Norma Hubele has a vision.
And if you drive a motor vehicle, you may want to pay attention to it.
The Ahwatukee professor has put her impressive academic accomplishments in mathematics, engineering and statistics into developing a website – theautoprofessor.com – that grades thousands of makes and models of vehicles on the likelihood of death from a crash.
“I have a vision that the way people buy cars will change as a consequence of my auto grades,” she said. “And that part of that vision is that when you go on to these car advertising websites, that in addition to looking at the price tag and miles on the car – the power of the engine, the color of the car –the auto grades would be part of your criteria. My mission is to change the way people choose their cars.”
She spent more than a year crunching numbers and other information from the fatal accident reports all law enforcement agencies have been required for years to send to the U.S. Department of Transportation and its National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
As a result, users can go to the website and, without charge, plug in not just a model, year and make – but their own age and gender as well – to find Hubele’s statistically-driven assessment of what that historical data says about the protection that vehicle provides.
Hubele said her site offers a far greater level of assurance and evaluation than the ratings by either the NHTSA or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety because those two agencies base much of their evaluation on the results of front-end collisions with dummies.
Almost always, she found, they hand out four or five-star ratings – which belie the tragic reality contained in the reports Hubele used.
For example, the overall federal safety rating for a 2018 Toyota Corolla is five stars.
But theautoprofessor.com gives it an overall B- grade – and C- for women drivers over 51 and C for male drivers in that age bracket. The grades are slightly higher – B to B- – for younger drivers. The C grade means, as the website explains, “This car is at or below average in terms of driver protection.”
Her grades are based on statistical probabilities.
“Say that you hear about a three-car pileup on the radio and somebody died,” she said. “My grades will tell you what occupant of what car was most likely to die. Not everybody dies in a fatal crash. People walk away. Unfortunately, there’s somebody who perished. My grades will give you the probabilities.
“You know if you got a C car and a B car, it’s more likely the fatality was in a C-rated car. So, with that, the problem is that the current rating systems don’t give you that level of distinction. Since 2011, the federal government has rated 96 percent of all their vehicles as either four or five stars.”
With that in mind, Hubele talks passionately about her hopes for the long-term impact of her website.
“We’ve got to get over the hump of people thinking that safety is associated with imitation crash,” she asserted. “We’re offering people the information so that they can provide the best protection for their families.”
“The ratings that the federal government creates are totally based on imitation crashes they create in a laboratory,” Hubele said.
“That system has been pulling the wool over the American public’s eyes for years,” she added. “People will get a car and they’re going to get a warm fuzzy because the feds gave it a four-star rating when in fact it might be a death trap.”
Besides, she notes, the foundation of her grades reflects a stark reality, given that they involve fatal crash victims:
“They died. Why aren’t we learning from these tragedies so that we can move people out of the cars that are causing these tragedies and move them into better cars with better protection?”
The ivory tower meets the road
There’s more than a little authority behind Hubele’s work.
First, there’s the academic side.
She is now professor emeritus, but during her 20+ year career at Arizona State University, she held the position of director of strategic initiatives for the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at Arizona State University.
Hubele graduated magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in math. She followed her master’s in operations research and statistics with a doctorate in computer and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
After earning her Ph.D., she also became co-owner and vice president for quality control in a Chandler company called Refrac System, which her husband Norman founded after leaving corporate life.
In a kind of feminist jab, her website notes that she was the first ASU engineering school professor to get pregnant. When asked about that, she smiles and notes that with more than 100 professors, she was only the third woman to join the engineering school faculty and soon after was pregnant with her daughter, a Mountain Pointe High School graduate.
But Hubele is no ivory tower academician.
She has put that background to work in the courtroom, testifying over three decades as an expert witness in more than 120 consumer-related cases ranging from the way golf clubs are made to the reliability of guardrails, mortgage fraud to the safety of child seats in vehicles.
But her biggest area of work has involved motor vehicles – including several cases involving the old Ford Crown Victorias once used by police officers with deadly results.
In the 1990s and early part of this century, at least several dozen officers across the country died – and still more suffered horrific burns – after their Crown Vics collided with other motor vehicles. The patrol vehicles burst into flames because the fuel tank had been positioned by the manufacturer over the rear axle and were subjected to punctures that would cause explosions.
A trail of product liability cases involving Crown Vics cost the manufacturer untold millions.
Hubele testified in several – including the most celebrated locally, involving Phoenix officer Jason Schectertle, who was severely burned in March 2001 when his patrol car was rammed from behind by a taxi.
Schecterle spent years recovering from his injuries and settled his lawsuit in 2004. Though he suffered lifelong disfiguring injuries, he has become a beloved Valley figure and has worked on behalf of a variety of charitable causes.
Ford stopped producing Crown Vics in 2011.
Strictly by the numbers
Hubele’s expertise becomes a potent weapon in court through her painstaking study of statistics, something that she started making her career on when data processing involved punch cards and mammoth computers.
Typically, she said, a manufacturer of anything doesn’t want to hear about statistics although “a product liability case is all about that.”
When it comes to vehicles, she explained, “there’s an attribute about the vehicle that under these circumstances caused the death or injury of my client. But the typical defense on the part of the automotive industry is ‘we’re no worse than anybody else or that’s how the industry works. You know this is how the technology is introduced and we didn’t have that technology in that car.’”
“Everything I do is data driven…What I tried to do for the courts is I try to describe what this organization did and how I look at it differently. So, it’s always been – and I’ve always looked at it – as an educational mission.”
“Cars on the road are different than one in the lab where they are tested. For one, a human is driving the car. Safety has been around since cars were invented. The automobile industries want to ensure that their customers are safe on the road, but they are also concerned about their safety rating is determined by an algorithm that measures impact by sensors placed around crash test dummies.
“These federal safety star ratings have played a big role, but now we find ourselves in a new age with new information at our disposal. That’s where the auto professor comes in. We take real, on-the-road crash data and use it to form our own safety grades. These ratings are not formed in a lab. They are formed on our roads and our cities with the cars we are driving now.”
The information that formed the basis for her grading system probably can be broken down into 50 or more types – the age of the driver, the car, even the vehicle identification number.
“We looked at over 150,000 records since 2001,” Hubele said. That translated into more than 4,200 makes and model years that were analyzed.
Not surprisingly, the knowledge she has amassed from these reports carries a personal impact.
Hubele drives an Acura – which got an A- in her grading system.
After Hubele became a grandmother, she has used her knowledge to coax a somewhat reluctant daughter into buying a vehicle with a much higher grade than the one she had been driving.
She envisions people using her grades not only when they buy a vehicle but when they rent one as well.
She thinks it should be something parents use not only when they buy a new vehicle but before they pass down their old one to their child.
But ultimately, she wants the auto industry to use her grades to make safer vehicles.
“We as an organization have recognized that the auto industry and everything surrounding the auto industry doesn’t change …unless they absolutely have to,” Hubele said. “We’re out to educate the public so that the public starts demanding that. So that when a car buyer goes into a dealership, they’re asking the salesman, ‘Well, how does this rank with the auto professor?’”