Off the band wagon

3 min read

Steps have been taken to shame 4x4 users into thinking green and ‘SUVs with a conscience’ are coming on to the market, but questions over pedestrian safety remain. Julia Pierce reports

Despite what their owners think of them, 4x4s have never been the most popular vehicles on the road.

Disliked by many for their fuel consumption, emissions and their sheer volume of metal, they now face a further indignity before they have even set a wheel to the school run: the official badge of eco-shame.

From 1 September, the government has announced that all vehicles in car showrooms will have to display an A4 card containing data on their CO2 emissions and estimated fuel costs for travelling 12,000 miles.

As with white goods, the vehicles will be placed in efficiency bands from A to F. Each band corresponds to the amount of road tax the new owner will pay under the existing Variable Excise Duty (VED), the aim being to encourage shoppers to think of the environmental cost of their purchase. While leaner burners will be badged with various shades of green, petrol and diesel guzzlers will be forced to display their guilt in embarrassing crimson.

But anyone expecting the development of a clear sliding scale from small green cars to large, red-banded ones may be in for a surprise.

A new generation of off-road vehicles is being introduced using hybrid technology, which will allow them to push into a lower band — much to the dismay of their detractors.

In recent weeks two so-called ‘SUVs with a conscience’ have been previewed. First came the Lexus RX400h, which uses the same hybrid electric engine as its parent company Toyota’s Prius to achieve the fuel economy and emissions levels of a Ford Mondeo. This was followed by the GMC Graphyte, designed and built at Coventry’s GM Advanced Studio, whose hybrid engine promises a 25 per cent improvement in fuel economy on a standard non-hybrid model.

GM in particular is marketing its vehicle as providing guilt-free performance. But is environmental acceptability the key to winning over the public?

Despite conflicting evidence, 4x4s are also seen as a safety menace to other road users — whether they are in standard-sized cars, on two wheels or on foot. Over 6,000 pedestrians and cyclists are killed annually on EU roads, amounting to around a quarter of all road deaths. In the UK 71 per cent of these occur at impact speeds under 40mph, and 85 per cent are injured by the front of the vehicle.

Chairman of the Euro NCAP (new car assessment programme) Prof Claes Tingvall has been critical of the speed of the introduction of pedestrian protection regulations, noting that every day five people die and 115 are injured in what the World Health Organisation has called ‘a global catastrophe’.

New EU safety directives, phase one of which are due to come into law this October, will set tough injury limits for pedestrian impacts. Last year The Engineer reported that structural specialists will face the challenge of designing vehicles that can absorb sufficient impact to reduce pedestrian injury, while retaining sufficient strength to serve their purpose and protect vehicle occupants in collisions.

The requirements set injury limits for three types of impact for new vehicles and those going through mid-life updates: lower leg to bumper, an alternative upper leg to bumper test for off-road vehicles and child/small adult head to bonnet.

Based on an impact speed of 25mph, the requirement will limit the force of an impact to prevent it breaking a pedestrian’s legs. Upper leg to bonnet leading edge and adult head to bonnet impacts will also have to be measured, but no pass or fail level will be specified.

These will pave the way for more stringent criteria that will come into effect in 2010. The legislation could save around 1,000 lives a year across the EU and prevent 40,000 serious injuries.

The goal for manufacturers is to improve front-end design, so that the protection offered to pedestrians more closely mirrors the performance for occupants.

‘Some good three-star vehicles came through in November 2004 — for example the Citroën C4 and the Seat Altea. We will see more vehicles that resemble the design of these in the future,’ said Gary Brown, principal engineer for pedestrian protection and crashworthiness at automotive industry research body MIRA, which has been conducting in-depth research in this area.

One 4x4, the UK-built Honda CR-V, is just one of a handful of models to gain three stars out of a maximum of four in NCAP pedestrian protection tests, and is testament to the fact that 4x4s and safer design are not mutually incompatible concepts.

But while SUV makers are pushing their green credentials, pedestrian safety is still on the back burner. According to Graham Lawrence, head of pedestrian protection research at the Transport Research Laboratory, with the exception of very few manufacturers such as Honda, no one has made changes that would help pedestrians, regardless of the size of car they produce. This owes much to the fact that consumers barely consider pedestrian safety when choosing a car.

‘My theory is that hitting a pedestrian is something that most drivers block from their mind,’ said Lawrence. ‘Going green makes them feel good and the vehicle also costs less to drive. Affecting someone outside the car doesn’t affect their family or wallet.

However, drink driving was once seen as macho; that is unacceptable now, and I think this may go the same way.’

Neither of the two new hybrid SUVs mentioned pedestrian safety measures at their launch and Toyota was unable to confirm whether their RX400h would include any of the design elements that allowed the Honda CR-V to gain three stars in its NCAP tests.

While efforts to improve the image of larger vehicles through fuel consumption and emissions improvements may be laudable, the same attention does not yet appear to be going into pedestrian safety. So it seems that 4x4s are likely to attract the attention of campaigners for some time to come.