We get the inside word on safety from former chairman Lauchlan McIntosh

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'Safety first'. It's a phrase commonly uttered in schools, workplaces, and even in the home. But in the wake of the Ford Mustang’s recent two-star ANCAP safety rating, the notion of safety actually being first has, yet again, come to the fore.

To talk about how far vehicle safety has come, where it is today, and where it’s headed in future, CarAdvice caught up with former Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) chairman, Lauchlan McIntosh.

Firstly, though, some background.

President of the Australian College of Road Safety (ACRS) since 2007, Lauchlan McIntosh was chairman of ANCAP between June 1994 and October 2015, before moving into the deputy chairman role, from which he retired in December of last year.

That tenure, and earlier work in the field, gives McIntosh more than 20 years experience specialising and investing in road safety.

Currently a trustee of the Global New Car Assessment Program (Global NCAP), McIntosh is able to trace his professional roots back to the mining industry, which, in 2007, along with his contributions to the development and promotion of road and motor vehicle safety, helped him be appointed a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

With that clear, let’s hear what the man has to say.

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CarAdvice: Why the decision to retire from your role at ANCAP after 22 years with the organisation?

Lauchlan McIntosh: Well, I’ve been there for 22 years, I turned 65 many years ago, and it’s important to pass on the torch to other people.

I really just think it’s important to ensure the organisation remains strong and vibrant and has different players in the game, and I think [the new chairwoman] Wendy Machin will do a good job in that space.

 

Why is vehicle safety something you’ve been, and continue to be, so passionate about?

I’ve been building this interest, I guess, over long period of time.

I started my life in the mining industry, where safety was a very important part of what we did, and I’ve sort of taken that knowledge of building safety into industry, through into vehicle and road safety.

Road safety and vehicle safety, to a certain extent, is seen as sort of a given.

When I did some polling years ago, when I was executive director at the Australian Automobile Association (AAA), we actually did a lot of polling of what motorists thought about motoring and various related topics.

We asked them then about road safety and vehicle safety, and people had a view that it was somehow outside their control – that if the government approved vehicles, they must be safe. They assumed the roads were safe, and that somehow or another, [if there was a problem], someone else should do something about it.

So, I’ve sort of been involved in trying to build a different picture on road safety, if you like. One that sees us build a bigger system in road safety, where there’s a whole range of issues involved. Not only are cars important, but how the road is built, what the markings are on the road, and how the car interacts with the road.

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Looking back over your time at ANCAP, what do you see as your biggest achievements and what are you most proud of?

That’s a difficult question. I think when I first started at ANCAP, I was a bit stunned.

I went and saw a crash test and saw how poorly the car performed, and I looked at the results and talked to the people involved – and a lot of the people who set ANCAP up were really, really, very passionate people – and they demonstrated to me that there were big differences between ‘Car A’ and ‘Car B’. And I thought, ‘How can that be?’. I was new to the motoring fraternity, but I could see that the consumer just wasn’t being told what was happening.

I think in terms of then doing that testing, and looking at it over the 20 years, the most important thing I think we did was to maintain credibility.

The original stakeholders – the State Governments, the motoring clubs, some insurers, and in the latter stages, the Commonwealth Government – were very keen to do the work, to make sure we got it right, and to be credible.

We came under a lot of attack – the manufacturers didn’t like being exposed for the quality of their cars. Some manufacturers were doing a good job, others were doing a medium sort of a job, some were doing a poor job, and there was a lot of pressure on us to get it right. And with the little, tiny organisation we had, I think if I look back, the fact that we have this credibility today, that’s probably the biggest achievement.

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Given your past roles and positions, you’re obviously well aware of how far vehicle safety has come from those early days in 1994. How impressed or surprised have you been with this progress, in technology and development, over those 20-plus years? 

Well, I think probably every year we’ve been surprised, almost. The manufacturers are very capable of making safer vehicles, and I think the engineers behind these cars have done a great job. And now they’re doing even more with all the collision-avoidance technologies, there’s a raft of technologies coming along that are going to reduce collisions even further – [even if] there’s probably still a lot to do to make the vehicles safer as well.

There were some really good debates [with manufacturers] in the early days about the difference between building a car to pass the test, and building a car to reduce harm to all the occupants. But by the name-and-shame approach of ANCAP, and being credible, we managed to keep lifting the bar all the time.

