Most industries tend to recoil at the notion of new government regulations. However, the proposal for a newly updated New Car Assessment Program, the government program for rating the crashworthiness of vehicles, is different. Here's why.
Updated NCAP would pave the way for autonomous era
Car-buying criteria have changed significantly — as recently as 2012, fuel economy was the clear top consideration, followed by quality and safety.
Six years later, research shows safety has supplanted fuel economy in the top spot and is an especially urgent consideration for families and teen drivers.
NCAP provides consumers with comparative multistar ratings on vehicle safety performance and new safety features to assist them with their purchasing decisions and encourages automakers to make vehicle safety improvements. It is the ultimate validation of safety — the more stars a vehicle earns, the greater its competitive differentiation in the market.
Cars that adopt the newly updated testing procedures and receive excellent scores would stand out in consumers' eyes. Others would be able to identify areas for improvement before beginning mass production.
The current NCAP is outdated for several reasons. First, current tests don't simulate small overlap crashes — those involving approximately one-quarter of the vehicle (e.g., the front left corner), such as when cars collide or a car hits an object such as a tree or utility pole. Small overlap crashes account for an estimated 25 percent of all frontal crashes and are increasingly common because of distracted driving and accidental lane departures.
Pedestrian protection is another important example. Pedestrians account for a growing number of automotive fatalities and an updated NCAP would include additional tests specifically designed for the protection of them and others such as cyclists.
Finally, there's the issue of the anthropomorphic test dummies currently being used. These tests use a standard male model representing the 50th percentile in weight and height and collect data from 10 to 20 sensors on various body parts. NHTSA has collaborated with industry leaders to develop more advanced test dummies that gather data from up to 150 sensors on different individual prototypes — not just the average adult male, but women, children, infants and even the elderly and obese. An updated NCAP would yield more comprehensive, realistic testing for a broader cross section of society, including the most vulnerable.
Under development now are test dummies that are expected to have instrumented organs, such as livers and spleens, which are much more susceptible to injury in the elderly. This is one reason why the risk of being injured or killed in an automobile accident increases as we age. Not only would an updated NCAP call for the use of the newest, most advanced dummies, but it would also call for more testing of dummies in the rear and passenger seats, with the goal of making vehicles safer for all occupants.
With automakers around the world aggressively focusing on driverless cars and features, an updated NCAP would help pave the way for autonomous vehicles.
One would think the U.S. is leading the way in autonomous adoption, but studies have found that consumers in Europe and other regions such as China are more receptive to autonomous vehicles. Many Americans are still wary of trusting their lives to technology, though they are likely open to gradual change.
An updated NCAP could test new active safety features such as adaptive cruise control and emergency automatic braking, which serve as predecessors to more advanced autonomous features. We expect safety validation for these features would gradually get consumers more acclimated to driverless technologies, helping to progressively increase demand.
Growing U.S. consumer demand would likely result in the huge autonomous vehicle ecosystem — including not just automobiles but sensors, lidar, mapping systems and more — desiring to invest here. Creating and sustaining such a vibrant ecosystem is essential to our ability to compete in the global autonomous vehicle market, through partnerships and free market principles that will drive innovation and cost advantages for U.S. automotive manufacturers. An updated NCAP would play a huge role in helping lay the groundwork for a more robust 21st-century U.S. automotive industry.
On Oct. 1, NHTSA is scheduled to hold a special public hearing to gather stakeholder input. We are excited at these signs of forward movement and progress. U.S. automotive manufacturers shouldn't be hesitant about an updated NCAP but rather see it as an opportunity to increase sales, make valuable contributions to improving public safety and foster greater autonomous adoption.