Safety tests put stars-in-the-eyes of consumers

“In the majority of global ratings, active safety effectiveness does not yet affect the rating published,” says Michiel van Ratingen, secretary general at Euro NCAP. “US NCAP, Japan NCAP and others are recommending active safety technologies based on acceptance tests but the results do not affect the star rating.”

He explains that Euro NCAP is an exception that incorporates a number of active safety tests in the overall rating. Not having active systems, like autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane support and speed assistance means that the rating is limited to three stars or less. The Insurance Industry for Highway Safety (IIHS) has included AEB as a ‘Top Pick / TP+ requirement’, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has announced that updates to US NCAP will follow suit.

“NCAP for emerging markets such as Latin NCAP, Asean NCAP etc. look for robust crash protection in the first place,” van Ratingen added. “In these growing markets, often there are no or very poor vehicle safety regulations in place, which means OEMs often refrain from making airbags, seatbelt in the rear, electronic stability control etc. as standard or even do not offer these at all.”

In December 2015 NHTSA announced a strengthening of the 5-star system with the use of half stars, which van Ratingen believes, will bring more resolution into the future results, effectively providing 10 levels to work with instead of 5.

“NHTSA probably feels it is needed as they are planning to add a number of new tests.  The drawback is that the communication to the average consumer becomes less straightforward and thus more complicated,” van Ratingen explains. “In addition, the half star differences will be harder to justify in terms of real world safety benefits.”

According to van Ratingen, each avoidance technology is tested in relevant real world accident scenarios. AEB technology can address rear-end vehicle crashes and crashes with vulnerable road users. Typical rear-end crashes are those where a car is running into a stationary car or object, where the car is driving in to a slower moving vehicle or where a car is following another vehicle that suddenly brakes.

“How effective an AEB system is depends on whether the system can avoid such crashes entirely and/or whether the crash can be effectively mitigated, i.e. the impact reduced significantly,” explains Van Ratingen. “The fuller avoidance case and/or the more impact reduction cases, the better is the system.”

He said that, in Europe, the move towards an overall rating of vehicle safety in 2009 was largely inspired by the desire to focus the auto industry’s efforts on also protecting vulnerable road users. “Subsystem testing of vehicle front-ends has led to major improvements under the bonnet, including deployable systems. The latest generation of AEB works complementary to this: detecting pedestrians and cyclist crashes in order to avoid crashes or reduce the speed of impact.”

The benefits of stricter new safety testing standards include cars getting safer continuously and active safety equipment is enable the move towards automated driving functions. The drawbacks include increased vehicle costs. “The benefits of evolving standards for vehicle safety is that it makes vehicles safer sooner,” says David S Zuby, the executive vice-president and chief research officer for the IIHS.

Zuby explains that a possible drawback is that consumers may become confused when, for example, a vehicle model is rated NCAP 5-stars one year and then drops to 3-stars the following year or is an IIHS’ Top Safety Pick’ one year but not the next.  The year-to-year drop in ratings doesn’t mean the vehicle has gotten less safe but rather that the bar for being considered most safe has been raised. “IIHS as well as the other NCAPs are seeking to create incentive for automakers to build safer cars, by providing consumers with information about which new vehicles offer the highest level of safety,” explains Zuby. “Typically the requirements change over time to reflect the increasing levels of safety that can be achieved by state-of-the-art vehicle designs.”

According to Zuby, the different NCAPs around the world include effectiveness of ADAS to different degrees.  It is not currently included in US NCAP’s star rating but they do promote the potential safety benefits of 3 features – rear view cameras, lane departure warning and forward collision warning – that meet specified criteria through the “recommended technologies” portion of their safety information. “One additional role of GlobalNCAP is to provide a forum for its members to share information about evolving safety test standards and to the extent possible promote harmonization or test procedures and tools.  Rating requirements may need to vary from market to market to reflect the state of vehicle safety in each one.”

Zuby concludes that standards that rate all vehicles in a marketplace as poor or 1-star do not provided consumers with information they can use to make choices and consequently provides little incentive for automakers to change their product offerings there.

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