The constant media squabble over C-NCAP (China New Car Assessment Program) doesn’t annoy Mr Zhao Hang at all. As the Chief Director of China Automotive Technology Research Centre (CATARC), Zhao has paid a great deal of efforts to develop this program, a vehicle crash test known as “Chinese new car safety evaluation standard”. “Safety, environmental friendliness and energy saving, we need to have them all,” he said.
Big Brother of the automotive industry
CATARC was originally a research institute directly belonged to government departments, but now it has become a state-owned enterprise to make its own decisions. Apart from assisting in setting automotive industry policies, CATARC also conducts research in a few core automotive technologies, such as partnering with Tianjin FAW Xiali Motor, Hafei Automobile Group and Yunnan Hongta Group to develop alternative energy cars.
“For every aspect of China’s automotive industry, we all have a corresponding service institution. This includes pre-production tasks such as project establishment, factory site selection and factory construction planning, and production related processes such as auto products, standards, information, testing, certification, quality system establishment and staff training. We also get involved in market establishment, second-hand car market, automotive finance, car rental and vehicle scrap recycling,” said Zhao.
Although CATARC has such a wide-ranging function, most people currently are interested in its C-NCAP crash test. This controversial test was launched two years ago, and there have been many supporters as well as critics. Controversy is actually what Zhao has hoped for, and he even doesn’t mind posting negative media comments onto CATARC’s official website. The fact that many automotive companies are interested in C-NCAP and asking for trial tests, has demonstrated that C-NCAP results do have some market merit.
NCAP, or New Car Assessment Program, originated from the US in 1
970s, and it became further recognised in developed countries such as Japan, Europe and Australia in the 90s. a common feature of NCAP is that all the test cars have to be bought from the market, ie, assessable by ordinary consumers. It is an independent test for the benefit of consumers, without the intervention from automotive producers.
“The automotive industry in China is big, but few people really understand cars. Common criteria such as engine displacement, inside space and door numbers don’t really matter, what’s important is how safe when you are sitting in the car.” Zhao suggested that the creation of C-NCAP is to provide star ratings on safety, so that there can be a standard for consumers to choose cars. The chief purpose of conducting C-NCAP tests is to prompt vehicle producers to upgrade their technologies and improve car safety.
“C-NCAP is a new car assessment program, not just a new car SAFETY assessment program. We do have to go through crash tests initially, but then we add up other results to establish a systematic evaluation standard for new cars, including safety, displacement and oil consumption tests.” Zhao said that as China is a large energy user with insufficient energy supply, and for the environmental consideration as well, it is necessary to conduct displacement and oil consumption tests in the Program.
C-NCAP can become a guideline for Chinese automotive manufacturers, said Zhao. “Many manufacturers are now designing products for the next 5 or 10 years by referring to C-NCAP. For example, once fuel consumption limits of passenger cars are given, product designers have to follow these limits. In addition, C-NCAP’s analytical results, which are based on existing road and traffic accident statistics, will also serve for future standards setting, so this could also be guidance for manufacturers.”
A cooperative deal with PICC (People’s Insurance Company of China), China’s largest property insurer, was another successful initiative by CATARC. Last year, a vehicle safety crash test laboratory sponsored by PICC was opened, and PICC had also provided US$2 million to C-NCAP as crash test funds. For an independent assessment institution like CATARC, its cooperation partners have to be without vested interests, so the country’s number 1 insurer could be an ideal partner.
Despite being an incorporated entity, CATARC is not really run like a company, as many of its projects are non-for-profit in nature. At the same time it still has to pay for its own operating expenses. The government has set a limit on CATARC’s profits, whose excessive components have to be retained for future projects or public causes. So the cooperation with PICC did give CATARC some funding relief.
What kind of vehicle certification system does China need?
Zhao said that there are significant differences between China’s certification system and those internationally, in terms of methodologies and organisational management. “China has not yet had a truly formal certification system. The existing rules can only be called ‘access system’, which only determines whether a particular car model is allowed to enter the market. While in developed countries, government certifications are built around the three major criteria, namely safety, environmental friendliness and energy saving.”
Take the example of safety. China has more than 100,000 traffic death tolls and about 1 million injuries. There are only about 200 Chinese cities with more than 1 million population each, so the casualty number is equivalent to eliminating a medium Chinese city every year. Therefore it is an urgent task for regulators to solve vehicle safety problems and improve auto product qualities.
CATARC plans and drafts national vehicle standards in China. Zhao suggested that China do have good and enough standards, but not enough when it comes to execution. And there are rules to follow, but not followed strictly. “Market competition cannot be in the absence of monitoring. Low price competition has now become a major problem in China’s automotive industry, as many manufacturers try to reduce costs by jerry-building. Such vicious competition is harmful to the industry. Many vehicle models can pass quality certification when they are in the factory, but not the case when they go to the outside market. If a certified product is not the one sold to consumers, what’s the use of certification?” said Zhao.
“Therefore, it is not enough for the automotive industry to just have an access system, and too many certification programs will not be helpful, either. We need to strictly monitor basic aspects, such as vehicle safety, environmental friendliness and energy saving, but leave other tasks to the market and consumers. This could be a really effective and realistic method for the industry,” Zhao concluded.