By: Ahmed Magdy Youssef
For more than 22 years, the European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) has been evaluating the safety of passenger cars by providing consumers with an independent assessment of the safety level of the most popular cars sold in Europe.
Not only does the Euro NCAP influence consumers' purchase decisions by giving them the information they need to choose the safest cars possible, but it also encourages the carmakers to improve their safety technologies and produce safer cars.
That being said, safety technologies that were non-existent or optional at the very best—such as driver and passenger airbags, side protection airbags, belt reminders, and electronic stability control—are now standard on all cars sold in Europe.
Since 2017, Euro NCAP crash tests helped save more than 78,000 lives. Today, almost 95% of the cars sold on the European market hold a Euro NCAP rating and the automotive industry consistently supports the development of new requirements for the top safety ratings.
For the first time since he joined the organization in 2007, Dr. Michiel van Ratingen, Secretary-General of Euro NCAP, granted an in-depth interview to a Middle Eastern media outlet. He spoke to Maqina magazine about his renowned organization and the challenges that are looming large for the industry with the advent of advanced vehicle technologies. He also revealed more secrets about the future plans of the Euro NCAP and his perspective on the quality of the European cars assembled in some Middle Eastern factories, among other issues.
“To get a five-star rating, a manufacturer must not only perform excellently in safety tests, but also make safety equipment available as standard.”
Q. Today, many car manufacturers are implementing cutting-edge technologies aimed at reaching a death rate of zero in their cars. What is the role of Euro NCAP in helping those carmakers to implement such ambitious initiatives?
A. Consumer ratings help car buyers make the right choice when it comes to a safe vehicle. Open, transparent, and reliable information about vehicle safety is needed to create consumer trust in the cars on sale. Euro NCAP both functions as a catalyst for the introduction of new safety technology and as an industry watchdog. Euro NCAP operates beyond legislation imposing higher requirements and evolving at a faster pace. To get a five-star rating, the vehicle manufacturer must not only perform excellently in safety tests but also make safety equipment available as standard across the EU market.
“Up to 95% of all new vehicle sales in Europe are covered by a star rating. The other remaining 5% includes cars like Maserati, Porsche 911, Ferrari, and other super luxury cars.”
Q. The number of vehicles receiving the highest safety rating is rapidly increasing; do you think this improvement has been achieved in the sector because of the strong impact of Euro NCAP, IIHS, and other international consumer test programs?
A. Up to 95% of all new vehicle sales in Europe either have a star rating or are covered by a star rating, despite the system not being mandatory. This shows that most manufacturers selling cars in Europe have now made a good Euro NCAP star rating a part of their engineering target. Consumer programs, hence, are having a big impact on the investments made in the industry, the technologies that are prioritized, and therefore on vehicle safety as a whole. The fast evolution of safety technology is also helped by the emergence of sensing technology. Sensing has made it more and more possible to avoid and mitigate crashes. It has a higher potential to save lives over the traditional occupant protection measures such as airbags (as prevention is better than cure).
Q. Well, what about the remaining 5% of new cars that are not covered by a star rating, do you usually refer to them on the Euro NCAP website and can you give us examples?
A. I can give you some examples. Cars like Maserati, Porsche 911, Ferrari, and other super luxury cars with low sales volumes, which are also very expensive to purchase.
Q. On the Euro NCAP website, there is a section that says: “up to four cars are needed for an assessment by Euro NCAP, and the latter buys these cars from dealers,” so how is this test not mandatory? Do you mean that some dealers simply don’t approve buying these cars for testing purposes?
A. Euro NCAP does not have enough funds to test each model on the market. Each of our members is required to sponsor one model per year at least, which means that Euro NCAP can only fund about 12 model ratings per year. Since the start of the program, however, we have been allowing the OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to sponsor testing of models for which they would like to have a rating. The fact is that most OEMs today are keen to sponsor their cars to be rated. That is the reason why we can cover such a high percentage of the market. However, it is not mandated by law to have a rating; only type-approval tests must be completed before sales can begin. The process of testing is independent of who is sponsoring, so there is no difference whether an OEM or a member is sponsoring the rating testing.
Q. In the Middle East, there are regional factories that assemble European cars, like the BMW factory in Egypt, if a car received an overall “five-star” rating on the Euro NCAP tests, is it theoretically possible that the same exact model variant assembled in another country outside the EU would receive a “one-star” rating? In other words, can such a gap exist, theoretically at least?
A. I can only speak for Euro NCAP as the answer depends very much on how the safety rating is determined. It is known that locally built cars may differ from the European specification. This can be done unintentionally, for instance, when a different plant is building according to a slightly different standard. On the other hand, it’s mostly intentional, like using different metal grades for the body, a reduction in the number of welding points, etc. This is done for cost saving reasons and because the country does not have strong legal requirements on vehicle crash safety. We have seen several examples of this in Latin America where European OEMs sell “European” cars with reduced crashworthiness. The second and potentially the more significant case is where safety equipment is removed or made optional rather than being standard for the local market.
