Price was the priority for Wang Peng when he bought his first car in 2002 and he came away with a US$3,500 locally-made Chery.
Five years later, Wang is back in the market for a vehicle but his priorities have changed. Safety was uppermost in his mind as he toured the 2007 Shanghai Auto show.
Wang, a Shanghai-based industrial engineer, is part of a new wave of Chinese car owners that put a premium on higher safety standards, said Kelvin Zhang, a spokesperson for Hainan-based Haima motors.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 600 people are killed and a further 45,000 injured on China's roads everyday. Drivers who violate traffic rules are responsible for 86.3% of traffic-related deaths and 77.3% of injuries. By 2020 the number of traffic-related fatalities could hit half a million per year.
Meanwhile, Chinese cars have consistently failed European and America safety standards. Geely's newest Free Cruiser sedan received the lowest score of two stars out of a possible five in crash tests while Chery's B5 and BYT's F3 both received three stars each. Last year, the German Automobile Club gave a two-ton Chinese 4×4 zero stars, predicting that the driver would be incapable of surviving a 40 miles-per-hour head-on collision.
In response to these dismal statistics, automakers are increasingly performing crash tests overseas. Haima, for example, now tests its cars in England under European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) Standards. In July 2006, China launched its own New Car Assessment Program that applies to vehicles exported to the US. The test rates cars on their ability to withstand front, side and rear-end collisions.
Producing safer cars is expensive. The average domestic car price in China is US$6,500 – adjustments to meet international safety and emissions requirements could add up to US$2,000 to the price tag, said Wang.
However, a reputation for quality and safety has kept local customers flocking to foreign-branded autos. In a car market that sold nearly 7.2 million vehicles in 2006 to become the world's second largest behind the US, both domestic manufacturers and industry associations see the benefits of moving up the value chain.
In March, German auto parts maker Bosch partnered with the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers to invest US$231 million in car safety technology this year to reduce road accidents in China.
The plan includes investing in research, development, and test facilities that includes a vehicle verification road in Suzhou. Ultimately, this is all part of a push to avoid turning a car ride into a life-threatening experience.
"Consumers are pickier now than ever before, but this is expected in a booming economy with rising incomes," said Zhang. "Air bags and sturdier cars are becoming bigger issues because of China's rising traffic fatality rates."