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How crash results used to be and how they area now. Above, a current Honda Jazz; below, a 1997 Rover 100 undergoing comparative Euro NCAP tests. What will SAE Level 4 and 5 vehicles look like after the new NCAP testing?

Euro NCAP to adopt autonomous vehicle ratings

Euro NCAP will establish a separate category for autonomous vehicles, but there is not likely to be one for cars that are claimed to protect all occupants from serious injury or death. And while there is currently little sign of a harmonized engineering and cost saving global test system, there may be an opportunity in the future, reckons Matthew Avery, Director of Insurance Research at Thatcham Research, which carries out Euro NCAP tests in the U.K.

According to Michiel van Ratingen, the Euro NCAP General Secretary, there has been a “slow down” in new safety systems’ progress. According to Avery, this isn't due to lack of ideas. 

"We continue to see significant progress," he told Automotive Engineering. Development of passive safety systems (seatbelts, belt tensioners and airbags) has plateaued; industry penetration of these innovations has resulted in a 63% reduction in killed and serious injured (KSI) over the past 20 years. Meanwhile, there as been a dramatic acceleration in ‘active’ safety technology, which works hand-in-hand with the passive safety net.

"Ultimately, prevention is better than cure," Avery said. "When it comes to investment and cost benefit, there’s much more that can be done to prevent the crash entirely than there is to improve how a car behaves during a crash."

Harmonizing Euro and U.S. standards

Recently the latest generation Ford Mustang scored only a 2-star result in Euro NCAP tests. leading some safety experts to amplify the call for global test harmonization. They argue that the present individual regional standards make for engineering complexity, increased costs and an element of confusion.

"Unnecessary engineering complexity could be looked at in a different way, as an opportunity for increased engineering robustness," Avery observed. "Having different tests in Europe and the U.S. delivers a more robust end product because we have to be able to accommodate different crash types.

He said the U.S. does not test differently as a result of idiosyncratic driver behavior; rather, it designs for a very common crash situation.

"What we do is not unique to Europe per se, but it is also in response to one of the most common types of injurious crash. If you put the two together, you have a more robust system," he noted. Does that mean it’s more costly for OEMs? Yes. But it also means that the engineering is more robust for the consumer.

Presently there is little or no global harmonization of the NCAP standard; the tests reflect individual markets and prominence of specific types of vehicles. So for Europe to have to engineer for large pickup trucks—or for the U.S. to engineer for A-segment city cars—wouldn't be right for either market, Avery asserted. He noted that in 2008 such a scenario actually was played play out in Euro NCAP testing when a series of U.S.-style pickups performed poorly as a group.

In the future, however, there is an opportunity for harmonization and that is already in process to some degree. "The Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) testing we developed at Thatcham Research, for example, is now part of Euro NCAP’s overall testing regime and has also become an essential part of the U.S. testing system," he explained. The process exists for pedestrian, car-to-car, city and inter-urban AEB, along with a new Global Vehicle Target test also co-developed by Thatcham engineers.

"Harmonization ideally needs to come at the embryonic ideas stage," Avery stated.

Separate 'star' rating for autonomous vehicles

Will there be a separate “star” rating system for autonomous vehicles—and are there likely to be new safety technologies for autonomous vehicles that would allow them to achieve maximum star rating?

"We are likely to see a separate rating beyond the 5-star system, to help drivers understand how well the autonomous system of any given vehicle performs in relation to others," Avery noted. At present, autonomy is about braking and steering assistance, for example Emergency Lane Keeping (ELK), a subsystem of the wider testing program. He believes that because 93% of accidents are a result of human error, it is possible to eradicate the human error element completely through the integration of increasingly capable ADAS sensors and algorithms.

Steering intervention is a safety technology that Avery believes is likely to help vehicles achieve maximum safety ratings. "ELK will be a feature of testing for 2018 and by the early to mid-2020s we will be looking at Autonomous Emergency Steering (AES)," he noted.

These systems are required for true vehicle autonomy and they introduce a whole host of new opportunities to avoid the crash. There are occasions where the two operating in tandem are better, Avery said, and others when they operate individually to avoid an accident.

While Volvo is aiming for occupants of its post-2020 models not to suffer death or serious injuries, what about the entire industry achieving such a standard? Would this goal likely  become a Euro NCAP requirement for a maximum star rating?

"Avoiding death or serious injury completely will not be a standard which comes into Euro NCAP testing," Avery asserted. "Other vehicle manufacturers however will be keeping a keen eye on Volvo and how successful it has been, especially where a marketing advantage can be gained."

However, Euro NCAP won’t look at that because it would require a huge, well orchestrated analysis of pan-European crashes. "It also fails to account for “Acts of God” which are beyond the means of any safety technology, passive or active," he said.

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