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Making sense of the NCAP brouhaha

Murali Gopalan | Updated on November 13, 2014

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For a country that tops the list of road deaths worldwide, at nearly 150,000 annually, India can't afford to take the issue of safety lightly



It defines itself on its website as ‘a newly established non-profit organisation registered in the UK which aims to encourage the worldwide availability of independent consumer information about the safety of motor vehicles’.

From India’s point of view, however, the Global New Car Assessment Programme is perhaps stretching its mandate a little too far. Last week, it asked Nissan to withdraw the ‘substandard’ Datsun GO compact car from the market after it had failed crash tests.

Scaremongering?

While Nissan was clearly rattled, the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers was not amused either. Just a day earlier, its top management had dismissed Global NCAP’s findings on the Maruti-Suzuki Swift and GO as futile efforts in ‘scaremongering’. SIAM also made it amply clear that India had its own safety regulations in place and there was no reason for Global NCAP to play the proverbial gatecrasher with its own set of rules.

“It is an NGO which is desperate to get a foothold into India as it has in other countries, including China. This is its way of getting even for being denied an entry here,” a top auto industry official says. According to him, there was also no reason for Global NCAP to carry out frontal crash tests of these cars at speeds of 64 kilometres per hour which are even higher than the European Union’s mandated 56 kmph.

There are also serious questions being raised about singling out the Datsun GO for withdrawal from the Indian market. Apart from Suzuki’s Swift, other models like the Alto, Tata Nano, Figo and Hyundai i10 had failed Global NCAP’s crash tests earlier.

“Is there a witch hunt going on against Nissan especially when GO’s numbers are little to write home about anyway? And will these findings impact Datsun sales across other emerging markets like Russia and Indonesia?” an industry observer wonders. After all, Nissan is betting on brand Datsun to be the critical growth lever this decade and any adverse comment can affect customer sentiment which is already happening with the GO in India.

Safety issues

Has Global NCAP, therefore, got it completely wrong about safety standards of these cars? That would be a baseless charge since practically no model in India’s entry car segment is equipped to handle a top-speed frontal crash impact. Should all of them, therefore, be scrapped since they are not equipped with safety devices like airbags? Not unless our laws mandate them. “Till that happens, there is really no case for Global NCAP to get all apoplectic about issues where India should frame appropriate solutions in line with market realities,” an auto industry CEO says. This is where an important initiative like the long overdue NATRiP (National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project) will help the cause. The plan involved setting up world-class testing facilities across seven centres in the north, west and south and it looks like the plan will finally kick off next year.

There are a host of issues that still need to be considered very carefully. For one thing, a large number of road deaths occur outside a car which only reinforces the need for people to drive around in one instead. It was recognition of this reality that prompted former Tata group Chairman, Ratan Tata to develop the Nano as a solution.

Cost vs safety

Affordability remains a big challenge in India which also explains why this is the largest market for two-wheelers in the road with over 15 million units produced annually. If some of these people want to graduate to a car, the Alto or Eon are the best bets since they are priced under Rs 3-lakh. How does one then strike the balance between adding safety features, which will add to the costs, and still provide an affordable mobility solution for the masses?

Bajaj Auto’s RE60 quadricycle, for instance, set the cat among the pigeons when companies like Tata Motors and TVS Motor opposed its entry for reasons of safety. Others like Mahindra & Mahindra and Piaggio are apparently working on their own quadricycles though neither has officially confirmed these plans. From Bajaj’s point of view, this vehicle is a safer option for three-wheeler commuters and will, in no way, draw entry car buyers to its fold. Its rivals do not share this view and this debate will go on even while the RE60 is scheduled to debut in the coming months.

By the end of the day, India will just have to ensure that safety measures are enforced, right from seatbelts to helmets for two-wheeler riders. Trucks, likewise, seldom have tail lamps which only increases the risk of collisions. It is in this chaotic ecosystem that Global NCAP is seeking change in a hurry. Nobody is suggesting that Indian lives are cheap: most of us, it would seem, do not value them too highly in the first place and this is where the problem arises.

Published on November 13, 2014

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