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Safety in numbers: A look at Thatcham’s safety work

By / 5 years ago / Features / No Comments

A vital part of Europe’s automotive industry since 1969, insurance owned independent organisation Thatcham has played a huge role in reducing running costs for fleets. Alex Grant finds out how.

Thatcham Crash Dummy

Thatcham’s work benefits not only safety, but running costs too.

A simpler repair

Each year, Thatcham puts around 40 vehicles through a three‐to‐six week assessment, finding the most efficient way to repair them after an accident.

Although this might sound like a peripheral concern to fleets, the benefits go beyond the bodyshop industry.

All new models are launched with a set of repair methods; instructions for bodyshops to return the car to its original condition and safety performance. But they’re often inconsistent in the way they present data, and can be costly – up to £5,000 per manufacturer.

That’s where Thatcham can help. For nearly 50 years, it’s developed its own, insurer‐approved methods, aimed at streamlining the process. Data is presented in a standardised format, showing not only how to dismantle and repair the car, but listing parts to order in advance and showing potential breakages and safety hazards. It’s all tailored towards common damage and workshop equipment, and offered at a more reasonable £1,600 per year.

Speed is of the element: “On volume selling vehicles, which are therefore likely to have higher repair volume, we would conduct an extremely detailed repair analysis and methodology on all areas of the car,” explains Dean Lander, head of operations at Thatcham. “On vehicles that sell less volume it may be decided that the best way of ensuring that the method is available as quickly as possible would be to look at producing repair methods initially on the most commonly damaged areas of the car.”

Andrew Hooker, future vehicle engineer, says this has become significantly more challenging recently, particularly regarding the need for diagnostic equipment on modern vehicles. It’s common for cars to need computer resets or recalibration, now including items such as steering wheel angle sensors, radar and cameras for safety equipment and capacitors for Stop/Start systems.

And that’s just the start, Hooker explains: “The last decade has seen a marked increase in new technologies including the use of high strength steels and composite materials, such as carbon fibre, in vehicle construction; the increasing popularity of both hybrid and fully electric vehicles and the use of more advanced sensor and camera systems as the enabler for a wide range of Advanced Driver Assist Systems. As these safety systems become even more advanced and with the advent of internet connectivity we will continue to see rapid change.”

Safer, and more secure

Thatcham’s extensive technical knowledge has led it to be a contributor to the insurance Group Rating system since the 1980s, taking over administration in 2001. Its work informs 70% of the data used to rate a new car, which means the organisation has a deciding role in the cost of premiums – something manufacturers can’t ignore if they want to remain competitive.

This isn’t just based on performance or desirability, vulnerability to expensive repairs is a factor. Good bumper skin design, for example, can avoid more expensive repair of other panels, while energy‐absorbing parts behind can protect the structure of the car. Smart design goes beyond aesthetics; it affects whole‐life costs too.

However, repairs are becoming more expensive, says Landers: “This is partly due to new technology, for example Xenon headlamps. In one example the cost of a headlamp on the highest trim level is over £800 ‐ where at the lowest trim level it is a far more reasonable £275. This can clearly have a significant impact on the overall cost of repair and, in the case of headlamps, this obviously relates to a particularly vulnerable area, which is very likely to sustain some level of damage in a crash.”

Arguably, though, Thatcham’s best known work relates to vehicle security. The Group Rating system has been instrumental in encouraging much higher levels of factory‐fitted equipment, and it’s had a significant effect. Annual vehicle thefts reduced from 600,000 to 100,000 since the organisation began assessing security systems in the mid‐1990s, saving an annual £300m per year in claims. Savings which are reflected in premiums.

However, while that’s cut the opportunists out, the ongoing challenge is ‘professional’ gangs with specialist equipment to hack into on‐board diagnostic (OBD) ports and programme new keys. Thatcham recently began assessing the security of diagnostic ports, advising manufacturers on ways to encrypt access and also accrediting physical shields which stop people getting at the port in the first place. It’s also the latest member of the Cyber Security Consortium for Connected Vehicles, readying itself for an industry with products which are likely to become progressively more vulnerable to cyber attack.

From Passive, to Active

One of a handful of Euro NCAP‐approved test centres, Thatcham has a role in deciding the safety ratings of new vehicles – still a vital component of the decision‐making process for fleet and private buyers. It’s also been instrumental in introducing new test procedures in its time as a member.

Among them, the organisation is working to protect occupants against whiplash, an injury which costs insurers £2bn per year in claims. Testing showed well‐designed headrests can offer 40% better protection than a bad one, according to director of research, Matthew Avery, while rear‐seat headrests have been included in the Euro NCAP test since 2014.

However, reducing whiplash claims is more complicated, Avery adds: “There hasn’t been a huge reduction, it’s a difficult problem. A lot are fraudulent and insurers say it’s the claims culture which is responsible. One reason we’re so keen to promote Autonomous Emergency Braking is that it’s actively reducing whiplash claims. Those are benefits we can prove; it’s preventing the crash in the first place.”

But AEB is almost always optional, and fleet take‐up is lower than in privately‐owned vehicles. Avery says studies have shown it can reduce crash rates by 45%, but the extra cost is problematic as it’s not reflected in residual values. But the insurance industry is recognising the benefits with reduced premiums, of up to 10%, which could start to change attitudes. It’s the start of a longer road towards driverless cars.

Thatcham is part of the Autonomous Driving for Insurance group, formed with the ABI, which is bringing insurers together to get better understanding of the benefits and challenges of this technology, ahead of the first hands‐free regulations arriving in 2018. Chief among which, it’s working out a streamlined way to work out liability – avoiding lengthy, expensive legal battles – after an accident. So, while new technology might be making repairs more complicated, it could also be a vital component of reducing the risk of an accident happening in the first place.

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Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.