India’s crash course in car safety

India finally appears to be heading towards implementing globally-accepted safety standards for crash worthiness. By David Isaiah

In India, where economy is the watchword, small cars make up the largest part of the market. To be successful in India’s mass volume market, a car must be priced correctly, must be fuel efficient and must be low maintenance, or at least be affordable to maintain. In India, prioritising these parameters has been done at the expense of safety.

With profitability at the top of the agenda, OEMs selling cars in India’s highly price-sensitive market have kept prices down by compromising on safety, at least in the basic versions of their cars. Safety features like airbags and ABS are offered, but not as standard fitment.

The crashworthiness of cars in India came to the fore in January 2014, when the first ever independent crash tests of some of India’s most popular cars revealed a high risk of life threatening injuries in road crashes. These tests were carried out by Global New Car Assessment Programme (Global NCAP).

This first round of tests involved some of India’s best sellers, like the Maruti Suzuki Alto 800, Hyundai i10, Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo, along with the country’s cheapest car, the Tata Nano. The entry-level version of each of these cars, which is sold without airbags, fared quite poorly in the tests, and in a frontal impact test, received zero-star adult protection ratings.

“India is now a major global market and production centre for small cars, so it is worrying to see levels of safety that are 20 years behind the five-star standards now common in Europe and North America. Poor structural integrity and the absence of airbags are putting the lives of Indian consumers at risk. They have a right to know how safe their vehicles are and to expect the same basic levels of safety as standard as customers in other part of the world,” said Global NCAP Chairman, Max Mosley, at the time.

Apart from the Volkswagen Polo and the Ford Figo, the cars also failed when assessed against the UN’s basic crash test. This test is currently followed in countries like Australia, China, the EU, Japan and Malaysia, and the UN has recommended that all member states adopt this safety standard. As is obvious from the results, India has yet to adopt this standard.

Datsun Go crash test
“The Datsun Go…has a body structure so weak that it is pointless to fit an airbag” – Global NCAP Secretary General David Ward

This, of course, does not mean India manufactures cars that are unsafe; in fact, many cars made in India for export meet these standards, which only goes to show that the country’s automotive manufacturing segment already possesses the know-how and the capability to incorporate such safety standards into cars produced for the local market as well.

“India’s automobile industry just needs the right incentives. With the UN’s minimum safety standards and clear information for consumers, India can produce cars that are every bit as good as those in Europe and the US,” said Rohit Baluja, President of India’s Institute of Road Traffic Education (IRTE).

Global NCAP’s safety expectations for cars in India, and the idea that Indian cars should meet US or European safety standards, did not meet universal approval. Andy Palmer, at the time Nissan’s Chief Planning Officer and Executive Vice President, stated that it was ‘absurd’ to demand that emerging markets adopt European safety standards overnight.

Late 2014 brought more revelations on the level of safety in Indian cars. Global NCAP tested two more cars, the Datsun Go and the popular Maruti Suzuki Swift and published the results in November 2014. The results were more or less the same – ‘a high risk of life-threatening injuries with both cars receiving zero-star safety rating for their adult occupant protection.’

By this time, though, the Indian government had woken up to the issue of crash worthiness, and had decided to launch a new car assessment programme. Global NCAP welcomed this step, but suggested that the country move to apply the UN’s minimum crash test standards as well.

“We welcome the initiative of the Indian government to launch its own NCAP and recommend that this positive step is combined with the application of the UN regulations for frontal and side impact. Prompt action like this would prevent the introduction of brand new models like the Datsun Go, which has a body structure so weak that it is pointless to fit an airbag,” Global NCAP Secretary General David Ward said.

The Datsun Go falls under the mass volume category and falls under the small car segment. When it was launched, the Go had no standard safety features, apart from seat belts. Enforcing safety and crash worthiness can only be done through legislation and mandatory safety standards.

The Indian government is close to achieving this. By the end of 2014, the decision was made that all new cars will have to pass minimum frontal and side crash tests, starting in October 2017. For new versions of existing models, the deadline will be October 2019. To pass these tests, cars will likely have to feature airbags and other safety features as standard.

The requirements of India’s safety assessment programme, Bharat New Vehicle Safety Assessment Programme (BNVSAP), have not yet been published, but to pass the UN frontal impact test, for instance, “all a vehicle needs is a driver’s airbag, which is a cost less than US$100. You also need reasonable body shell strength, which has almost zero cost,” Global NCAP’s David Ward told us.

Cost is one of the main stumbling blocks for vehicle manufacturers to improve car safety. A common argument used by OEMs is that features such as airbags, ABS and electronic stability control – features which play a crucial safety role – can significantly increase the cost of cars. At a time when the country’s passenger car market is only just starting to emerge from a two-year-long slowdown, price hikes are something the industry can ill afford.

In fact, under this proposed safety assessment programme, small cars, including cheaper models such as the Tata Nano or the Datsun Go, will have to be equipped with minimum safety features, according to the country’s Road Transport Minister, Nitin Gadkari. The onus of deciding which safety features and tests should be in place falls on CMVR-TCS, the advisory committee to the Ministry of Road Transport, comprising representatives from various organisations.

One of the representatives of this committee is the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI). ARAI already provides testing services to the Indian automotive industry and has crash test facilities for frontal, side and low-speed crash tests. With these facilities, ARAI has the capability to conduct full frontal, offset frontal, side and rear crash testing.

While crash tests will be mandatory for vehicle manufacturers in India, OEMs have the option of voluntarily raising safety standards and adopting norms in order to take on star ratings for safety. Beyond any mandatory or government-recommended safety regulations lies the moral responsibility for OEMs to make safe vehicles.

There continues to be opposition to various aspects of the government’s decision to make crash tests mandatory, and to the speeds for the frontal and side crash tests, especially for the entry-level small car segment. However, as Global NCAP’s Ward told us, there was similar dismissive criticism from vehicle manufacturers in Europe in the 1990s. “We were told at the time that it would be impossible for small cars to ever reach high safety standards. They were wrong then.” Global NCAP and its industry partners are doing all they can to ensure that the same dismissive criticism does not prevail in India.

David Isaiah

This article appeared in the Q1 2015 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.