Do we still need Ancap? Yes…Yes…Yes but it needs to lift its communications game
The Global New Car Assessment Programme (Global NCAP), the overarching vehicle safety advocacy body, has come to the aid of its local equivalent by expressing disappointment at recent criticism its southern hemisphere little brother Ancap has been coping in the automotive media. Not surprisingly, Global NCAP trots out a heap of supportive statements such as: “The life-saving role of New Car Assessment Programs is well established in all world regions and a key contributor to the current UN Decade of Action for Road Safety,” “Ancap is a leader in vehicle safety advocacy and has been immensely successful in improving the safety of the Australasian fleet over the past two decades,” etc.
All of which is true, but it still does not answer some of the criticism such as whether or not Australia needs to have a separate testing body when vehicle manufacturing ceases in this country in 2017 and the poor communication skills of the local organisation. The latter would be outside Global NCAP’s scope, but in answer to the first question it does state: “Unfortunately today new cars are still being sold that are specified differently for different markets with key safety technologies sometimes missing. In unregulated emerging markets models are sold that would fail to meet even the minimum UN crash test standards.”
So would Australia, without Ancap, become one of those unregulated emerging market? Well, it’s hardly an emerging market, but then again carmakers have in the past been hot on denial and cold on responsibility when it comes to safety, irrespective of the market. The recent saga over VW Australia’s failure to recall the Golf GTI even though the same model on sale in Europe and NZ was recalled to fix a problem which resulted in the vehicle suddenly slowing down. Victorian Melissa Ryan was killed when her Golf GTI did exactly that and was crushed by a truck. Then there’s the Melbourne-developed Ford Ranger ute that in Australia is packed with first class safety features, but life-saving equipment such as airbags and stability control are removed from vehicles sold in emerging markets around Asia.
There is no doubt that if given an informed choice, the majority of Australian car buyers would prefer to have a local body such as Ancap scrutinise the safety of vehicles. Consumers no more trust carmakers than they do car dealers. The end of vehicle manufacture in this country will certainly lead to pressure by the carmakers to get rid of Ancap and the ability of big business to persuade governments, of all political shades, to ride roughshod over the interest of the individual will probably lead to the organisations demise.
Ancap is a partially government-funded independent organisation that exists to support consumers rather than serving car companies. According to Drive.com.au the crash tester has had rocky relationships with manufacturers since it first published crash tests in 1993. Car companies decried its scores as irrelevant in the real world until advertising began to focus on vehicle safety and Subaru and Renault became the first to advertise five-star scores.
The key problems carmakers have with Ancap are consistency and communication. The crash body earned the ire of several carmakers, none more so than Renault Australia, when it demanded rear airbag protection for all five-star cars that seat more than two people. Introduced from January 1, 2014, the system meant that the Renault Clio and Captur twin models that lack rear airbags would receive five and four-star scores respectively, simply due to their on-sale date. Incensed that the Captur would receive a five-star rating under the Euro NCAP program, but just four stars locally, Renault Australia boss Justin Hocevar lashed out at the crash body, claiming-in ‘he would say that’ Mandy Rice-Davies style – that it was irrelevant following the imminent decline of the Australian car industry.
Ancap stuck to its guns for one year before adopting European regulations from 2015 that allow cars without rear airbags to receive five-star ratings. Both Ancap and Euro NCAP will soon require rear airbags to be mandatory in order for a car to be eligible for a five-star crash score. The Australian body is open to the criticism that it adopts Europe’s processes in some areas but not others. BMW Australia was disappointed recently to learn that a five-star Euro NCAP score for its 2 Series Active Tourer hatchback would drop to four stars locally. Ancap requires a minimum frontal impact score of 12.5 along with a minimum combined score of 32.5, the BMW scored 11.34 and 32.34 respectively, which was good enough for five stars in Europe.
