For all its horridness in the desecrating Isaac Asimov’s visionary short story on robotics to pawn off vintage Converse shoes, the 2004 I, Robot movie had one moment of clairvoyance of the future of motoring. It was encapsulated in a neat zinger by the show’s female lead who exclaimed “Please tell me this doesn’t run on gas. Gas explodes, you know?” as she gets on an MV Augusta F4 - vintage 2004 we hazard to guess.
Put simply, getting on board a speeding lump of steel and plastic that blows up liquidised fossils while depending on your easily distracted monkey brains from creaming itself along an interstate barricade, is especially frightening. All the more so when the world is a fictional one populated by cars that can pilot themselves, and presumably run on something less primitive than blowing up dead things for heat.
It is a small self-referential humour of the disparity between the fictional world’s utopian dreams, and the film’s pandering to the nostalgia it presented thanks to corporate America - circa 2004.
Yet, there is an underlying message that society as a whole might reach a point where the thought of driving ourselves around using volatile chemicals might be seen as old-fashioned and dangerous, as how we thought we could cure our coughs with spoonfuls of heroin.
Well, the bad news is that signs of that change have surfaced.
Recently Ford Australia came under fire when their latest Ford Mustang scored a dismal two out of five stars in the Australian NCAP Safety Rating. It was a blow to the brand considering that the car still has an eighteen month waiting list, and that Australia NCAP had to depend on Euro NCAP to deliver the results as they weren’t able to procure a fresh example for over a year due to its popularity.
It was a little ironic that Ford rolled out its facelifted version, with new and improved safety features worked into its design, relatively early, and just before the results were announced.
All things considered, it isn’t as though the new Mustang is a flaming deathtrap. Delve into the crash test results and it turns out that if you sat in the front seats, you were going to be pretty well off in the event of a crash. Although it turns out that sitting at the back wasn’t quite as safe. The Mustang managed a pretty decent 72 per cent score in the overall adult occupant rating, while its pedestrian safety score was 64 per cent.
That being said, its overall score was brought down by its child occupant safety rating (32 per cent) and lack of safety assistance features which scored a mere 16 per cent.
So, while you might stand a good chance of walking away from a crash in a Mustang, or being run over one at Cars & Coffee, Australian NCAP branded it a pariah because it won’t do a good job at keeping you away from one.
But is it as bad as it sounds?
According to Euro NCAP, on which the Australian NCAP derives much of its testing standards from, the Mustang only had one out of the four safety assistance systems it factors into the scoring, which was seat belt reminders, with stability control systems made mandatory in 2014. The other three features that the Mustang lacked were speed assistance, autonomous braking intervention, and lane keeping support systems.
For those who buy into the whole “total driving involvement”, that might not sound like the end of the world. But for those who don’t buy into the Mustang historic significance or all that car-culture nonsense, and just wanted a safe and stylish looking coupe, those two stars does put a dent on the Mustang’s sheen.
This surprise rating has elicited sanctimonious responses from pundits who lambasted the Mustang for its poor safety rating, while unironically pining to own a classic car that doesn’t have the Mustang’s modern crash structure, crash safety devices, or brakes for that matter.
That being said, there is a certain level of safety expectations to be had from a brand new car these days, and to be fair, if you are going to use it for your own personal enjoyment and not use it to ferry children around, the Mustang’s safety record is pretty adequate. Only thing is that the Euro NCAP safety ratings, and its many related NCAP organisations around the world, doesn’t see it that way. And that seems to be the general direction the motor industry is heading towards.
The Euro NCAP safety rating is meant to be as easy to digest for the general consumer who couldn’t be bothered with specifics. In the same way, most of us would be clueless when it comes to shopping for washing machines, and will most definitely skim through all the nitty gritty review details of Samsung’s latest Dirt Blaster 3000 just to find that all-important star rating,
An objective safety rating system is essential to police the industry and drive it forward. But it's shifting focus to autonomous driver assistance system underlines a future that may vilify the things we used to love about driving.
It won’t be long before we look at a bare little Lotus Elise with the same sort of indignation as having your Uber driver show up on a horse. Not because you will die horribly in a crash, but because the car won’t see a crash coming, which is so last century.
As much as I hate to say it, but Euro NCAP is setting a right path of placing emphasis on such technologies into their rating system, especially as Europe plans on bringing autonomous cars into reality. And as such cars become the norm, simple cars with no autonomous driver aids with be driven out of the general market. A sad fate no different from that of Cadillac’s gas-guzzling Eldorado and a certain flightless indigenous bird of Mauritius.
It goes to reason that for the hypothetical goal of absolute safety on the road to be achieved, you have to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce at least, the weakest and least controllable element, which is the human driver.
Think of this as achieving “herd immunity”, the principle that as many individuals as possible should be vaccinated to greatly reduce the chance of infection spreading through those who aren’t strong enough to be vaccinated.
We are already seeing the shift of emphasis from crash safety to crash avoidance take place in Euro NCAP tests. In 2009 Euro NCAP started factoring stability control systems into the scoring, and in 2014 it was made mandatory, with any vehicles without such systems made ineligible for testing. That same year autonomous braking and lane-keeping assistance systems were included into their scoring criteria, and it wouldn’t be surprising that such features would be made mandatory by the turn of the next decade.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped companies like Caterham from disregarding the red tape and make barebones cars for the hardcore audience. But not everybody wants to drive around in a "cottage industry" built special, where a screwdriver in your front pocket is a necessity to re-attach some hand-assembled essential part back together on your daily commute home.
We love it when a big manufacturer is able to ignore the accountants to create something as magnificent as the Mustang, or an LFA, or a Veyron. Because while we are drawn to the romance of driving a true-blooded sports car, we can rest easy knowing that huge piles of money and time were thrown at it to ensure that it will work flawlessly come rain or shine. Rather than sending it out into the big scary world with a pat on the back and a generous helping of well-wishes.
And if anything were to go wrong you can pop on by to your neighbourhood dealership for a quick fix right before that road trip you had been looking forward to for months, instead of spending weeks in your garage prying beneath its underbelly trying to figure out where that suspension bolt you only managed to source off eBay had scampered off to.
If big brands are mindful of the NCAP hammer, and the ensuing negative press it generates from producing a car that is anything but zeitgeist, they won’t be so willing to embark on such ‘enthusiast endeavours’ in the future.
While I might not fully agree with Euro NCAP broad stroke in covering autonomous crash avoidance systems into their final scoring, but if it will result in a world that is safer for everyone, then perhaps it is time to embrace and usher the future, rather than resist it. My only caveat is that future generations of car enthusiasts should see the Mustang and its ilk with awe and respect, and not fear or indignation.