China-New Car Assessment Program (C-NCAP), run by China Automotive Technology and Research Center (CATARC) since 2006, has crash-tested more than 100 models. The vast majority of those tested cars were locally built by either native or sino-foreign joint venture companies. Some readers have recently asked why ChinaAutoWeb.com has carried no report on the test results, which, as they naturally expect, could be valuable to those wanting to know how safe Chinese cars are.
The short answer is that, at this stage, we find C-NCAP controversial and untrustworthy. Its name misleads many to believe it is similar to, or on a par with, NHTSA’s NCAP (in the US), Euro NCAP, Australia’s ANCAP, or Latin-NCAP, while in fact it is not.
As test scores from C-NCAP have been increasingly used by car makers in marketing campaigns, we feel it is time to make known our doubts.
(1) The program is non-authoritative due to insufficient recognition and participation. Although its organizer, CATARC, is a government-affiliated institute, C-NCAP is not based on, and does not represent, a wide consensus on vehicle safety issues between the government, industry and consumers. To a large degree, it is not operated in an open way. And as acknowledged below, the standards it puts forward are not "official or industry standards"–nor are they intended to be, but rules controlled by a business-like organization, that is, the CATARC.
Thus said Li Weijing, head of C-NCAP’s Administration Department:
"The standards [for vehicle safety] we formulate are not official standards (from the government) or industry standards. You can say they are standards from a company–that is, rules and procedures set by our center (CATARC), which can be regarded as a business. As we are the maker of the rules, we are the dominant and leading factor."
(2) The program lacks neutrality and fairness due to its for-profit activities. Receiving no direct funding from the government, it has to come up with the money to smash cars through skillful means (it sells not only a car magazine but new cars itself). According to its supervisors, CATARC pays about 80% the program’s running cost, which reached millions of US dollars each year, while automakers cover the rest (they pay big to buy smashed models and data of the tests, among other things, from C-NCAP). For those automakers who choose to pay for the crash tests of their own models, the program routinely selects as test cars models of top trim levels, which come with more safety features, even if those models are rare on the market.
Can money buy more stars? The readers can judge for themselves from the following statement made in a highly frank–also puzzling–way by the chief of CATARC, Zhao Hang.
"In a market economy, there cannot be any "third party" in an absolute sense, or an enterprise that is not for-profit. We, in the auto industry, is to serve the members of that industry. And I feel it is totally normal to charge a little for our service. If this can be described as for-profit, if the served and serving can be described by such a relation of profit, then we are all in that relation. We do not charge for anything other than service, or favor any particular company we serve."
(3) Compared with NCAP tests in other parts of the world, the tests C-NCAP carries out are often insufficient, less strict, and based on compromised requirements. C-NCAP administers three tests: frontal of 100% and 40% overlap and side impact, omitting pedestrian protection, rear impact, and side impact pole tests. And it usually crashes cars at a lower speed than other NCAPs, opting for 50km/h in the frontal test–compared with 64km/h in Europe, Australia and Latin America, and 56km/h in the US.
What’s more, a model can get credits for many extra-test factors, such as how many airbags it has, whether the seatbelt reminders are installed, and the way it gives out these extra credits often seems non-consistent and arbitrary.
(4) Currently most Chinese consumers, which the C-NCAP is supposed to serve, do not trust it. Even the state television, CCTV, made a special program casting doubts on its validity. According to a poll conducted by sina.com.cn, the most frequented Chinese internet portal, 72% of the over 4,000 people asked say they do not think the program’s crash tests are fair; only 6% think they are.