Although India continues to rank among the countries with the worst road accident fatalities and injuries every year, a big positive in recent years has been the growing awareness among consumers for safer vehicles, particularly passenger vehicles.
One can, at least in part, credit some of this newfound awareness to Global New Car Assessment Programme’s (GNCAP) crash tests and for being the genesis of the automotive safety movement in India. In January 2014, the global safety watchdog released the results of the very first crash tests it conducted on five made-in-India and made-for-India cars. The findings made headlines nationwide and brought the topic of automotive safety to the fore.
The results were a wake-up call for all stakeholders. And there has been progress since. The government that had long dragged its feet on safety, among other initiatives, introduced far superior crash test requirements; many carmakers have incorporated safety features such as airbags well before they have been mandated by law and buyers simply want safer cars. And the results are there to be seen: both Tata Motors’ Nexon compact SUV and Mahindra’s XUV300 SUV have aced the GNCAP crash tests with a full five-star rating.
Every NCAP has its own protocol to crash-test and score cars, and so the results are not interchangeable. Euro NCAP, for instance, conducts full frontal, front offset, side impact and side pole tests. Global NCAP ratings, on the other hand, are based on front offset crash tests alone. A front offset crash test is designed to simulate a head-on collision between two cars. In the Global NCAP test, the car is driven at 64kph and with 40 percent overlap into a deformable barrier which is the equivalent of a crash between two cars of the same weight, both moving at 50kph.
It is to be noted that there is difference in speed of the front offset test conducted by Global NCAP and Indian regulatory authorities. As per the Indian government’s safety norms (applicable to all new models since October 2017, and to all models on sale from October 2019), to be eligible for sale, a car must meet front offset and side impact crash requirements.
The Indian government’s front offset test is conducted at 56kph which, though lower than the Global NCAP’s front offset crash test speed, is in line with the United Nations’ Regulation 94 for front impact protection.
By extension, it is possible for a car to meet latest Indian regulations and, hence be eligible for sale, and yet be rated poorly by Global NCAP. So, there is truth to a manufacturer’s press release after a poor showing in a Global NCAP test that the car in question ‘meets all regulations’. NCAP’s requirements for a good score are often superior to minimum regulatory requirements. Also, NCAP protocols change every couple of years to include more tests or features. So, is there reason to establish an India-centric NCAP?
Testing made-in-India cars in India
This issue was the focal point of a debate at the International Passive Safety Seminar 2020 organised by the International Centre for Automotive Technology (ICAT), the Manesar-based automotive testing, certification and R&D service provider under the aegis of NATRiP (National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project). The three-day (October 29-31) virtual event drew participation from industry stakeholders including OEMs and suppliers, bureaucrats, academia and experts from India and abroad.
India, a signatory to the Stockholm Declaration, is looking to reduce the number of road accidents and deaths by 50 percent by end-2030. It is a tough ask considering the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reveals that 437,396 road accidents were recorded across India in 2019, resulting in 1,54,732 fatalities – that's 432 every day – and injuring another 439,262. Of this, 59.6 percent of road accidents were due to over-speeding, causing 86,241 deaths and leaving 271,581 people injured.
In a panel discussion on ‘Indian Vehicle Safety Roadmap: Beyond Regulations’, Dr Sarma Akella, vice-president, Mahindra & Mahindra, spoke about the need for India Auto Inc to get into certification. “However, we should bring only those aspects which are suitable for India since what suits other countries may not suit us. That needs to be debated and decisions taken accordingly,” said Akella.
Anil Kumar, senior GM at Tata Motors, seconded Akella and added that the certification process has evolved significantly in recent years and will keep advancing with technological upgrades. “Protocol should be chosen carefully in the Indian context. Any system which is standardised will help the customers in choosing vehicles wisely,” said Kumar.
Alok Jaitley, senior vice-president, Maruti Suzuki India, said; “Just by sitting in five-star safety rated cars does not mean the occupant is safe. You will still need safe roads and regulations to enforce the safety norms.”
Meanwhile, India-specific developments are already underway using dummies designed with local people in mind . In a presentation, Dr Anoop Chawla, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT, New Delhi, said: “We will continue to work as we go along based on age, gender, height, amongst other specifications and parameters.”
Why the need for BNVSAP?
