A world without road accidents – that’s the ultimate goal of David Ward, Secretary General of Global NCAP. His organization promotes and advocates greater safety in vehicles and on roads across the globe. Talking with Vision Zero World, Ward sets out his vision of an accident-free world, explains what makes crash tests so important, and offers an opinion on president Trump’s traffic safety policy in the USA.
When we look at new cars, on the one hand we see that they have more and more safety technology on board, but on the other they are faster and more powerful than ever. Isn’t there a paradox here?
That’s one way of looking at it. But ultimately it’s the customer who decides what the market offers by choosing a particular car. Apart from that, the topic of speed is going to become more important – probably leading to some interesting discussions in Germany in particular. Because in the future, we’re going to need stricter speed limits to calm the overall traffic scenario. Otherwise it won’t work, because autonomous cars depend on a certain uniformity in the flow of traffic.
Halving the number of annual road deaths by 2030 is the central goal issued by the European Commission. How can that be achieved?
As I see it, this can only be achieved through a holistic approach. This would include not only intelligent road design but also safer cars and ongoing efforts to foster more considerate and attentive road user behavior. In countries in which they succeed in making improvements in all three areas, we see the sharpest drop in the number of road deaths. This is encouraging, above all in view of the global situation. Because we hope that the UN will also be able to push through the goal of halving the number of road deaths as the universally accepted goal of all safety-related efforts.
What part do partners like Continental play in making road traffic safer around the world?
The major suppliers like Continental clearly play a leading role in what we do here at Global NCAP because they provide the technology that we need to make the roads a safer place. And here I’m not talking about an endless succession of new high-tech systems, but about things like electronic stability control – ESP – that has been available in Europe for around 20 years now, which makes it old hat. In some emerging markets, though, the introduction and spread of ESP is still bringing a substantial increase in safety. In any case, it looks as if the suppliers are becoming the real innovators in terms of automotive engineering – more so than the OEMs themselves. For our part we are extremely glad to have companies like Continental on our side in the Stop the Crash initiative. And in return we share Continental’s aspirations in terms of Vision Zero.
Global NCAP focuses not only on the automobile industry but also on car buyers, providing them with the information they need to opt for the safest possible cars in the future. How do you set about this?
Raising the awareness of safety among car buyers is a major challenge and we’re looking at a fairly long time scale. In Europe we’ve already succeeded: The automotive industry uses a 5-star rating in the Euro-NCAP crash test to promote their cars, and customers pay attention to and honor these efforts. The outcome is a competition for greater safety that benefits everyone. And here is one of the tasks of the NCAP organizations – acting as catalysts and accelerators of the shift towards greater safety, quite simply by making the crash tests as transparent as possible for the general public. That’s the way to build trust and ensure that safety systems increasingly come to be considered indispensable.
Does that approach work all over the world?
The principle is the same for all NCAP organizations. India is a good example. When we first launched our crash tests there four years ago, we were told: You might as well not bother, because no one here is interested in safety technology; this is a very price-sensitive market; you’re wasting your time. Over the past four years, all that has changed. Car manufacturers are equipping their vehicles with airbags because customers are asking for them, and the Indian government has issued crash test standards. Just recently a new model manufactured in India received a 4-star rating – the fourth model to reach this level of safety. And I think we’re going to see the first Indian 5-star car presented by the end of this year.
That all sounds very straightforward: NCAP performs crash tests, customers take note, and ultimately the carmakers react accordingly. Is it really that simple?
It may sound simple, but it involves an enormous effort. The most important thing of all, though, is our credibility. We work independently. We test and evaluate in a way that the public can readily understand. And we work on new test methods, because crash tests provide clear evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of passive safety systems. Now, however, more and more accident prevention technologies are being installed in cars – these are the active safety systems. In order to be able to test and appraise this technology too in a transparent way, we need to develop new safety standards. And not just us – the OEMs must play their part as well. For instance by explaining the ever more complex safety systems in their vehicles to their customers as clearly as possible, so that the technology can work to its full potential in the worst-case scenario.
In a recent speech you asked whether the automotive industry “will ever overcome its knee-jerk resistance to stricter safety and environmental regulations.” How would you yourself answer that question?
Let me give you an example: No sooner had Donald Trump won the presidential election in the USA than the US automobile industry association began lobbying for a roll-back of fuel economy standards, and ultimately their efforts were successful. I think that’s completely stupid. Because now we have 17 US states, including California, that have retained their existing fuel economy and emissions standards, fracturing the US market. And we saw a similar development on the safety front, with the pedestrian test that was going to be included in US NCAP being dropped. The industry associations may consider this a success, but I think it’s counterproductive. I would add, though, that in many cases individual manufacturers have a much more progressive agenda than the associations that represent them.
You once described the role of Global NCAP as that of a watchdog. What’s that watchdog keeping an eye on right now?
It varies from one region to the next. In the ASEAN region and Latin America they are still working to put initial safety standards in place. In other regions the focus is on crash tests or new test prodecures. In global terms, though, one thing we need to keep a constant eye on is how to finance our work. Most of the NCAPs are financed independently or with a little government help. And then we are thinking about how to get involved more in the field of emissions, maybe by introducing a kind of green NCAP.
Why is it so hard to make the need for truly safe cars so self-evident?
One very fundamental problem is that human perception of risk on the road is really quite overoptimistic. We systematically underestimate the danger of crashes. If you take someone to a crash test who has never seen one before and you ask them “What speed do you think the car was doing at the point of impact?“ you get answers like “Maybe 100 or 120 km/h?”. And when you tell them, “No, that was 64 km/h” they are really shocked. I think this basic risk perception problem is what stops people realizing the benefits of the sophisticated safety technologies. We all – and by that I mean NCAP organizations, manufacturers, suppliers, salespeople – need to do a better job of explaining to the public why all this is very much in their best interests.