Low price at the cost of safety? Nano, Alto fail global test

Have Indian car makers compromised on safety to keep vehicle prices down? A story in the Guardian newspaper this morning speaks of frontal crash tests which global testing agency NCAP conducted on Indian cars and how the Tata Nano received a "zero-star" adult protection rating. In other words, it could mean the Nano failed the frontal safety test conducted by NCAP. Four other Indian small cars were also tested by NCAP and only two of these were found to be slightly better in matters of safety. A story on NDTV.com says that the cars chosen were the Tata Nano, Maruti Alto 800, Hyundai i10, Ford Figo and Volkswagen Polo.

India is known for its frugal engineering, which means manufacturing costs are brought down systematically for mass produced cars. The Nano has been the finest example of frugal engineering giving the world its cheapest four wheeler ever. But should frugality come at the cost of safety?

"All cars had to be made-in-India models only, and the most basic or entry-level version available in the market was selected for testing. This meant none of them had airbags as standard - one of the most basic prerequisites globally to pass a safety test," NDTV.com says. There were two tests carried out on identical cars of the same make - meaning two of each car were procured by Global NCAP from India. The tests were conducted at 56 kmph and at 64 kmph.

Representational image. Getty Images.

Representational image. Getty Images.

The same story says that of the five cars, only the Figo and Polo showed "good structural rigidity and therefore a safer cabin, while the smaller cars performed rather poorly."

Frontal crash test means crashing a car into a barrier at controlled speed, so that its front portion absorbs maximum impact. The Guardian story says that after hitting a wall at 40 miles per hour (64kmph), the vehicle (Nano) pirouetted around its axis by about 150 degrees and skidded a couple of metres to the left. "Its nose folded like a cardboard box, wrapping around the dummy in the driver's seat. The right-hand wheel burst through the floor of the vehicle, crushing the dummy's legs. By the time the car had come to a standstill, the right wrist of the driving dummy was protruding from the burst intersection between the windscreen and side windows."

Well, you could ask how the Nano is allowed to operate in India when it has not met basic crash test norms. In India, crash test norms are different from those which Europe and the USA use. For one, Indian cars are tested on lower speed limits because we believe speeds in India are not as high as in the West. An official at a car maker pointed out that speed was not as big an issue in India as behaviour of two wheelers or pedestrians is. So the Nano meets all Indian crash test norms as they exist.

Tim Leverton, head advanced and product engineering at Tata Motors told Firstbiz,“Safety is of paramount importance to Tata Motors. All our vehicles, including the Tata Nano meet all Indian safety regulations, including the frontal barrier crash test at 48 kmph, as mandated by the government. All our cars on Indian roads, including the Nano are engineered for safety in view of Indian road and traffic conditions.”

Other car makers whose vehicles also failed at least one of the two tests will obviously also take the "our vehicles meet all Indian safety norms" line. The point is, India itself is lax on safety norms.

Just because of dense traffic conditions in our cities, vehicle makers and regulatory authorities have a ready excuse of not making vehicles compliant with crash tests at higher speeds. Though it is fact that most fatalities on Indian roads involve two wheelers and pedestrians, the number of car accidents has risen too. It is time the government amends crash testing norms and also provides adequate testing facilities within India for car makers to upgrade safety norms.