In China's booming SUV market safety may not come as standard
In China's booming sport utility vehicle (SUV) market, many automakers are selling cars without electronic stability control (ESC) as a standard feature, potentially putting lives at risk from rollover accidents.
SUV sales topped six million in China last year, a jump of more than 50pc in an overall market that grew less than 5pc, as drivers sought more room for their money.
As China's economy weakens, price-conscious drivers have shifted from foreign brands to cheaper domestic SUVs.
To make the sale, many carmakers and dealers only offer ESC as an extra, more expensive, option.
SUVs have a higher centre of gravity, putting them more at risk of rolling over.
ESC counteracts that, quickly reorienting a skidding vehicle to stop it from rolling.
A study published by 'Annals of Advances in Automotive Medicine' found that vehicles with ESC are two-thirds less likely to flip.
There is no legal requirement in China for ESC, and German parts maker Bosch says 43pc of SUVs do not come equipped with this technology.
Industry experts note that China, the world's biggest autos market, similarly doesn't legally require anti-lock brakes, and other developing markets including India and Mexico do not require air bags.
In 2007, following a series of SUV rollovers, the United States ordered ESC to be compulsory in all passenger vehicles. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) estimated the change saved more than 2,200 lives over a three-year period.
"ESC saves lives," said Chris Harrison, head of China R&D at Continental AG, another German car parts and technology firm.
China's Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, generally responsible for regulating the industry, did not respond to faxed questions about whether there are plans to make ESC compulsory.
Among the 10 best-selling SUVs in China last year, seven did not have ESC as a standard feature.
Those included cars made by Great Wall Motor, Chongqing Changan Automobile, Anhui Jianghuai Automobile (JAC) and Chery Automobile, according to company representatives and officially published specifications.
The three foreign models in the top 10 are universally equipped with the safety feature, but some cheaper foreign SUVs also do not have ESC as standard in China.
BYD, Guangzhou Automobile Group and Geely said some of their models do not have stability control as standard, but it is often available on higher cost packages.
Most of the automakers said their SUVs complied with regulations and reflected consumer demand.
A spokesman for Chery said that with this year's model all its Tiggo SUVs come with ESC. JAC and Guangzhou Auto said sales of SUVs without ESC are very low and were part of a pricing strategy to attract customers. Geely said the majority of its third-generation vehicles have ESC. Great Wall, Changan and BYD declined to comment.
It's hard to gauge whether the lack of ESC in so many SUVs sold in China has contributed to more fatalities.
In the United States, detailed information on every fatal road crash is made publicly available, but in China, crash records and data are often considered state secrets. (Reuters)