Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Road to Car Safety

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.

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    1. CommentedEuro Blur

      It is good to hear that your company has learned its lesson from the poor performance of the Renault Sandero in the LatinNCAP 2012. Do all Renault-Nissan cars sold in the emerging markets meet UN Reg. 94 and Reg. 95 requirements now? I wonder why some global automotive groups continue to sell cars in the Indian market that fail to meet them. Any ideas?

    2. CommentedM DHANDAPANI

      Dear Mr.Ghosn,
      The lower-income country, like India, face mainly the problems of rash driving, bad roads, illiterate drivers having scant respect for law and insufficient policing of driving violations. The case of Europe can not be applied to India. Autonomous driving has to wait for a long time before it is tried and implemented in India. I feel that planners and designers look into the real issues causing the large no of accidents in India. Large number of vehicles in narrow roads and the other reasons mentioned above have to be addressed first.

    3. CommentedManuel Gomes Samuel

      Dear Mr. Ghosn,

      You present a very insightful vision for Nissan/Renault. I believe your job must be quite exciting and risky at the current juncture. The automotive industry is trying globally to converge into a preferred future for 2030, 2040 and 2050. But things are changing so quickly that I imagine that most top executives in the industry are somewhat reluctant to compromise with long term investments to reinvent the car. I suppose many of them are now closely watching Elon Musk and Google almost on a daily basis. Is Tesla the right recipe for the future? Why is Google on a buying spree of IA businesses? and what is Google cooking regarding self-driving vehicles, GPS technologies and robotics?
      So the current moment for the automakers smacks very much to me like the period between 1890 and 1910 when nobody knew if the future for the car was electric, liquid fuel or even steam.
      You highlight a major concern: we need green cars (especially in places like India, China and the like) but it is going to be quite hard to reach convergence in the industry in the next decade, especially in terms of opting for full electric vehicles, hybrids, fuel-cell EV's, gas or more efficient petrol and diesel cars.
      With the ongoing shale gas revolution (take a look now at the UK and Cameron's policy on shale gas following the US lead which will surely replicate in continental Europe sooner or later), one has to posit the likelihood that cheap unconventional gas (which is a lot less pollutant than petrol and diesel) may also soon become a main stream energy for mass transportation.
      Sir, when you talk about public administrations being slow to react to new transport technologies such as self-driving vehicles,'s the public sector, but I'd say that global automakers also need to foster better collaboration between themselves, notably to take matters to the relevant international organizations and to liaise (and co-sponsor) with major research programmes and various electric mobility initiatives, such as the EU Green Car Initiative.
      As regards road safety, I am sure it will no longer be a critical issue in the near future. The development of new types of sensors and artificial intelligence using, for instance, algorithms and accident prediction models (such as Sohail Inayatullah's formulas), will empower vehicles to avoid collisions with almost 100% accuracy. Furthermore, the upcoming Internet of Things will open the door to automated collaboration between vehicles which will render collision avoidance even easier.
      Finally, I am quite sure that the motor car is becoming more and more accessible to millions of new customers in developing countries around the world. I am not sure, however, if urban areas will be able to cope with a continuous influx of motor vehicles, even if they are zero emission, crash-less (in the sense of avoiding collisions) and fully auto-piloted. There will be always a saturation level above which roads will become clogged, despite further improvements in traffic management.
      Anyway, Mr. Ghosn, "obrigado" for your article and for all your endeavors in the pursuit of the mass market green car. I think Renault/Nissan are doing a great job but they need now to become even bolder. And you, Sir, you need a good environmental scanning and the right choice of preferred futures to build your vision for Nissan/Renault in, say, 2040. Not easy but a very exciting venture. Good luck!

      Manuel Gomes Samuel