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With The Idea That Safety Sells, Crash Testing Has Grown Up

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Safety sells vehicles. It sounds like a given now, but not too many years back most automakers would explain that safety alone doesn't sell a car but features or performance do.

Over the past ten years, thanks to a heightened awareness of crash-test results—from the IIHS and NHTSA in the U.S.—it's emerged as one of the top five considerations for many car shoppers. Especially family-minded ones.

While automakers have been conducting crash tests for many decades, this area of the business itself has changed dramatically in recent years. Crash testing "used to be hardware driven, now it's math-driven," said Albert Ware, the director of GM's Vehicle Safety Lab, a 400,000-square-foot facility at the automaker's Milford proving ground campus. Now, over 100 math models are built and then run (in simulation) for every one physical barrier test.

No more trial and error

Removing that old trial-and-error process of "crash it, fix it, then crash it again," out of the development routine is one of the single more important factors that's helped cut vehicle development times from the four and a half years of more than a decade ago down to as short as 18 months now, Ware says.

According to Tech Center engineering group manager Ken Bonello, company safety experts now start working on a vehicle long before any physical examples are built. Engineers will examine virtual builds first, methodically 'building' the entire vehicle, then fine-tune details prior to development prototypes.

The reliance on mathematical analysis and simulations has reduced the number of physical cars GM crashes. While the number crashed for each model used to be in the hundreds, according to Bonello, it's now in the tens—with less than 40 prototypes of the North American-market 2011 Chevrolet Cruze crashed.

The basics of how those physical crash-tests have been conducted haven't changed very much in decades. GM has been testing at the same site since the 1930s, with barrier tests conducted against a 140,000 block that has withstood thousands of crash tests for cars, trucks, and even buses. The cable system that pulls vehicles through to the barrier can bring a 10,000-pound vehicle up to 80 mph, and the facility has tested at up to 78 mph. It cost about $5 million for the company's newest sled—the platform mechanism that mounts the vehicle and houses all the instruments—bought just a few years ago.

Data for dummies, anyone?

General Motors crash-test dummies

General Motors crash-test dummies

Enlarge Photo
General Motors crash-test dummies

General Motors crash-test dummies

Enlarge Photo
With each sled test, the facility can capture more than 72,000 individual stills, along with motion footage. That includes up to 12 onboard cameras in the vehicle alone. Each test also has the capability for 270 channels of data being recorded. And that's not counting the individual instruments—GM has more than 14,000 of them—some mounted on the vehicles that are crashed, others used to gauge the damage afterward.

So after each test is run, there's a lot to study.

The physical testing still of course relies heavily on results from crash-test dummies. GM has more than 400 dummies, with more than 200 at its Milford facility—with the latest advanced dummies costing between $100,000 and $150,000 each. GM says it has about $20 million in dummies altogether.

Dummies are costly just to have sitting on the shelf. The typical one has about 70 different sensors and accelerometers, and they have very strict maintenance and calibration requirements—for instance, GM makes about 2,175 time-consuming calibrations annually on its dummies, as they're a lot more than steel, vinyl, rubber, and foam.

All said, engineering for safety is no longer the optional task it once was, and although safety does sell cars you can bet that it adds up to a very significant chunk of the cost of a new car.

Check out the video below for group engineering manager Paul Simpson's explanation of what goes on at the Vehicle Safety Lab.

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  1. There is one crash test that all new parents would like to see, a crash test that shows child car seats in the rear facing position in a rear end accident. Rear end accidents are more common than front end collisions and when a parent is told to put their child backwards they are usually under the impression it's to protect their child in the event of front end collisions. But.... the youngest and most fragile passengers are riding backwards and they have a higher opportunity to have neck and brain injuries from a rear end collision. When will this rear end test, with a rear facing crash test baby be shown to the public? What device is their for parents to buy that protects their new born's from neck and brain injuries while riding backwards when involved in a rear end accident at a traffic stop?
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