Manufacturers, initially, used to rail against us, but once they could see that the market and individuals were starting to show an interest, and wanted to buy safer cars, they were happy to accept the five-star ratings, and happy to promote them, and actively promote them.

It’s unfortunate, [though], that we still have some ‘slippages’ in different places, so there’s a big role for ANCAP to keep going.

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Are there, or have there been, any developments in vehicle safety that stand out to you personally, as being particularly impressive or significant? For example, features such as seat belts or anti-lock brakes.

Well, seat belts were in when I turned up, but airbags weren’t in.

I can recall, we did a big project together with the Commonwealth Government, to actually demonstrate the benefits of passenger airbags. And I can remember a manufacturer saying to me, ‘Look, the technical information shows that you don’t really need a passenger airbag’. And I said, ‘Have you told your wife that when you’re driving?’.

Today, no one would sell a car without two airbags… well, that’s not true. In Australia they wouldn’t, unfortunately overseas they still do. But getting two airbags in a car, getting side airbags – in the front and also in the rear – in a car, has been a big change.

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The crumple performance of structures has also improved dramatically, and we’ve seen the roll-over roof strength improve dramatically, and they’re things that people don’t see when you go to buy a car. You don’t go into the showroom and say, ‘Yes, can you tell me how the roof strength is in this car?’.

You have to rely on the fact that either, it meets the Australian Design Rules (ADRs), or it gets a five-star rating. And a five-star rating includes quite a range of things that we’ve looked at, or encouraged the manufacturers to build, to make sure they do get that rating.

I think the Australian Design Rules, unfortunately – because of the internationalisation of those standards – tends to lag behind world’s best practice, [while] ANCAP’s managed to encourage manufacturers to build cars to world’s best practice to get the five-star rating.

And I think that’s going to continue, and I think our partnership with the Australian Government has helped a lot in the last couple of years. There was a bit of tension between the two groups some time ago, but I think that’s over – just as the tension between most of the manufacturers is over in Australia.

People want to see good quality, high safety vehicles. The question is about getting [the technology] introduced as quickly as it’s available. That’s the big issue today: getting people to understand the urgency of the introduction of new technologies.

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Thinking back to those early days at ANCAP, did you ever think you’d see the sorts of technologies now becoming more common in new cars? And what advances seen and employed today, simply weren’t even on the radar back in 1994?

We certainly didn’t see the collision-avoidance technologies and the autonomous emergency braking (AEB). The collision-avoidance technologies weren’t predicted, I don’t think – ABS (anti-lock braking system) was still argued about.

Back in 2000, we could see those things coming via early demonstrations of cars with lane-keeping assist and fatigue alerts and the like, but it was seen to be gee-wizardry and not practical. And it took probably 10 years before that developed into real products.

I think the potential to improve the crashworthiness of the car was always possible. I think with new steels, new designs, the complexity of the crash worthiness, and the ability of computing technology to help the engineers design the crashworthiness of the cars, we could see the potential. Whether it was actually going to happen was always doubtful.

It was sort of an evolution in a way, but it’s been a very positive result. I mean, I think there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of people alive and not injured in Australia because the manufacturers rose to meet the five-star ratings, and we continue to raise the bar to encourage them to do that. But that required a lot of work from a lot of people – ANCAP was just part of the equation – and it’s to their credit that they didn’t back off, they didn’t get frightened when they got challenged.

And, behind the scenes, manufacturers work closely with us, because the engineers want to make safer cars – the companies really want to do it.

I think the Ralph Nader (author of the 1965 expose on automotive safety Unsafe at Any Speed) days of companies actively campaigning against safety are well and truly gone. It’s just unfortunate that, in the third world, we’re still seeing poor-quality vehicles being sold. That’s the most disappointing thing.

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On that, how far behind are developing markets with their vehicle safety? What needs to change? And when do you think it will?

I saw a [Mexican market] Nissan Tsuru crashed in the US just recently, and it was as bad as the cars that I saw crashed in Australia 20 years ago, so that’s really disappointing. But I think, Global NCAP’s pretty keen to name and shame those manufacturers, and I think we’ll see a lift.

