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Crash testing for your safety

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Crash testing is a key measure that vehicle manufacturers adopt to improve the safety record of their cars.

Smash hit…collision between a new Accord and a CR-V at Honda’s well-known crash test facility near Tokyo.
Smash hit…collision between a new Accord and a CR-V at Honda’s well-known crash test facility near Tokyo.

S. Muralidhar

Automobile safety testing in the Indian context is relatively simplistic. For international car models that are sold in India, much of the safety testing is done in the country of origin, and for the models that are India-specific a few safety features are just carried forward from earlier or existing models.

An overwhelming majority of Indian mass market cars only feature a few passive safety features, and active safety equipment is almost non-existent. Safety equipment such as ABS and airbags are only now beginning to be offered as optional additions in cars in the compact and entry-sedan categories; these have been part of standard fitment in all cars in most countries.

In fact, this is why the safety ratings that have been awarded to global car models in India will still be misleading if they are not offered with all the safety equipment that the same models have as standard fitment abroad.

Safety standards are very stringent in Western Europe, and in other advanced markets such as the US and Japan. A lot is set store by the safety ratings awarded to a particular car model. These ratings affect the car’s market potential, rankings in customer satisfaction studies and even the annual insurance premium — higher the safety rating, the lower the premium.

To score high safety ratings and, of course, to also build on their image as a responsible corporate citizen, car manufacturers invest heavily in developing new in-vehicle safety equipment and also for setting up safety testing facilities for their cars. Safety testing by manufacturers helps them understand better the dynamics involved in the event of a collision.

Vehicle safety testing also helps gauge the reliability and effectiveness of the safety equipment provided in the model being tested. In addition to the car manufacturers’ own vehicle testing, in many advanced automobile markets such as the US, independent organisations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) conduct safety tests for purposes of ratings. Other organisations that conduct crash safety tests include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, European New Car Assessment Programme (EuroNCAP) and Japan NCAP.

What is a crash test?

Of all the safety testing that is conducted by the manufacturers and these organisations, the most spectacular and the most expensive is crash testing. Thousands of cars are smashed to smithereens every year in a controlled environment to evaluate the effect of the simulated accident on the car’s occupants.

This is the crash test — a type of simulated collision of a vehicle or vehicles that enables the recreation of the dynamics of a real world accident situation inside a test facility. The crash test enables the manufacturer or other testing organisation to gauge the vehicle’s design strengths and weaknesses, reliability and performance of the car’s safety features and also the crash compatibility of the car with established standards.

There are other tests too that are conducted to assess the vehicle’s overall safety, such as vehicle rollover stability and brake testing. But crash testing is the most spectacular and the most expensive of the lot, as it literally involves the destruction of fully built, fully-equipped roadworthy vehicles. The value of cars crashed every year for testing purposes runs into millions of dollars.

We were witness to a crash test at Honda’s famous omni-directional vehicle-to-vehicle crash test facility in the Tochigi R&D centre, near Tokyo, Japan. The crash photo that is presented here is that of a test involving a frontal offset collision between a spanking new Honda Accord and a Honda CR-V. It is the closest we got to get a ringside view of a frontal collision.

This Honda facility is the world’s first indoor all-weather facility of its type. In addition to standard barrier tests, the facility tests in situations that simulate actual traffic accidents between vehicles.

Considered to be one of the most sophisticated facilities in the world, Honda’s omni-directional crash test facility was unveiled in the year 2000. On average the facility crash tests about 1,000 vehicles annually, enabling the company to fine-tune its safety technologies and innovations before they are applied to all Honda cars sold around the world. Honda’s own G-Force Control Technology had been tested here before making it to the company’s cars.

Types of crash tests

To test their car’s safety performance under various conditions and during varied types of crashes, vehicle manufacturers crash test their cars from different angles, different sides and with different objects, including other vehicles. The most common types of crash tests that are conducted by most manufacturers and independent testing organizations are:

Front impact test: This is often thought to be the simulation of a commonly occurring real world crash, where two vehicles meet with a ‘full-frontal’ collision. While, this is not the most common type of collision on the road, this is however, a good test for evaluating the safety performance of a test vehicle.

The test car in a front or frontal impact test is mechanically dragged to collide with a standard fixed barrier like a solid concrete wall or other vehicle at a specific speed.

Front offset crash test: Here the test vehicle is positioned to collide with a fixed barrier or other vehicle in such a way that only a portion (usually the driver’s side in real world situations) or half of the vehicle takes the full force of the impact. This is a very important and oft-repeated crash test, as it is a common type of collision that takes place when two drivers are trying to steer their vehicles and avoid each other at the last moment. It is also a good indicator of the vehicles’ inherent safety, as only half of the car has to absorb the full impact of the collision.

Side impact test: This test is performed usually to see the safety performance of equipment such as side intrusion beams and side impact air bags. There is a high incidence of fatalities in this type of accident and carmakers are trying to perfect technologies that can dramatically improve the chances of survival of the occupants.

Other tests like the Rollover test, the S-test, the Moose test, or the Elk test, where the car’s stability is tested when the vehicle is put through a manoeuvre where it has to avoid an obstacle on the road, switch lanes and get back into the original lane after avoiding the obstacle, while driving at a pre-fixed speed.

To assess the effect of the impact on the car’s occupants during a crash test, manufacturers use crash dummies. Crash test dummies are just that, full-scale replicas of the average car driver and/or passenger. These dummies are carefully calibrated and manufactured with complex joints and artificial spinal columns to replicate the movement of the human body while being seated in the car being crash tested. Made with plastic and proprietary polymer, these crash test dummies can reveal the precise type and extent of injury that an occupant would suffer in the event of a collision.

These crash test dummies are fitted with sensors and instruments to record a considerable load of data regarding speed of impact, the bending force exerted by the impact on the dummy, effect of deceleration forces and the safety performance of air bags.

While assigning the safety ratings for vehicles that have been crash tested, testing agencies and carmakers look at the extent of damage that the car has had and also look at the potential injury caused to the head, chest, neck, abdomen and lower legs of the dummies.

Crash testing is a key measure that vehicle manufacturers adopt to improve the safety record of their cars. In India, the only company that is currently engaged in domestic crash testing is Tata Motors.

There will be more in the future when the proposed testing infrastructure under the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRIP) is set up.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated December 9, 2007)
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