With a total score of just 24.68 points in a crash safety test conducted by New Car Assessment Program for ASEAN countries (ASEAN NCAP), French carmaker Renault's low-cost hatchback Kwid received a zero star rating. This comes less than two years after the base variant of the same car for the Indian market had also scored a zero in 2016. After subsequent revisions, the top end variant of the car in India, which comes with a driver side airbag managed a single star rating. The car that was tested this time was for the Indonesian market but ominously, was manufactured in the company's Chennai factory in India. Notwithstanding the bad press on poor safety record of Indian cars over the last 30 months, nothing has changed.
A recap first. Global NCAP, a UK-based independent body that conducts crash safety tests on cars across the world, first came to limelight in India on the eve of the biennial Delhi motor show in January 2014. All five cars that were tested then - Tata Nano, Maruti Alto 800, Hyundai i10, Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo, fared miserably in the crash test and scored a zero. Ten months later, disaster struck again. This time Datsun Go and Maruti Swift could not muster pass marks. The Datsun brand is part of the Renault Nissan Mitsubishi alliance that recently became the largest automaker in the world. The low-cost brand was revived as a strategy to cater to consumers in cost-conscious emerging markets. Similarly, the Kwid was envisaged as a mobility solution for those at the bottom of the pyramid by its partner Renault. Produced at the same factory, the zero safety rating for both products is a testament to how the industry regularly gives short shrift to safety.
Subsequent rounds of testing did not alter the narrative much even as India mulled and eventually proceeded on a roadmap to enforce active safety features like airbags on cars and ABS (anti-lock brakes) on two-wheelers. The base variant of the other cars that were tested with the Kwid in 2016, Hyundai Eon, Maruti Celerio, Eeco, Honda Mobilio, Tata Zest and Mahindra Scorpio, all scored zero stars as well. In the following year, the Renault Duster and Chevrolet Enjoy would also join their counterparts in the hall of shame.
Cars produced in India and exported across the globe regularly grab headlines but the made in India for Indonesia Renault Kwid is a depressing template for the much vaunted zero defect high quality make in India manufacturing objective we so dearly wish to achieve. There are a number of reasons why manufacturers ought to take the safety of occupants inside the car more seriously.
Indian roads are the most dangerous in the world and 1,40,000 people die due to accidents every year. Yet, road safety measures, in general, and for vehicles, in particular, have lagged global standards. The government's blueprint for crash tests in India has mandated all new car launches from October last year to be fitted with dual airbags. For existing brands the same yardstick comes into force from October 2019. It is not soon enough. The intention was to give time to the industry in the hope that they would comply much before the deadline. It is clear now that manufacturers, with a few exceptions, are leaving it till the end.
This is the same industry that is prone to taking a moral high ground and cries hoarse when the government takes drastic steps to curb pollution or bring in a better quality fuel regime. But when a good enough buffer is given to improve the safety of the cars, they take their own sweet time.
Airbags and ABS save lives
There is absolutely no doubt about this fact even though there is a whsiper campaign against it. Some Japanese and Indian car makers (no need to name them, you know who) say Global NCAP is a quasi-front of the European automobile lobby to push sales of airbags and ABS (Anti-lock Braking System). There may or may not be any truth in this but that does not take anything away from the efficacy of the two features.
In the these Global NCAP crash tests, all the cars selected were base variants, which in India means no airbags or ABS. All of them scored zero. According to a study done by Robert Bosch Accident Research Project in 2014, if ABS and airbags are made mandatory for cars, casualties are estimated to come down by 35 per cent. If they were offered on motorcycles and scooters, the impact on respective fatalities would also be similar, but that is a different story altogether.
"Safety means high cost" is a lame excuse
Most manufacturers including Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai Motor, Tata, Mahindra, Renault, Nissan, Datsun and Honda have forever shied away from fitting their cars with these features citing cost and a lack of awareness among consumers regarding the importance of these features. It may have been a solid argument in the past but is not anymore. Just a look at the price of two airbags ten years ago and now, proves how the industry has deliberately overpriced them for their own benefit. In 2005, a top-of-the-line variant would cost you Rs 1 lakh more with airbags. Today, that difference has come down to less than Rs 25,000. Next year, when every car would have an airbag, economies of scale would bring down the cost even more.
And its not airbag alone that gets rogered. Even now there are cars like the Mahindra Scorpio, Thar, Bolero, Tata Safari and Tata Sumo with primitive side facing bench seats that do not even come with seat belts. Recently, Mahindra launched the TUV3OO plus that only extends this horrible legacy further. Bottom-line, price alone never had anything to do with why companies do not offer safety features.
Safer cars = higher speed = more casualty?
This is another stupid argument that is often put forth. Companies point at the headline-grabbing accidents featuring a Mercedes, Audi or BMW to say that safer cars encourage rash driving and lead to higher casualty on the road. In effect, if your car is unsafe, you will drive cautiously and more responsibly.
Nobody has done a study on this side of human psychology and I am no judge, but do you really think any of the car companies are actually concerned about the safety of fellow road users and pedestrians?
If that were the case, every car would, by now, have a pedestrian airbag (one that pops open on the bonnet, in case the car hits a person in front). And how fantastically stupid is it to say, "I know you are a rash driver, so here is a car for you that is dangerous by design just so that you dont hurt others."
Hypocrisy of the highest order
After the first round of NCAP crash tests that featured the Polo small car, Volkswagen decided to "proactively" offer airbags as a standard feature across all its cars. Although it wasn't "proactive" but you cannot criticise them for doing the right thing.
Later, Toyota also decided to follow suit, and today, all of their cars have these features as a standard feature. Ford has also joined this list. The old Figo was in the hall of shame but in its new avatar as the Aspire, it escapes the ignominy. With two airbags as standard, it scores three stars for adult and two for child safety. As mentioned above, others continue to drag their feet.
More ominously, safety also exposes the inherent hypocrisy of some of the biggest names in the industry. There are many cases where cars made for export in India have significantly different and much better safety credentials than those being sold in the domestic market. In its first test in 2014, the Hyundai i10 meant for export markets had better structural stability than the one meant for the Indian market. Similarly, manufacturers also dole out different iterations of the same brand for different countries. A case in point is the Kwid. While the one that is sold in India and Indonesia did not cover itself in glory, the version for Latin America that comes with four airbags scored three stars in the tests. It also had extra structural reinforcements compared to the Indian version.
The explanation that cars for India conform to Indian laws (that are lax) and those for other countries comply with laws of those countries contradicts their own claim that a Hyundai, Renault or Honda in India is the same as one in Europe, US, Australia or Africa. It is an open secret which nobody talks about as there are skeletons in everybody's cupboard.
But it's human life they are playing with. Next time when you buy a car, do check how many stars it has scored. That dummy in the crash tests could well be you.