We’ve seen huge improvements in Malaysia with the ASEAN NCAP – some really, very quick changes in the improvement of safety. Latin NCAP’s made good progress, India’s making good progress, and we’re looking at doing work in South Africa… So, I think we will see those things change, hopefully for the better, and fairly quickly.

ASEAN NCAP is a good example, though. When it started back in December of 2011, at that time, the most commonly sold car in Malaysia had no airbags. This is only within this decade, and the manufacturer said, ‘Oh well, people don’t want them, they’re too complicated, they can’t fix the car after the event, and there’s no need’. And they said, ‘Why are you helping test these cars?’. Well, we said, ‘We think people shouldn’t die in their cars’.

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And then, about a week or two weeks before the first ASEAN NCAP tests were undertaken in Malaysia, one manufacturer announced that they would put airbags in the most commonly sold car – which they did.

I think about two years later… six or seven of the most commonly sold cars had at least two airbags, and some had six. And the improvement in Malaysia, in the safety of those vehicles, since ASEAN NCAP started, has been rapid. They didn’t wait the sort of 10 years that we waited, they got that sort of improvement in two or three years.

In Latin NCAP, it’s been a bit slower – it’s a more complex market – but it’s happened there as well. We’re seeing five-star cars, [although] we’re also seeing some terrible, zero-star cars. And in India, I think we’ve seen a four-star car come up.

So, by the interaction of all the NCAPs – through Global NCAP – that sort of ‘collective wisdom’ has helped a lot. We’re moving faster now, not necessarily to harmonise, but to share information.

The manufacturers have always complained that we should have one standard test across the world. I always say, ‘Well, if you make the same car across the world, we’ll have one test’, but manufacturers make different cars for different markets.

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Where do you see the level now in Australia in 2017? And how much further do brands and manufacturers still have to go?

Well, there were some results published last year from Subaru that cars with Subaru’s stereo-camera-driven EyeSight technology – they tested about 250,000 cars over four years in Japan – had a 60 per cent lower crash rate than cars that didn’t have it. Sixty per cent lower crash rate! I mean, it’s stunning.

There are arguments about stereo cameras, or lidar and radar, and what sort of technology should we have, but there’s no doubt that autonomous emergency braking (AEB) is going to make a huge difference to the existing fleet of cars, long before autonomous cars get to be any sort of serious numbers in the market.

The trick will be, though, to know how effective those technologies are – how they work, and how well they work. I mean, even if the Subaru figures are only half right, that’s still a 30 per cent reduction in crash rate, which is massive.

And at the same time, underneath, is this improving vehicle safety in itself – the crashworthiness of the car. I think we’re going to see some more full-frontal tests, we’re going to see some other types of side and perhaps oblique tests, and I suspect the manufacturers will complain. But in the end, they will be able to make improvements so your survivability when a crash happens – if it happens – will be better.

There’s almost us much blue sky in front of us now, as there was 20 years ago.

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What’s your view on manufacturers limiting or restricting certain safety technologies to more expensive or higher-specification models or vehicles?

I think that’s disappointing. There’s no reason why the car that’s sold should have safety as an extra. It’s sort of built into our psyche a bit that these things should be extras, but they shouldn’t be.

A manufacturer wouldn’t sell a car and say, ‘Well, for an extra, you can have a seatbelt, or an airbag’ – they wouldn’t even think about it. Why wouldn’t you have autonomous emergency braking?

Manufacturers seem to be consumed by the alleged price point. You know, the ‘Mazda X’ will be $2.00 more than a ‘Honda Y’ if it has AEB. Somehow the manufacturers need to educate the market more and say, ‘Of course we’ll supply you with this car, you should be proud to want to buy a car that has all these things’. And that’s a role for ANCAP and its stakeholders, to encourage people to do that.

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Fleet managers are making a big difference too.

I think probably one of ANCAP’s other big achievements in the last 20 years, was when BHP decided to only buy five-star cars worldwide, and for the contractors on their sites to only have five-star cars. That sent a massive message to the manufacturers, and many fleet managers are now insisting on AEB – over and above the ANCAP rating. So, I think the more the fleet owners insist on that, the more the manufacturers will come to the party and just make it available, full stop.

