The Road to Car Safety

Mareeg.com-TOKYO – The automobile – long a symbol of freedom, status, and success – is at a
crossroads. For more than a century, cars have enabled billions of people to travel
farther, faster, and more efficiently than ever before. They have helped power the
world’s great economies and shaped our modern social and cultural landscape. But all
of this has come at a price: accidents, congestion, pollution, and an uneasy
dependence on oil, among other costs.

Our challenge, therefore, is to boost the benefits and reduce (and eventually
eliminate) the harm done by our cars, so that the future of motor travel is clean,
efficient, safe, and accessible to all. For our industry to remain an instrument of
progress, we must therefore work closely with our peers from other industries and
government in three major areas: safety, the environment, and affordability.

Road safety is a grave concern. More than 3,000 people die in auto-related accidents
every day. Lower-income countries account for only half of all vehicles on the road
but suffer more than 90% of the fatalities. India has four times fewer cars than
France, though it suffers 20 times more road-related deaths – that is, 80 times more
accidents per car.

But safety is improving. In Europe, even as the number of vehicles has doubled, the
number of road deaths has been halved. One reason for this is the introduction of
technologies such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, and electronic stability control.
Technologies now in development could even eliminate auto-related fatalities
altogether.

One such innovation is autonomous driving. Renault and Nissan are currently working
on complementary technologies that can predict, detect, and prevent collisions. By
reducing the stresses of driving in heavy traffic and unfamiliar locations, this
technology promises greater protection for both drivers and pedestrians. It is
especially valuable to people with restricted mobility, such as elderly or disabled
drivers.

But such breakthrough technologies are not simply invented and then implemented –
they need government support in the form of a coherent set of laws and regulations
covering their use. Policymakers must therefore be involved at an early development
stage if we are to reach the goal of “zero fatality” roads within our lifetimes.

The auto industry can also make a vital contribution to the environment. Fifteen
years ago, the Renault-Nissan Alliance evaluated the environmental impact of its
vehicles over their life cycle. The study examined the effect of our raw-material
usage; the impact of car exhaust on public health, especially in congested urban
areas; and the contribution to overall greenhouse-gas emissions – 23% of which come
from the auto industry worldwide.

As a result of that evaluation, the Alliance invested more than €4 billion ($5.5
billion) in zero-emission technologies. Today, ours is the only auto group that
mass-produces a full line of zero-emission cars and light commercial vehicles.
Renault and Nissan together have sold more than 100,000 such vehicles worldwide –
more than all of the other major carmakers combined.

The broader task is to integrate these vehicles into a more efficient and cleaner
power grid – for example, by replacing aging coal-fired power plants with
hydroelectric power. Moreover, local and national governments should work with the
automobile industry to integrate zero-emission vehicles into national transport
infrastructure. If this is achieved, we believe it will be possible for cars to have
zero impact on the environment in the foreseeable future.

Greater health and safety, however, should not (and need not) come at the expense of
developing countries, whose citizens want the fruits of prosperity that developed
countries’ citizens have long enjoyed. In 1999, Brazil, Russia, India, and China
accounted for a mere 8% of vehicle sales worldwide; by 2012, their combined sales
had reached a staggering 35% of the global total. And this proportion is sure to
rise.

One reason for this extraordinary growth is that carmakers have developed more
affordable cars for a new, cost-conscious middle class. The Alliance’s CMF-A
platform, created and manufactured in India, will pave the way for many more
affordable vehicles throughout the developing world. These advances are at the
forefront of a growing trend toward “frugal innovation” that is increasingly being
adopted in developed markets, too.

It is hard to overestimate the impact that the automobile has had on our political,
economic, social, and cultural life over the past century. The industry’s global
sales are greater than the GDP of all but the five largest economies, and it employs
more than 50 million people worldwide. Its future is bound up with that of the world
economy. The challenge now is to reinvent the car so that it remains a proud totem
of freedom and safety in the decades ahead.

Carlos Ghosn is Chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

Project Syndicate