NCAP, which stands for New Car Assessment Program, first started in the US in 1979 to provide car crashworthiness details to car buyers. Since then, it has expanded into Euro NCAP, ASEAN NCAP, Korean NCAP and Japan NCAP amongst others.
Earlier this decade, Global NCAP, a UK- based charity organisation was set up with an aim to promote cooperation amongst all the NCAPs apart from promoting vehicle crash testing in developing countries such as India. Now, there is an increasing demand amongst Indian automotive industry stakeholders to introduce Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP) sooner rather than later.
According to Prashant K Banerjee, executive director, SIAM, though amendments brought into Indian car safety regulations have made vehicle manufacturers, suppliers, testing agencies and thers far more responsible for safety related issues than before, they still remain narrowly focussed on new cars. This is despite the fact that two-wheelers remain the highest used vehicles for mobility, with over 20 million units bought every year. Furthermore, the bulk of commercial vehicles and their drivers do not follow safety measures. Nonetheless, industry associations and OEMs are doing their bit to spread safety awareness.
Between the mid-1960s and 1975, Professor Lawrence Patrick, a researcher at Michigan’s Wayne State University, came across a unique challenge. While probing the thermodynamic effect of vehicle accidents on a human body, Patrick was looking for a person who could act as a guinea pig during the experiment. Though a human dummy could have revealed the impact of a crash on various body parts, it was difficult to gauge how much of an impact a real human body can take.
Unable to find any help, Prof Patrick, a former US Navy officer, became a crash test dummy himself, taking 22-pound pendulum knocks on his chest, hundreds of rapid decelerations resembling a car crash against a wall, amongst other similar dangerous impacts. The efforts finally paid off and Prof Patrick, who began to be referred as the father of crash test dummies, helped drive the development of the airbag, seatbelts, safety glass, collapsible steering columns, dashboards and many other safety features in today's vehicles.
It was with examples of people such as Prof Patrick and others that speakers from across the globe and India presented their studies and analysis on the subject of passive safety at the ICAT webinar. The presentations covered various aspects of safety practices including safety simulation, virtualisation, testing and monitoring and controlling. Further, the discussions also threw light on injury-biomechanics, which are decisive parts of accident research, to the crash-rules and regulations that are derived from the latter, test procedures and eventually to crash tests.
Speaking in the session on ‘Building a Aafety Agenda — The role of safety professionals in building a safe India’, SJR Kutty, Head - Vehicle Attributes & Technical Services and Innovation at Tata Motors, said: “Today’s cutting-edge technology was yesterday’s big hurdle. Several decades ago, it was Prof Lawrence Patrick who himself volunteered for the test. However, today’s dummies represent human bodies much closer than the dummies that were used earlier.”
Safety should be ‘core value’, not priority
While vehicle safety regulations in India are slowly catching up with those from the global arena, what is playing an important role are the latest technologies such as ADAS and connected vehicles. According to Pratyush Khare, an expert on crash safety at Tata Motors, there is a need to study various stages of an accident and the role technologies can play to prevent it or reduce the intensity. “It can happen with integration of active and passive safety measures,” he said.
Dr Shashi Nambisan, Director - Transportation Research Centre, and Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Nevada, said that the transition from legacy environment to the concept of Connected, Automated vehicles & Infrastructure Systems (CAVIS) and Automated, connected, electric and shared (ACES) requires much effort and data collection. “Safety is so important that it is no more a priority. A priority can be moved up or down but ‘core values’ cannot be changed.”
From India's perspective, the most important question is how effective will be the adoption of latest safety related measures in India be? OEMs and suppliers will continue to have an important role to play by coming out with value-added products which are safer with each generation.
The establishment of an India-specific Bharat NCAP (later expanded in scope to BNVSAP or Bharat New Vehicle Assessment Program) has been spoken of since the time of the first Global NCAP crash tests in 2014 but nothing concrete has come of it as yet. As at ICAT, India now even has the facilities to conduct various types of crash tests and post-crash analysis. A crash test rating for all cars would put an end to often unfounded arguments for or against a model’s crash worthiness and would equip buyers with objective information to buy safe. A good safety rating becomes a key product differentiator. And that can only be good news for manufacturers and buyers alike.
(With inputs from Nikhil Bhatia)