I’m aware some base models don’t get a five-star rating, but higher-specification models do, and so those base models aren’t available to be sold to the fleet. So, the days when fleets bought the cheapest car are fading.

More and more fleets are saying, ‘These vehicles are used in the workplace, they’re used for employees, we have to make sure we give them the best that’s available, so we’ll only buy a five-star car’. So, the cheap-end car just drops out, it’s not available, the manufacturers won’t sell them in the volume they hope to.

Manufacturers have to understand, they make sure their workplaces in their factories have the best safety, why wouldn’t they make their cars the safest they can too?

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In the spotlight since ANCAP’s recent announcement, what are your thoughts specifically on the Ford Mustang’s surprisingly poor, two-star safety rating result?

The Mustang result is very disappointing. I have to agree with ANCAP CEO James Goodwin when he said, “This result is simply shocking for such a newly designed and popular model,” as the car failed in three out of four areas of assessment – particularly in the ‘safety assist’ category.

Given that Ford America promotes how many of its vehicles achieve a five-star NCAP rating in both the US and Europe, and lists the safety assist technology as a key feature, to down-specify a car for its non-US market is really an insult to its customers in Europe and Australia.

To suggest that there was poor demand, and offer an upgrade after the Euro NCAP test, flies in the face of Ford’s claim to be committed to safety. I am surprised they even manufactured a car where the airbags fail, allowing the driver’s head to hit the steering wheel. (It should be noted Ford revealed the updated Mustang before the two-star rating was announced.)

It’s interesting they are offering new gearboxes and body facelifts in Australia, but upgrading safety is not mentioned. Is an Australian Mustang driver’s life worth less than their colleagues in the US and Europe?

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No doubt you’ve surely come across people who feel that improvements in driver aids, such as adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and even reversing cameras, are actually making drivers more complacent and less focussed or attentive when behind the wheel. What’s your take on the topic?

I think those views are correct. But you also have to recognise that the majority of crashes occur because of driver error.

We all think that people can be more attentive – you’d think by now, after 120 years of driving, we’d have learnt that people aren’t more attentive while driving. People like to talk to someone else in the car, or look out the window at what’s going past, and be distracted. And when you look at data – such as the results mentioned earlier from Subaru – we shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s not do it, let’s wait another five years to see whether it might be distracting people’, we have to recognise that those things will happen.

There are rapid developments happening. Sure, we’re going to see some problems with some of these things, but it certainly doesn’t mean to say that we should stop doing it.

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I think there’s an issue in the distraction from ‘nomadic devices’ – mobile phones, iPads, etc. The question is, who is accountable for that distraction? Is it the driver, because they’re the user? Or is it the provider of the technology? Is it the company that provides the tablet or telephone? Or the service provider?

If we’re in a system approach, everybody has a responsibility. So, why shouldn’t we have a chain of responsibility in the nomadic devices business, so that everybody takes some responsibility? The driver is just one part of that.

The question is, can the car be driven safely while people are engaging with these devices? I guess, at the moment, no it can’t be. So, we have to find solutions. We have to be looking all the time for new ways and new solutions. And it is a conflict, and it is an issue, and it’s one we should be concerned about, but it’s not one we should give up on.

I think we have to have a smarter conversation in the community. We need some urgency in our thinking on road safety, not just to say, ‘Oh well, let’s wait and see what happens’ or ‘Let’s not do anything until somebody else does something’. Too many people are dying, too many people are being injured, and they don’t have to be. We have find ways to stop it.

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What disappoints you about how the auto industry approaches safety and approaches making it a priority?

Probably fewer things now, than in the past. Again, it’s this argument that you have to pay for safety, that we’ll make two products – one that’s unsafe and one that’s safe – and if you haven’t got any money, you can have the unsafe one. I mean, that’s a broad statement, but that’s in effect what’s happening.

And, given everybody’s new interest in sustainability and reporting of community obligations and annual reports and the like, it would be great to see manufacturers start reporting how they’re sharing their expertise. Because they’ve got the expertise, they know about these things.

Manufacturers spend squillions on this – millions and millions of dollars – and I think they need to be rewarded for that, but they need to go out there and be proud of that. If they were proud of their safety record, which they should be, they wouldn’t sell cars without the best safety features.

