THE TRUE COST DETECTIVE
Insurance repair cost feature
As the chairman of global automotive insurance research group, RCAR, Robert McDonald is an influential campaigner for safer, more secure cars that are cheaper to repair. He speaks to Paul Owen about the often-scandalous costs of crash repairs.
As car insurance jobs go, Robert McDonald has one of the better ones. He’s a mechanical engineer and is the senior manager of the Insurance Australia Group’s research centre in Sydney. This means he gets to smash things to bits, and devises clever tests that reflect the performance of vehicles in the real world.
Although McDonald represents IAG on ANCAP which focuses their tests on occupant safety, those conducted by the IAG centre are more concerned with repair costs. However this hasn’t stopped McDonald’s team from bringing a slightly more eclectic and broader approach to their data acquisition. In recent times, the IAG researchers have tested pet restraints, vehicle theft security, collisions with supermarket trolleys, impacts with kangaroos, motorcycle parking topple-overs, and rear view visibility. The results are then publicised in an effort to make the buying public more aware of other considerations than just personal safety, performance, and fuel economy when deciding which vehicle to buy. According to McDonald, it has been the publication of the IAG research results that has encouraged the fitting of rear view cameras and engine immobilisers as must-have features of the models sold in Australasian markets.
The research centre serves a number of Australian automotive insurers as well as three in New Zealand – State, NZI, and AMI. The crash test data are used by these insurers to tailor appropriate premiums to particular models.
One of the most common car insurance claims arises as a result of a low speed nose-to-tail impact in either a congested motorway commuting scenario, or a coming together in a car-park. When McDonald’s RCAR organisation first devised a simple test of a car’s performance in such impacts back in 2008, it highlighted how many small cars could be written off in low-speed crashes due to the reluctance of some manufacturers to fit steel rear bumper bars behind the plastic bumper covers of their cars. This often resulted in extensive floor damage leading to a repair bill that was approximately 80 per cent of the purchase price of the car when new. While the Honda Jazz and Toyota Yaris came out worst in this 10km/h smack test, the most popular small car on the New Zealand market, the Suzuki Swift, fared little better.
“In Australia you don’t see many older Suzukis on the road, because, like many small cars with ineffective bumpers, they quickly become uneconomic to repair”.
Suzuki New Zealand responded to the negative 10km/h test result by saying that the Swift had been designed to crumple, to absorb crash energy and deflect it away from the occupants of the car. However McDonald is adamant that better bumper bars can be fitted to a car without compromising occupant safety.
“It doesn’t have to be either safety or repair costs – the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The bar is usually fitted to a box which is designed to crush like a concertina. It can absorb all the damage in impacts up to 15km/h, and result in quicker repairs that have less impact on the car’s structural integrity.”
Mazda took a more sympathetic approach when McDonald’s team highlighted that the shifting of Mazda2 production from Japan to Thailand had resulted in the rear bumper beam being deleted. ABOVE - US market Fit looks just like a Jazz, but performs better in low speed crashes thanks to the fitment of proper bumper bars says McDonald.
“When we pointed out that the 2 lacked a rear bumper bar, they quickly fitted them to the latest versions.”
McDonald sees the IAG research centre and ANCAP testing as becoming increasingly important given Tasman Sea markets source more of their automotive products from factories on the Asian continent. There are crucial differences between cars made for emerging markets and those made for European and North American consumption, and car makers are deleting components from cars made for Asian markets in order to be more cost-competitive.
“Our Swift is different from the Suzuki Swift they sell in the UK, and we have other cars missing rear bumper bars.”
“We are seeing more and more of it as people try to reduce costs and build cars for some of those cheaper markets, and we (Australia and New Zealand) are being lumped in with those.”
Recently, the IAG research team gave the Thai-made Honda Jazz the 10km/h rear impact test and compared the result with the same test conducted on a car modified with a rear bumper from the US-sold Honda Fit. The US version of the Jazz cost less than $2000 to repair while the repair of the Thai-made Honda cost nearly $8000 despite being essentially the same car when viewed from a distance.
“Honda would have probably saved only a few dollars building each Jazz in Thailand by deleting the rear bumper bar reinforcement of the US-market Fit.”
IAG is the only insurance partner of ANCAP, and McDonald is quick to defend the importance of the latter organisation despite the imminent demise of the Australian car-making industry.
“We need it more than ever because cars are becoming more localised. For example, the Hyundai Tuscon is a five-star vehicle in Europe, but only got four stars from ANCAP because of the differences we found in the RHD version sold here.
“ANCAP is also the only independent crash-tester of many of the Thai-made utes that are now increasingly common in our market(s), so it’s really important for us to keep our independence.
“I have two Havals (the SUV arm of Great Wall) in the workshop at present and they’re not currently being tested by anybody else. Many of the emerging brands are proving challenging and some are only getting two stars at present so there’s plenty for ANCAP to do.”
He sees ANCAP conducting more audit testing in the future because of the frequent changes in sourcing.
“For example, when Ford moved the production of the Fiesta from Europe to Thailand the car changed significantly in trim, appearance and elements of the car’s refinishing.”
There has been a bit of confusion in the marketplace caused by differences in the ratings of ANCAP and EuroNCAP; the latter is including advanced safety systems in its ratings while ANCAP is yet to do so.
“This has led, for example, to BMW’s 2 Series Active Tourer being awarded five stars in Europe, but only scoring four stars here. For the BMW i3, it’s the other way round – four stars in Europe, and five here. Steps have been taken to ensure these discrepancies will not occur in the future”.
McDonald sees car design racing towards a point where structural crash repairs will no longer be such an issue due to the use of sensible design and crash avoidance technology. Better bumpers and automatic emergency braking are seen as obvious examples.
Meantime, “repair costs are constantly rising so our role at the IAG Research Centre is becoming increasingly important.”
RHD Tucson scored four-stars in ANCAP testing at first, but Hyundai has since
made changes to achieve an ANCAP
BELOW LEFT - Haval, a Chinese brand not currently being independently crash tested. BELOW RIGHT - BMW 2 Series, is it a four- or five-star car?