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Testing unsafe cars in emerging markets

For many years now, speculation has been rife that many popular car models sold in emerging markets like the Philippines are not as safe as the same car models sold in developed countries. This is because these car models have been “dumbed down” and stripped of some of their safety features to make them affordable for the target market in the developing countries.

An article in IQ (Institute Quarterly) of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) published the latest results of the Latin New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), confirming that major manufacturers are selling cars in Latin America with dramatically lower safety standards than seemingly identical vehicles in showrooms in Europe and North America. Since an Asean NCAP pilot project is scheduled to begin this year in Malaysia with the Automobile Association Philippines (AAP) as one of the participants—being the only auto club in the country affiliated with the FIA—it would be interesting to discover whether similar findings will come out pertaining to cars sold in Southeast Asia that are also sold in Europe and North America.

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The FIA, founded in 1904 and based in Paris, is the non-profit federation of 227 national motoring and sporting organizations from 132 countries that upholds the interests of over 100 million motorists worldwide on issues such as road safety, sustainable mobility, tourism and the environment aside from governing all four-wheel motor sports including Formula One. In 1995, the FIA launched Euro NCAP to independently conduct a crash-testing program of motor vehicles despite stiff resistance initially from the car industry. Since then, Euro NCAP has become the global standard, with car manufacturers accepting its methods and results and dialoguing regularly with its ratings development working group.

In 2009, Global NCAP, encouraged by the success of Euro NCAP and similar programs in the United States and Australia, began Latin NCAP with support from the FIA Foundation, the International Development Bank, the Gonzalo Rodriguez Foundation in Uruguay, FIA clubs from the region and consumer organizations. Global NCAP was aware of big changes in the automotive industry with the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) surging ahead in car production and car buying with little or no consumer information. So Global NCAP saw the need to spread NCAP programs into new areas, especially given the upcoming launch of the FIA-initiated and United Nations-endorsed Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020.  Latin NCAP was the first, with the aim that NCAPs in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa would follow.

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Crash test

Latin NCAP’s prototype program (2010-2012), based on the offset frontal impact test used for Euro NCAP, was carried out to the same standards in the crash test laboratory of the German auto club ADAC, where many Euro NCAP tests are done. In early 2010, Latin NCAP, following Euro NCAP practice, acquired base-specification models and shipped them to the crash lab, at which point the manufacturers were informed so that they could be present, assess the readiness of the vehicle and witness the conduct of the test.

Since airbags are not required by law in South America, the base-spec models purchased by Latin NCAP for testing were not so equipped. The standard reaction of manufacturers was to offer airbag-equipped variants of the cars chosen for testing. Latin NCAP allowed the carmakers to sponsor another set of tests for these, provided that NCAP would run the test independently.

The tests on the same cars with airbags showed a dramatic improvement in the level of adult occupation protection. The problem for consumers is that airbags are not offered by dealers in South America as a stand-alone option, but in combination with other options unrelated to safety  such as, MP3, leather seats, alloy wheels, etc. resulting in a very high price difference between cars without airbags and those with.

Of course, airbags are not a complete solution, Global NCAP technical director Alejandro Furas says. They are one component in an interlocking chain of safety measures, including crash structures, seatbelts, pretensioners and many other measures that need to work in harmony to provide a safe vehicle environment. This is why NCAP is based on a crash test rather than on an equipment checklist, Furas stresses.

Deficient

The Latin NCAP tests also found crash structures in several models to be deficient and subject to collapse, which represents danger whether airbags are fitted or not—not only during the crash but afterwards, when a badly deformed structure makes it difficult to remove passengers or deliver emergency medical attention.

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FIA Foundation Director General David Ward hopes that as what happened in Europe with Euro NCAP, Latin NCAP will lead to vehicle safety becoming a fundamental design philosophy. He pointed out that NCAP programs, which are voluntary initiatives rather than regulatory processes, have been found to be as useful—if not more useful—than regulations because consumers react quickly when they understand that one or other vehicle is unsafe.

The article avers that the cars being produced in the developing parts of the world are often, in essence, cosmetically enhanced versions of vehicles and platforms that were discontinued in the developed world and had their production lines shipped to Latin America, India and China where they began a second life. This is confirmed by the Latin NCAP test wherein two Chevrolet cars (with no airbags) based on the Corsa B platform produced in Europe from 1993 to 2000 earned a low one-star rating for adult occupant safety in keeping with the standards of that time, while a Chevrolet Cruze sponsored into Latin NCAP by the manufacturer got a respectable four stars, commensurate with its being a world car built on GM’s Delta II global platform launched in 2008 and at least two generations more advanced. A Toyota Corolla and a Ford Focus with two airbags each also earned four out of a possible five stars.

Summing up, the FIA IQ article states: “It is tempting to blame the manufacturers for the disparities between their regional offerings, suggesting they may be being apathetic towards vehicle safety in less wealthy markets. While they aren’t entirely blameless and could undoubtedly do more, the truth is perhaps more complex. Automotive manufacturers are not charities and it isn’t unreasonable for them to be motivated by profit. In other words, it is possible for them to build safer cars, but if the cost of doing so pushes that car beyond the pocket of its target market then all the airbags and ultrahigh-strength steel in the world isn’t going to have an impact on safety because no lives are saved when the car sits unsold in the showroom.

“Perhaps a more effective strategy is the constant agitation of an NCAP program which, if the European experience is anything to go by, will be able to engage public awareness and in so doing motivate manufacturers to raise standards across the board.”

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TAGS: autos, Motoring, safety
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