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Cheap cars lack safety

Safety features are accepted in high-end luxury cars from Mercedes-Benz but remain out of reach on some cheaper cars.

Active safety features like electronic stability control are bypassing the most-needed segment in the car market - budget cars, according to Singapore-based engineering executive, Robert Tan.

With the global explosion of new budget cars from markets like India and China, these systems are critical to help save lives, particularly among younger buyers looking for a cheap car, he says.  "Governments need to be more pro-active to add these potentially life-saving devices into ultra-low and low-cost cars," he says.

"It's not happening fast enough on low-cost cars, those under $15,000."  Tan cost prohibited the full suite of safety features migrating from high-end luxury cars to mid to low-end vehicles.

Such systems are accepted in high-end luxury cars from Mercedes-Benz but remain out of reach on cars like the Tata Nano, he says.  Tan is the engineering director of automotive electronics company Infineon Technologies, which builds safety systems for cars.

Unlike passive safety systems like airbags, which only come into use during an accident, Tan says active safety systems are just as important.  "They help drivers avoid an accident in the first place," he says.

He argues that seatbelt reminder lights and active brake lights are relatively cheap to install on low-cost cars, yet very few have them.  Tan also wants intelligent speed limiters, drowsiness detection devices and brake assist systems in budget cars.

"They are proven to work in high-end cars but are largely unavailable on low-cost cars," he says.  These systems could be piggy-backed on to existing technologies that are already in some cars, he says.

All these things could create an "electronic safety cocoon" for occupants.  European figures already show that electronic stability control systems have helped reduce fatal accidents by more than 30 per cent.

Australia will mandate ESC on all cars and off-roaders from November next year and all vehicles from November 2013.  Tan, who was in Melbourne this week to address a Society of Automotive Engineers Australia safety conference, concedes that cost remains a big hurdle to some of the newer safety systems.

"It is difficult to develop something like radar cruise control on a $5000 vehicle," he says.  However, he says there is no reason low-cost cars should not get seatbelt reminders, speed limiters and brake assist.

"The challenges are cost, then there is original equipment maker acceptance and consumer acceptance," he says.  "Lastly legislation - without legislation there would be no pro-active safety systems."