Moment of impact pic of Hyundai i20 crash test. Picture: Global NCAP
Moment of impact pic of Hyundai i20 crash test. Picture: Global NCAP

In 2018 Nissan made headlines for the wrong reasons. After one of its Datsun models spectacularly failed a crash test in 2014, the Nissan NP300 Hardbody did the same in 2018, receiving a zero star rating for vehicle safety from international organisation Global NCAP.

The NP300 was one of four vehicles sold in SA that was crash tested in 2018, along with the Hyundai i20, Kia Picanto and Toyota Yaris. All three passenger cars received three out of a possible five stars for adult occupant protection, but there is a caveat to that result.

The star rating applied by Global NCAP to cars from SA that it tests is not the same as the rating for other international markets. Had any of these cars been tested to the European crash test standard, all would have failed, according to Alejandro Furas, technical director of Global NCAP.

Manufacturers supply different cars to SA. And they can, partly because the consumer buys them anyway but also because government legislation on vehicle safety is decades behind.

We have delved before into the business and the ethics of selling cars in SA that would not make it to market elsewhere in the world, but what exactly is vehicle crash testing and what is done in SA?

The first vehicle crash test was conducted by General Motors in 1934 but only after the UN established the World Forum for Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations in 1958 did automotive manufacturers really start to test their vehicles more rigorously. Then in 1979, the first New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) was established in the US, followed by others in Australia and Europe and more recently in China and Japan.

Crash testing has been conducted by manufacturers since 1934. Here Mercedes tests its W110 series in 1959. Picture: SUPPLIED
Crash testing has been conducted by manufacturers since 1934. Here Mercedes tests its W110 series in 1959. Picture: SUPPLIED

Global NCAP was created in 2011 but one that will be important to the SA market is the creation of the India NCAP in 2017. SA gets a number of models from India that have scored poorly in crash tests, and if India demands higher safety then SA should benefit.

But how do the tests work? We witnessed the tests of the Hyundai i20 and Toyota Yaris at a vehicle crash test facility run by ADAC near Munich in Germany. Preparation for the tests took longer than usual, mainly because, unlike in Europe, Global NCAP, together with the Automobile Association of SA, the FIA Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies had to actually buy the cars in SA from dealerships then have them shipped to Germany. In Europe, as with many other NCAP markets, the manufacturers provide up to six vehicles themselves, straight from the production line.

Manufacturers do so because safety is not only about saving lives, but it’s highly marketable. Safety sells. Consumers in many parts of the world will buy the safest car they can afford. Government legislation is generally not enough to push for more safety though.

“If cars around the world only met government regulations there would be many more injuries and deaths, says Furas. “If in SA the government said from next year the top 30 cars must be star rated then there would be a major change in the market.

“We expect manufacturers to start sponsoring cars. It’s a process that starts quite slowly but as tests increase manufacturers become more active.”

Only one of each model was sent from SA, so only one test could be performed: an industry standard frontal offset crash test at 64km/h. This test alone costs between €150,000 and €200,000 plus the cost of the car.

Each vehicle contained two adult and two child crash test dummies. The adult dummies were both strapped into the front seats, while one child was in a front-facing child seat and an infant in a rear-facing seat, both mounted to manufacturer specifications in the rear passenger seats.

Child dummies in seats sent from SA for the tests. Picture: SUPPLIED
Child dummies in seats sent from SA for the tests. Picture: SUPPLIED

The dummies themselves are manufactured to a global standard and cost about €350,000 each but provide the most accurate reflection of what happens to a human being in a crash using data provided by doctors, surgeons and other experts. They last for decades in spite of the punishment they endure.

It takes a day to prepare for each test, another day to conduct the test and then a third day to assess the vehicle before a long process of analysing the data begins. Manufacturers can be involved but only to check that all specifications have been properly met. In the case of the test of models from SA, only Toyota sent a representative to attend the test.

For the frontal impact test, the car is placed on a 70m-long pulley system. At the end waits a specially constructed block placed at an offset angle, representing the most common type of vehicle crash, an offset frontal impact. Surrounding the point of impact are massive lighting structures and high-speed cameras that record every minute detail. Furas describes it as a “television studio with a crash test facility”.

Multiple points are marked on each vehicle and lasers are use to record all measurements. The same points are then checked after the test, with computers checking for the level of deviation from the original markings. Crucial of course are the results of the impact on the dummies themselves. On vehicles with very low safety ratings, often the pedals, dashboard and even the steering wheel will cause severe damage to occupants. In the same test of a car sold in SA, a Chery QQ3, the steering wheel impacted so heavily that the steering wheel itself broke.

The aftermath. Picture: SUPPLIED
The aftermath. Picture: SUPPLIED

So could these tests be conducted in SA? A full crash test centre costs between €25m and €30m to build and equip, but a number of years ago we were made aware that such a facility had been built in SA, at the CSIR. However, an invitation to view it was cancelled and since then its existence has become a mystery.

Furas points out that NCAPs are often made up of a consortium of government, insurance companies and others and the same could be done in SA. Currently the Automobile Association is leading the initiative, but others could get involved and the government could then set new regulations. Manufacturers too could get involved by supporting the tests with vehicles and he says that once one gets a five-star rated vehicle, others will want to match.

Vehicle crash testing is a very serious business, one that undoubtedly saves thousands of lives. It is one that manufacturers and governments around the world support and there is certainly a need for it in SA.