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GM's Takes Step to Close Car Safety Gap

by Roger Lanctot | Apr 17, 2016

After being flayed in absentia at a mid-week media event in Washington, DC, for shipping “zero-star cars,” General Motors responded the following day by announcing its intention to no longer sell cars lacking airbags in any markets anywhere.  The move came in response to the public shaming at a press event hosted by the New Car Assessment Program for Latin America and the Caribbean (Latin NCAP), Global New Car Assessment Program (Global NCAP) and El Poder Consumidor (Consumer Power, Mexico).

Prominently attending and speaking at the press event was long-time General Motors nemesis Ralph Nader who railed against what he repeatedly and sneeringly called “General Manslaughter” before correcting himself each time.  The representatives of Latin NCAP and Global NCAP were ostensibly reporting on the latest crash test findings for the Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Sail.  The Ford received three stars for its crash test performance.  The Sail received zero.

SOURCE: Latin NCAP

The NCAP executives, Nader and the Mexican consumer advocates all expressed outrage at the fatality rates associated with zero-star cars – most notably the Nissan Tsuru, which was singled out as being associated with 4,000 fatalities between 2007 and 2012.  No such data was referred to regarding the Chevrolet Sail, which is manufactured in China and assembled in Columbia.  But the press event raised a host of troubling questions.

First of all, it’s important to note that GM is the favorite whipping boy for every automotive industry critic on the planet.  Former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz famously complained about this phenomenon in his book “Car Guys and Bean Counters.”  And even Nader had to admit that GM was not the worst offender in the zero-stars category.  But you don’t get headlines criticizing Nissan.  Attacks on GM are guaranteed to get press coverage.

The most troubling question that came to my mind while watching the event was whether GM’s distribution of the Sail in Latin America was giving China, its source, a bad name or whether China was giving GM a bad name.  China is in the process of emerging on the global automotive stage with strategic acquisitions and increasing overseas sales. 

Domestic Chinese car makers have yet to shake a shaky reputation for producing unsafe cars.  That reputation is only reinforced by estimated highway fatality figures that lead the world and raise questions about the safety of Chinese cars, roads and drivers.

Build and design quality standards in China have yet to rise universally to globally acceptable levels.  Chinese manufactured and exported cars are generally only found in emerging markets or in Eastern Europe.  In Latin America, Brazil has limited China’s once-rising automotive influence with draconian tariffs.

China’s car making prowess within its joint ventures with Western auto makers has made significant progress.  GM will become the first domestic U.S. auto maker to bring a Chinese-made vehicle to the U.S. with the arrival of the Buick Envision this year.  And Volvo's iconic safety leadership is now in the hands of parent Geely.

The swift reaction of GM to the press event was reminiscent of CEO Mary Barra’s pre-CEO comment that GM would produce “no more crappy cars.”  It also aligned with her launch of the “Speak up for Safety” program in the wake of the ignition switch recalls.

The Wall Street Journal reported that GM “reiterated a pledge it made last summer to spend $5B developing safer cars for emerging markets. The cars will have air bags and three-point seat belts in all positions, the company said.  The new cars will start appearing in the 2019 model year.”

Made in China and exported to emerging markets, the Chevrolet Sail sells for less than $10K and is among several GM vehicles lacking air bags in some markets including the Aveo, Spark and Agile.  Other car makers selling cars that have received zero stars in NCAP testing include Chery, Geely, Hyundai, Nissan, Fiat and Renault, according to the Wall Street Journal report.  In raising its safety standards GM will be joining Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen who have all made similar safety commitments.

The press event was timed to take place the day before the UN General Assembly’s consideration of recommendations of the inter-governmental Brasilia Declaration, an updated set of global commitments made to road and vehicle safety.  Of course, the sad reality of the new Declaration is that it reveals the vast gulf between vehicle safety standards in place in developed markets vs. emerging markets.

The only references in the document touching on vehicle safety equipment was as follows:

“Promote the adoption of policies and measures to implement United Nations vehicle safety regulations or equivalent national standards to ensure that all new motor vehicles, meet applicable minimum regulations for occupant and other road users’ protection, with seat belts, air bags and active safety systems such as anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) fitted as standard.”

http://tinyurl.com/zdxokuk - Brasilia Declaration: Second Global High-level Conference on Road Safety: Time for Results

Following the NCAP press event, the European Union released its statement in support of the development of advanced self-driving cars.  The juxtaposition of the two events could not have made clearer the divide that exists between developed and emerging economies over vehicle safety.

The developed world is working toward automating driving while the rest of the world is working on the adoption of air bags, anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control as standard features.  It’s no wonder that China, India and Brazil lead the world in highway fatalities.

The NCAP shaming of GM was a powerful and effective means to close that safety gap.  Nader noted the strange irony of North America-bound cars being manufactured side-by-side with Latin America-bound cars with safety systems deleted.  Hopefully we have seen the beginning of the end of this double-standard.

The NCAP executives raised the specter of car makers literally exporting death and destruction in the form of unsafe cars.  The unspoken reality is that swift though GM’s reaction may have been in this case, the auto industry continues to move painfully slowly in advancing safety.  It’s time to turn a corner.  Everyone deserves a safe car.  All cars should be safe.  It’s not enough to survive a car crash.  Cars shouldn’t crash at all.

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