The majority of countries in the world will not allow a new car from an established manufacturer to be sold if they have not passed certain crash tests and these are rated by several Government agencies – albeit with similar tests and ratings.
Crash tests are typically destructive – i.e. they are testing against design and Government standards and based on the results, the vehicle will be given a rating. The higher the rating the better the results and the more the manufacturer will use it in their marketing! Think Volvo – a manufacturer who has used safety in their marketing for decades.
Typical Crash Tests
A vehicle model will be subjected to several tests that will try to emulate common road accidents. Frontal tests will show how the car survives a head-on crash with another car or with a solid object. Clearly no car will be drivable after this type of impact, however the test will help the designers improve the strength and absorb more of the force of a collision in future versions.
Side impact tests will show how much the shell will deform when hit from the side – another common accident scenario. Hopefully the airbags will deploy and the shell will protect the occupants as much as possible.
Roll-over tests are important because a vehicle might roll based on the direction of travel, impact etc. Many convertibles now have roll over bars that pop up and lock in place if the vehicle reaches a certain angle – the car’s management system will consider that angle to be well on the way to a roll.
Many people will remember to “Moose Test” that caught out the first series A-Class Mercedes-Benz. In northern Europe it is common to have very large animals appear on country roads. A group of journalists managed to roll a new A-Class emulating this situation, meaning extra work for the engineers!
Another important test is the ability of a vehicle to absorb the force of an impact from a bigger car. With such a variety of vehicle sizes on the road, it is inevitable that a large car will hit a small one – for example a Range Rover and Nissan Micra colliding. Governments want the smaller car to be able to withstand a reasonable amount of moving weight.
Agencies – The NCAPs
As you might imagine there are three major agencies or groups involved in defining crash tests. In the US the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) work together to define the tests and ratings. In Europe, it is the Euro New Car Assessment Program (EuroNCAP) – modelled on the work initially done by the NHTSA during the early 1970s.
Other “NCAPs” include ANCAP in Australia, C-NCAP in China, JNCAP in Japan, KNCAP in Korea and Latin NCAP in Latin America. They all share a similar methodology and each program is made up of many smaller automotive based groups and institutes. Ratings are mostly similar too, so if a vehicle is awarded a specific rating in Europe, it is likely to get the same rating in Australia or Japan for example, after local testing has been completed. This appears not to apply to the US ratings though.
Many of the NCAPs share a logo that looks like a BMW roundel only in a different colour combination!
For ANCAP tests, the rating is from 1 to 5 stars, with 1 being the lowest. Today, the lowest rated cars being sold are the Ford Mustang and the Great Wall Steed ute that both managed a rating of 2. The Mustang also received a 2 star rating from EuroNCAP, however got a 5 star rating from the NHTSA in the US! In the past, three cars have been sold with a rating of 1 in Australia – all commercial vehicles: the Proton Jumbuck ute, NIssan Urvan E25 and the Mitsubishi Express L300 vans.
In Europe, the 2015 Lancia Ypsilon rated just 2 and last month EuroNCAP published a zero rating for the FIAT Punto, however the test vehicle was not fitted with many safety features that were apparently available, so this could be an oddity and not truly real world.
Most vehicles tested appear to get awarded 4 or 5 stars, however the tests are constantly being assessed as new technology comes to market, so it is possible that a vehicle that has a 5 star rating today could become a 3 star car in a couple of years time. With the huge amount of focus on occupant safety at the moment, you can be certain that cars will get more equipment as standard and that new tests will be developed as cars become more autonomous.
This is actually an interesting comment: at what point will the NCAP ratings become redundant? Presumably as more and more autonomous cars reach the roads, the chances of an accident reduce and so the ratings become less effective and less of a marketing feature. Will we see cars become more fragile because overall speeds would be lowered via the technology used to manage the vehicle and therefore less materials are needed in the build process. With less steel and carbon fibre would come an associated reduction in unit price (possibly initially offset by the cost of the electronics) and thus more cars on the road.
If autonomous vehicles never crash then why would manufacturers build strong, expensive cars? The key is in the data collected on every journey. If the data starts to show an ever longer MTTF – mean time to failure (i.e. accident) – then the manufacturers will start to remove cost from the vehicles they sell and large volumes of civil servants will be made redundant as the testing also becomes redundant! Expect another battle between the manufacturers and Governments.