For a clear demonstration of how car safety will be assessed in the future, look no further than the Ford Mustang, which recently emerged from Euro NCAP’s industry standard crash test with a rating of just two out of the possible five stars.
To put that into perspective, it’s the worst score recorded by a mainstream brand since 2012. Elements of the Mustang’s rating can be attributed to lower than average levels of passive safety, or how well a car protects its occupants in a crash. However, it was the lack of an “active” safety device in the form of radar-based crash prevention system that served as the real cause of the Mustang’s downfall.
Ford’s response to the news was swift and encouraging; it will offer such a device later in the year (a relatively simple move, as it is already available on this model in the US), but the warning shot to others will be ringing out loud and clear – not that anybody should be surprised.
Thatcham Research, which is owed by the British motor insurers and serves as a key member of the Euro NCAP new car assessment programme, pulls no punches when it comes to stating the significance of such active technology. In fact, Matthew Avery, its research director, is clear that the majority of developments in future test procedures will centre not on the crash itself, but avoiding it in the first place.
To explain exactly why, he references the kind of autonomous emergency braking (AEB) system that the Mustang currently lacks. This type of technology was first seen a decade ago, when Mercedes and Volvo began plugging a radar, a forward-facing camera or a laser into a car’s electronic stability system, allowing it to constantly monitor the road and warn the driver if a frontal collision was imminent.
If they failed to react, the system could automatically apply the brakes in order to minimise the impact or avoid it entirely.
“We have insurers who can give us data very quickly, so that we can see if the technology is working,” says Avery.
“With AEB we found it was reducing front into rear crashes by about 40 per cent. That’s a real moment, the kind of safety improvement you saw with the introduction of the seat belt or airbags.
“You could say that AEB is the new seat belt.”
So it followed that by 2014 AEB had been integrated into the full Euro NCAP test, and to accelerate its adoption car insurers, aware in particular of the system’s potential to reduce false whiplash claims, offered a 10 per cent reduction in a car’s insurance classification if AEB was offered.
It was a perfect example of how integrating a collision avoidance system into crash testing could benefit motorists; much in the same way the adoption of electronic stability control had achieved years before. However, progress hasn’t always been seamless, and not all active safety technologies are equal.
I put to Avery that several complaints have been made by Telegraph readers about lane departure warning systems being more of a distraction than a safety device, for the way they set off a vibration or an alarm whenever a car crosses a white line in the road. He doesn’t disagree, but insists it’s because the systems need refining, rather than simply that they are a bad idea.
As such, from the 2018 Euro NCAP test it will be a requirement that lane departure warning will also be able to recognise a “threat”, so that a driver won’t be alerted if they cross a broken white line unless there is also a vehicle or object coming towards them.
With the implementation and refinement of such procedures it is possible to envisage how combining individual safety technologies (also consider improved road sign recognition, standardised GPS, and connectivity between vehicles to name but three others) will begin to shape the crash test into something that is equipped to eventually deal with a driverless future. As this occurs the requirement for superb passive safety will never disappear. The difference compared with today will be how rarely it is called into action.