According to the Drive.com.au article, communication from the crash authority can be difficult to comprehend. While the one to five-star rating system is, in itself, clear, understanding of the criteria used to determine such a result is less so. The organisation tried to simplify its scores in 2014 by adding date stamps to results. Asked at the time how consumers could compare a five-star result from 2010 alongside its 2015 equivalent, boss Lachlan McIntosh said: “You can work it out for yourself. Most people don’t drill into it too much, they just want to know that the car was tested at this time.” Not the best bit of corporate communication.
The crash group made headlines in 2014 when it criticised Nissan Australia for failing to offer autonomous emergency braking on local variants of cars that feature the technology overseas. The local head of Nissan, Richard Emery, defended his company by saying that technology was not available on Nissan Australia’s right-hand-drive models and was not a physically possible inclusion for the Australian market. But according to Lachlan, it is cost-cutting measures like this that ram home Ancap’s role in keeping manufacturers accountable: “The Ford Ranger, for example, is the reason we need to keep testing. We need to make sure we don’t get that rubbish here. We need to be assured that the quality of vehicles that are sold as new cars are at world’s best practice so consumers can see what we’re getting.” Once again the right message, but the wrong way of putting it.
Associate Professor Stuart Newstead of the Monash University Accident Research Commission says the crash body performed a vital role in putting safety on buyers’ shopping lists: “In the days before Ancap, safety wasn’t really on the agenda, it was about the loudness of stereos and shininess of alloy wheels. What it has done is help put vehicle safety and safety choices at the top of the agenda.”
Most of the manufacturers led by Justin Hocevar argue that the decline of Australia’s automotive manufacturing industry will render ANCAP irrelevant. The majority of its scores already come about as a result of overseas testing. Its most recent results featured verdicts for seven new cars. Just one the Mitsubishi Triton ute was tested locally. But he and the other manufacturers still fail to guarantee that the vehicles that come to Australia have the same specs and safety products as those rated in Europe, or are not available in Europe. Jamie Briggs, assistant minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, says Ancap is fundamental to the promotion of technological improvements in the road safety sector: “Following the closure of Australia’s vehicle manufacturers, it is likely that some vehicles imported for sale in Australia may continue to be crash tested by Ancap,” Briggs says.
Australia’s position as a right-hand-drive market could be key to Ancap’s future. The vast majority of models crash tested overseas are built in left-hand-drive, with key mechanical differences to cars sold locally. Another argument for local testing is that the Australian new car market is among the most diverse in the world and that models from developing markets should be held to the same high standards as established brands.
Worried that standard crash tests may not reflect real-world collisions, the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety introduced a narrow overlap test in 2012. Institute president Adrian Lund said at the time that nearly every car performs well in other frontal crash tests … but we still see more than 10,000 deaths in frontal crashes each year and that small, overlap crashes are a major source of these fatalities: “Manufacturers designed cars for another test and when they become more onerous they didn’t perform well,” he said.
Success in the crash lab does not correlate directly with practical collisions. Ancap does not conduct narrow overlap, rear-impact or rollover tests, though that may change in the future. Under its rules, a 1000-kilogram city car and two-tonne SUV or limousine can receive the same five-star crash score. The Suzuki Swift holds a five-star safety rating, but sub-par performances in real-world crashes see it saddled with a single star ‘very poor”’ mark in MUARC’s used car safety ratings.
Clearly ANCAP must do more than crash test locally-built models from Holden, Ford and Toyota. The organisation is evolving, becoming more closely aligned with global standards led by the benchmark Euro NCAP body. Cars must already have electronic features such as seatbelt reminders and electronic stability control in order to win a five-star score. The Australian body is set to raise its minimum requirements in coming years to include active safety features such as self-braking and pedestrian detection systems, which will be tested locally and abroad.
“We have to keep lifting the bar,” says Lachlan, “we’ll be involved more in Euro NCAP’s decision-making process than we have in the past and we’re trying to give consumers the best information they can get.” Let’s hope they get a lot better at getting that message across in a more measured and professional manner.