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Autonomous cars need checks too, says retiring safety warrior
21 Dec 2016
ONE of Australia’s leading car safety champions, Lauchlan McIntosh, says road users need independent vehicle safety assessment advice more than ever, despite the advent of autonomous safety technologies with the potential to make road crashes extinct.
The retiring deputy chairman of the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ACAP) said the complexity and variety of technologies such as autonomous braking required independent oversight on behalf of the consumer.
“Some sort of independent assessment organisation that is technically competent is really important,” he said. “I think that now it is probably even more so, as we are going to have autonomous cars that are going to be very difficult.
“People are talking about co-piloting. Who will be the co-pilot and how good will it be? Will we allow only trucks be co-piloted? Will we have special lanes? “There is almost more work now than there ever was, certainly around the world.”
With more than 20 years at the head of the ANCAP board, Mr McIntosh has played a major role in prodding, encouraging and downright shaming vehicle manufacturers into improving the safety performance of their new cars, frequently against the will of a hostile industry.
He said that when he took over the ANCAP chairmanship in 1994 as part of his then role as chief executive of the Australian Automobile Association (AAA), the manufacturers were threatening to sue ANCAP for disseminating misleading information.
“The FCAI (Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries) view was that we had to test 10 cars to have a reliable result,” he said. “I said to them ‘well, which cars do I buy when I go to the showroom, number one or number 10’.
“I said to the manufacturers that if your quality of manufacturing is so poor that you have to test 10 cars, I find that amazing.
“The FCAI hung onto that view for a long time. Subaru broke ranks early on and decided to make a five-star car.
“They were determined to do so and they did. I think they were the first five-star car, although Renault decided to make five-star cars after a big blue with Euro NCAP about the same time.”
Mr McIntosh said car manufacturers had long spent large sums of money on developing safety systems but that the safety engineers had a rough time trying to convince the marketers to include them, mainly because they were fitting models to a price point.
He said the effectiveness of ANCAP’s safety rating system in the showroom was brought home in 2005 when Holden introduced a Daewoo-built Barina that was inferior to its European predecessor, earning fewer safety rating stars from NCAP.
“Surprisingly, sales plummeted when they got the lower NCAP rating, more than I think we and Holden expected – I think a 24 per cent drop in sales,” he said.
“So it showed that people were watching the NCAP ratings, and I think that was a bit of a wake-up call.”
He said that when Ford built its Falcon to five-star standard and spent lots of money advertising the fact in 2008, resistance within the FCAI collapsed.
“That sort of broke the back of the argument,” he said. “Within six or nine months, Holden had a five-star Commodore.”
Mr McIntosh said the biggest breakthrough in recent years came in 2012 when Australia’s biggest company, BHP, told manufacturers it would buy only five-star cars for its fleet, not just in Australia but around the world.
“They also told all their contractors that they would only allow five-star cars on site,” he said. “That was massive. (Toyota) HiLux was not five star at that time, and Ford said to BHP ‘we will design a five-star car for you’.
“And it (Ranger) was designed here in Australia, which is fantastic. BHP are still holding that line.”
Mr McIntosh said that because business and government fleets accounted for more than 60 per cent of vehicle sales in Australia, it was crucial to ANCAP that businesses made the switch to five-star cars.
He said some motor manufacturers still indulged in “a bit of sliding” – making top-of-the-range vehicles five-star but deleting certain safety items on lesser variants – in a practice that will come under pressure in 2018 when ANCAP rules are fully merged with Euro NCAP rules.
Mr McIntosh said car manufacturers had made huge improvements in vehicle safety in his time with ANCAP.
He said autonomous cars – vehicles that theoretically can drive themselves – would be important for road safety in future.
“But more importantly, we need the semi-autonomous stuff such as AEB (autonomous emergency braking) now,” he said. “The sooner we get that semi-autonomous stuff in, it will make a huge difference to the road toll.”
Mr McIntosh said figures published by Subaru showed that vehicles in Japan fitted with its proprietary EyeSight AEB system had 60 per cent fewer crashes than those without it.
“These are massive, massive benefits,” he said. “Even if they are only half right, you have to say you can cut the crash rate by 30 per cent. Why wouldn’t you do it tomorrow?“There is no doubt that if we could make every new car have AEB, we would be way in front.”
Mr McIntosh said that despite the great improvements in car safety around the world, some markets still dragged behind.
He said that in his role as a Global NCAP board member – a position he intends to continue – he attended a recent crash test of a Mexican-built Nissan Tsuru in the United States.
He said he had been shocked by the car’s poor performance.
“I haven’t seen a car perform so badly since 1994 when I started,” he said.
But Mr McIntosh said Global NCAP and sister organisations such as ASEAN NCAP in Malaysia – an organisation set up with the guidance of ANCAP – were making great strides in forcing improvements in markets where safety has lagged.
Mr McIntosh said he was gratified by the way car manufacturers had embraced safety and made it part of its everyday business.
“I would say our arguments with the manufacturers pale into insignificance compared with our successes,” he said.
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