the difference in cost between a car that does collapse completely, like the Datsun Go, and a car with good structural integrity, the difference in cost is absolutely marginal. There might not be any difference at all. As I said before, it’s a question of engineering design, where you put which bit of steel and how you weld it. Actually, it’s simple as that. Then the next stage up is to fit airbags.

Obviously, if you fit airbags to a car, that is a cost. But the cost of fitting an airbag in the front is at the most $150 (Rs 9,300) and it depends obviously on the deal between the airbag manufacturer and the car manufacturer. But you are talking in the $100-$150 bracket. Now as a percentage of the cost of even the cheapest car, it is not that dramatic. But if you say to the family, “fitting these airbags in a car with structural integrity will make a huge difference to your safety,” then they may want to spend $150 to do it.

Also, from a society’s point of view, every death, apart from the human element, is a cost. The reality of that is there are 380 families each day that are completely devastated. I think politicians often lose sight of the individual tragedy of each death.

The average driving speed in India is much lower than in Europe. Do you think the average speed of crash test for vehicles in India should be relatively less? In Europe till 2003, it was 48kph for the crash test.
The average speed is lower because the roads are very crowded. The speed of impact is what matters more than the average speed. Now the United Nations level for frontal impact is 56kph, i.e. 35mph. The NCAP one is 64kph. The argument is that the average speed is lower. Therefore we don’t need the same safety proportions.

First of all, the 17 percent people being killed in cars have below-average speed. Secondly, it’s the actual impact speed that’s not necessarily related to the average speed. It is much more about road conditions and where you have the car is. The fact is that in two-lane highways, in each of the two halves, traffic can go both ways. All sorts of factors like that. In the end, you need all the safety you can get in a car whatever the average speed is.

Is GNCAP already engaging with the Indian government or planning to engage with it to improve infrastructure, safety education or enforcement of traffic rules in markets like India? Are you planning to get in those kind of activities also?
In terms of the government, I think the minister was present at the gathering on November 3 in New Delhi. The top civil servants, the whole hierarchy were there. So (they are) taking it very seriously. And, we have the impression that safety was very high on the agenda, and certainly in the transport ministry. On one side we have to be careful we mustn’t appear to be turning out in India, coming from Europe and telling people what they should do. So, one must be very diplomatic about this. On the other hand, what we can do is turn up and say, ‘Look this is the experience we have had and it may be of interest to you.’ What’s very pleasing is that the government seems to be taking that very much on board.

How do you correlate between the average speed in the market and the crash test speed of NCAP?
We don’t really because, for example, in Europe, if you took the average speed in the 28 different countries, it probably varies considerably. But a car is a safe car or not a safe car in a crash and obviously a vast majority of crashes are at very low speed and don’t produce any injury. Then you get cars crashing at the highway at a higher speed where you get an injury and then even higher, you get death. Of course, what you are doing is reducing the probability of death and injury by building safer cars. That is all you doing.

What is your view on the segment of quadricycles? It took birth in Europe and it is almost on the verge of being born in India as well. There are two different groups within the industry as well with varying opinions. So what is your opinion on it?
It seems to me that it’s just a personal deal. But the quadricycle really is very little advanced to the general motorcycle. (It’s) just more complicated. I mean the person is exposed in the same sort of way they are in a motorcycle. Whereas in a car, if it’s properly built and properly structured, then they have got protection and if they have got airbags, they have got a lot of protection. On a quadricycle, none of the things apply.

For a manufacturer the cost factor may pose a hurdle to its desire to offer safer cars. What do you think would be a good way to bring down the component costs to help enhance the use of safety features?
I think the really important point there would be for the government to bring in the United Nations standards because then every manufacturer in India would have to observe them. Which means that the components necessary for observation would be cheaper because more of them would be sold. The consumer might or might not pay for the extras. But the costs will come down immediately when the legislation is in prospect.

So what is very important that the government should announce that they are going to adopt the United Nations’ standards and then do so as quickly as possible. So that will put pressure on the industry to start making the cars safer. Also, it is a level playing field for the industry. Nobody then has an incentive to make an unsafe car.

What is the source of GNCAP’s funding? Importing cars from various countries and conducting test requires a significant amount of money.
GNCAP is completely independent and it’s a UK charity. Most of its funds come from the FIA foundation, which again is a UK charity. The original money for the FIA foundation came from Formula One. It’s really really important that no one can suggest that somebody has a commercial interest in the results — either good or bad.

But if a carmaker wants to advertise its NCAP rating, does it have to pay GNCAP a fee?
No, they don’t have to pay us to use the rating in advertisements. We are very pleased if they do because it means the consumers are getting more information. What we object to, of course very strongly, is if somebody were to say they had a 5-star rating when they didn’t have a 5-star rating.

If a manufacturer had a car they thought was really good, and it stands to get a good rating, the company could pay to have the car tested but on condition that we went out and bought the car anonymously from a showroom.

 

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