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What are your thoughts on the future of vehicle safety? What will we see next? And what do you think will have the biggest, positive impact on vehicle occupant safety?

I think collision avoidance and autonomous emergency braking, in various forms, and the things that go with it – although lane-keep assist seems to have had varied results depending on the system. But those types of systems will make a difference.

If there’s an incident that looks like it was caused by nobody except the car, well, then there may be some public backlash, but I suspect not. I think there'll be more results in the positive, and we’ve already seen that – Mercedes-Benz has had AEB since 2008, Volvo has had the same, and the Ford Mondeo in Australia has had it for quite some time.

Those technologies that reduce the collisions are going to be the biggest changes, and we’ll see progressive changes in the crash worthiness – in the structure of the car – and that’ll also help.

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On that topic, what is your take on the fully-autonomous vehicle? And how do you think the expected expansion of that phenomenon is likely to affect the vehicle safety industry as a whole?

Well, if it would lead us down the semi-autonomous path quicker, I’d be really happy.

I’m concerned that too many people are rushing off on the autonomous car, without fixing the existing one first, on the hope that, somehow or another, full autonomy will just plant itself in the highways.

I mean, I’ve been in driverless cars since 1996 or so, when cars followed magnets in the road. I’m sure they’re happening and the developments are rapid, but when we’ve got one of the oldest fleets in the world in Australia, people are going to hang onto those cars, they’re not going to change them over to autonomous cars.

In the city, it’ll be different, but if you live in the bush, or some sort of regional centre, those facilities won’t be available. So, we’re going to have a mixed fleet of old cars or existing cars, semi-autonomous cars, and autonomous cars. How we integrate those, well, we’re going to have to trial those things – we can’t sit back and say, ‘No, let’s not do it’.

But I wish the investment we’re doing in autonomous cars in Australia at the moment was a bit more focussed on some of the semi-autonomous things, which would save lives today.

HYUNDAI MOTOR COMPANY INTRODUCES NEW AUTONOMOUS IONIQ CONCEPT AT

 

If the fully-autonomous car pipedream comes to fruition, and the risk of collisions ceases altogether – thanks to the proliferation of autonomous cars – what’s the use of having any additional safety technology at all? And what then becomes the purpose or need for crash-testing bodies such as ANCAP and Global NCAP?

I think the reality is, there still will be some crashes. And people will, by then, expect – and it will be possible at relatively low cost – to have a vehicle that protects you in the event of any sort of collision. People will expect it. People won’t want to be driving an autonomous car when, in the one chance in a million, it does hit a tree or runs off the road, it crumples and falls apart. People will say, ‘That’s outrageous’.

The expectation of the consumer has been already built up through groups such as ANCAP to say, ‘The vehicle can be safe, you can be protected in the event of an incident’.

I’m not so sure the autonomous car is guaranteed to be 100 per cent safe just yet. You know, we still haven’t got voice recognition right yet, despite trying a whole range of things.

So, there will be risks in autonomous cars. Hopefully they’ll be less than in the semi-autonomous cars and existing cars, but [in Australia] we’re going to have other cars in the fleet, and we’re going to have kangaroos on the road – you know, not every car will miss the kangaroo.

It’s like in an aircraft, you put your seatbelt on, and the chance of needing your seatbelt in an aircraft is extremely low, but we all put it on – well, in Australia we do – because people believe we should be protected from those risks.

I think where we’ve got to be careful, is in not letting the hype of the autonomous car stop us doing the things we know at the moment – [things such as] making sure we can have a crash-worthy car and have a car that avoids collisions.

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Final question, and possibly the most important: what car do you drive?

(Laughs) I’ve got a Lexus RX450h, which met America’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) best pick when I bought it. And I’ve got a Ford Ranger ute, that’s a five-star ute. I’ll have to admit that I have a 1949 Armstrong Siddeley ute. And I have a 1993 Mitsubishi paddock ute that runs me around the paddock. So, I have a ‘mixed fleet’, but the majority of the miles are in the five-star cars.

 

Lauchlan McIntosh, thank you so much for the chat.

No problem. Thanks for your time.


Tune in to the CarAdvice Podcast for our chat with ANCAP CEO, James Goodwin.

What's your view on safety in Australia, and around the world? Let us know in the comments section below.