Not having airbags, belt reminders, radars, and cameras installed on cars as standard would mean that the local car is not expected to perform equally well and the effective star rating is significantly less than awarded by Euro NCAP—indeed a one-star rating would not be unimaginable. To check if the Euro NCAP star rating is valid on the locally assembled cars, the first thing to do is to compare the standard safety equipment listed on our website with that of local cars.
In most cases, it is not that hard to spot differences when it is related to the body; the effect of these changes to the body, however, can only be established in true crash testing.
Q. In the ME, there are some calls for sending regionally assembled European cars to conduct safety tests by Euro NCAP. So, is it possible to send European cars assembled in Egypt, for example (either through the authorized dealer or individuals) to be tested and rated by Euro NCAP?
AEuro NCAP only tests cars available on the European market and EU type-approved. However, many of our labs would be able to run an equivalent test program and tell you what the outcome would be in Euro NCAP stars. We could certainly support this if there was a real concern about de-specification and degrading of car models.
Q. Do you mean a dealer or an individual from outside the EU can approach one of your labs to run an equivalent test program? Alternatively, does a government do this after a car collision where a specific model is involved? And, if you have previous cases, could you please mention it?
A. In principle, any third party can sponsor tests according to Euro NCAP protocols if they had the money to do so. The lab can execute the test series and provide the data to calculate a star rating. The full documentation and rating calculator are available on our website. However, this is done without the involvement of the Euro NCAP secretariat who would normally give out the rating for a car.
Warning: This would not be cheap. It would cost about 250,000 euro for the test only, in addition to offering four cars and other consumables (parts).
Q. Can you give me a direct answer to this question please: If there is a car assembled in another country outside the EU using a complete knock-down (CKD) kit (no different metal grades or a reduction in welding points), and this car uses the same standard safety equipment listed on your website, the ratings can be similar to the Euro NCAP tested model? Am I right?
A. Yes, this is correct. The star ratings of the two cars (the locally assembled and the European one) will then be identical.
Q. Nowadays, self-driving technologies and autonomous vehicles are dominating the automotive industry. What challenges does the latter pose in Euro NCAP ratings?
A. Autonomous driving has been hyped up for a few years now, but all experts agree that it may take longer than expected to create a robust autonomous car technology and bring it to the market in an economically viable way. Meanwhile, we see traditional ADAS being further developed and integrated to offer semi-automated (assisted) driving functions, for instance, on the highway. Consumers should understand that these systems are still far away from automated and self-driving, and they need constant oversight. Euro NCAP has started to evaluate some of the systems—highway driving assist technology, last year—and will continue to develop tests for Level 2 and Level 3 systems going forward.
“No, Tesla Model 3 isn’t the safest car the Euro NCAP has ever tested. Audi A1, Ford Focus, and many other cars have better overall results.”
Q. Tesla has recently posted a press release saying that its Model 3 has the lowest chance of injury in crash of any car the NHTSA has ever tested. Similarly, the same car got a five-star rating via Euro NCAP, can you agree with the statement that the Model 3 is the safest car the Euro NCAP has ever tested?
A. No. I believe that NHTSA has already asked Tesla to retract this statement. Also, in Euro NCAP we normally release best in class results at the start of the year, based on the so-called overall scores achieved. If you check cars tested under the latest rating scheme to date (2018/2019), and sort the results based on overall rating, you will see that Tesla does not have the highest score so far. You can find the list here. Audi A1, Ford Focus, and even SsangYong Korando have better overall results.
However, Tesla does have the highest Safety assist score, meaning that the car has top-performing ADAS. It also offered highway pilot technology, or as you call it, semi-autonomous driving, others however are also offering this type of technology, see our release here.
“Far-side crashes are the most commonly overlooked car safety issue that carmakers still don’t pay attention to.”
Q. Over the past two decades, what has been the most commonly overlooked car safety/equipment issue that has contributed to fatal injuries and that carmakers still don’t pay attention to?
A. There are a few but if I may mention one, that would certainly be the far-side crashes and side-impact crashes where the vehicle is hit from the side furthest away from the driver. All technology currently on the market like seat belts and curtain airbags are not really effective to avoid serious injuries in these types of crash. Far-side crashes represent 30% of all fatal side crashes. Euro NCAP will introduce a new test in 2020 to promote countermeasures for far-side impact.
Q. Since the Euro NCAP was founded, have you sensed a change in consumer attitudes and trends towards its data and ratings?
A. Of course. Twenty years ago, vehicle safety was a big concern, and consumers were skeptical about car safety. Thanks to major improvements, the attitudes have changed; complacency has even set in, as consumers now believe that all cars are safe (enough). Despite the fact that the program is much more mature and influential than two decades ago, it is harder to reach consumers and provide them with information about vehicle safety, especially those with a low level of interest in cars, as social media has gradually become the leading information channel for them.