A new shadow is over car manufacturers – the revenge of VW

We can feel safer in a car in Europe, than in America. Essentially, this is the function of the new device invented by researchers of Swedish and American road safety institute. The multidisciplinary research team of SAFER – Vehicle and Traffic Safety Centre (Chalmers University of Technology) was led by a Hungarian professional, Andras Balint, doctor of theoretical mathematics, eminent in game theory. We are not the first to ask him why the customer, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers swept the results of the study under the carpet; how the western European media found this study, and why they suddenly became so interested in it? In our interview, Andras Balint only refers to the facts: they proved that cars that passed on the European safety tests are significantly safer than those tested in America – at least if the crash is frontal or lateral. However, cars tested in America provide more safety in the rare case of the car turning upside down.

Peter Zentai: Am I far from the truth if I say that the way American automobile manufacturer giants treated the research you and your colleagues carried out proves their autocracy? It seems they wanted to sweep the results under the carpet…
Andras Balint
: I would refrain from speculation; I would rather stick to the facts. After successfully winning the tender, the AAM (Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers), an alliance of American automobile manufacturer giants entrusted us, the SAFER – Vehicle and Traffic Safety Centre belonging to the Swedish elite university Chalmers, and the Transportation Research Institute at University of Michigan to survey whether there is a practical difference between European and American cars in terms of safety. More precisely, they wanted to know how much difference the approval processes that are based on two standards – the American and the European – make in practice and realistic traffic.

Why were the American automobile manufacturers interested in it?
The possession of such information could affect the global economy. In this case, the study based on our results would fundamentally contribute to reaching an agreement on the transatlantic trade talks more efficiently. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) for example would make selling American cars in Europe significantly easier – compared to the current situation -, and of course, it would provide the same benefits the other way around (the planned harmonization of standards would increase the income of both the USA and the EU by twenty billion euros each year). Of course, the ulterior motive of the American manufacturers was to prove that the difference between the two standards and testing methods bore no significance, making the importance of the harmonization process only a secondary point at the decision-makers’ talk. This way, the harmonization could not have been an excuse for slowing down the negotiations. Our clients might have hoped that this way they could have saved money and time if they had not had to re-test American cars once they entered Europe, since according to the partnership, both parties would accept each other’s testing methods and results…

However, your study contradicted their hopes – maybe this is the reason why your results did not get too much attention. If someone had not sent the results to The Independent, then the world would not have even noticed the issue we are now talking about.
Even though, we published the summary of our study on our websites weeks before…

Your work just got real publicity now that following the British, other European papers gave it a signal boost. Do you think it is a coincidence? Doesn’t the timing make you wonder…?
It seems, some believe that the topic has a connection to the Volkswagen-scandal…

I was wondering too, whether it was in certain European manufacturers’ interest such as Volkswagen to deliver a counterattack – supported by this study – to the American competitors that could make profit from Volkswagen’s test result fraud.
My personal opinion – as an individual – is not relevant. I can only take part in any debate in my field of expertise. However, we can take it as a fact that our client, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has never put any pressure on us in order to affect the outcome of the research. It put out invitations to tender, and we won. From that point, I can only talk about the study and its methods.

How can you tell which cars – the American or the European – are safer?
We compared data from actual accidents. The most difficult and essential part of our work was developing statistical models for the American and the European cars based on their crashes and their frequency. It was absolutely challenging for researchers because they did not have to analyse data from America and Europe only but they had to compare data from the members of the European Union as well. Another obstacle we had to overcome was that the information entered into accident databases are different in every country, since authorities are using different methods to gather and analyse accident statistics.
This way the partial statistical data often result in significantly more different interpretations in America than in Europe. However, this issue was encountered within the EU countries too. Harmonizing such a massive data set requires immense time and creativity from researchers.

Still, you managed to produce professional and understandable statistical models for both Europe and America. What is your conclusion?
Those passengers driving cars which got vehicle licence according to European standards and criteria can feel safer than in American automobiles, in case their car crashes from the front or from the sides. However, cars approved based on American standards are safer than Europeans if they turn upside down. Even though, the latter case is far more dangerous and has more severe consequences, they are much rarer than crashes with impacts from the front or the lateral sides.

In the light of the results of the study, do you agree with the recent report of the European Transport Safety Council that says European representatives would risk the life of thousands if they underestimated the significance of the difference between the American and the European control and statistical standards?
I agree. Since our study clearly shows that significantly more people would be in danger or die in road accidents involving frontal or lateral crashes in Europe if we allowed vehicles approved by American standards to enter our roads without any form of secondary testing based on European standards. Of course, it would be just as an irresponsible move if it did not happen vice versa: if European vehicles were not tested by American standards as well.

Original date of Hungarian publication: October 6, 2015