While many of Japan's auto manufacturers are restructuring and creating revival plans in order to stay afloat, Honda seems to keep going from strength to strength. During the week of the Tokyo Motor Show, TheCarConnection spent a day at Honda's impressive crash-test center and test track in Tochigi, some 80 miles north of Tokyo.
The world's first indoor all-weather, vehicle-to-vehicle crash test center opened in 2000 and is as large (41,000 sq. m) as the Detroit Tigers’ stadium.
Upon entering the center you immediately feel as if you have been dropped in the middle of the final apocalyptic scene from a James Bond movie. As the facility is prepared for a crash there's even a sense of being at a public execution. The sounds as the large garage doors, located around half of the arena, are lowered builds up the tension. Then from the control center suspended over the center of the “stage” comes the count down. Ten seconds later the car starts accelerating from its garage and -- BANG! -- it's all over.
The first crash demonstration for the visitors assembled in the gallery is of a car hitting a dummy pedestrian. The dummy is suspended from the ceiling by a cable that is released so that it is free standing at the instant it is about to be hit by the car. The “accident” is over in a flash as the dummy is struck by the car at 40 kph. The pedestrian hits the windshield and is thrown forward rather than being tossed to the side or over the roof much to everyone's surprise.
We get to go down on the floor to see the results. High-speed cameras located all round the center of the facility record every angle of the crash. Within minutes these digital cameras replay the accident on monitors at slow speed, so the engineers can view the results and study the damage done to the dummy that are recorded by various sensors in its body. Physically, the dummy does not look too bad — but if he had been real he would have been in bad shape or dead judging by the horrific way his body is “bent” during the crash.
This POLAR II dummy is the second version of an intelligent dummy conceived and designed by Honda R&D, but built by GESAC in the U.S., to test the safety of cars when they hit pedestrians. Honda is one of only a handful of crash centers in the world that conducts crashes involving pedestrians. Research in this area is very important for crowded countries such as Japan and is already leading to more pedestrian friendly cars. For example, the shape and position of windshield wiper blades has been modified so they do not cause serious head injuries. Industry safety standards already dictate that a hood must have space underneath so that it can collapse a certain distance before hitting a hard part of an engine. This is so that the impact is less harsh for a pedestrian landing on the hood of a car.
Offsets and write-offs
A second crash test demonstration features a Honda Civic crashing head-on at a 10-percent offset into an Acura RL. Both these cars are old road test cars from California that have to be destroyed at the end of their life. As the cars approach each other at 50 kph, for a closing speed of 100 kph (62.5 mph), the tension rises. There’s a large bang and a split second later the “accident" is over. Both cars are write-offs and as one would expect the Civic receives more damage. Yet on close examination of the dummy in the car a real driver likely would have only received a broken ankle and maybe some cuts.
There is a big pit in the very center of the facility that is covered by plate glass. Underneath there are banks of lights and more high-speed cameras that record the view of the accident from directly below. The videos from these cameras played back in slow motion show how well the suspension and engine mounts help absorb energy when the cars hit each other. Needless to say there are a lot of broken parts lying around and several large gouges on the top surface of the glass. Engineers have to replace a thin top sheet of bulletproof glass regularly so that the view from below remains clear.
The large indoor facility allow Honda engineers to conduct controlled crash tests regardless of the weather. There are 8 test tracks radially located at 15-degree intervals and one or two cars can be hauled along the tracks at any speed up to a maximum of 80 kph each. Cars can be crashed into each other or into barriers for government mandated tests.
The crash test facility adjoins the large Honda R&D Proving Ground at Tochigi. Elsewhere on the complex there are 25 miles of test tracks including a 2.5-mile long oval.
During our visit we had the opportunity to drive several concept vehicles as well as some production vehicles that are not on sale in the US. Most of these vehicles such as the LIFE Dunk are too small for US consumption. The Stream, however proved to be quite an attractive station wagon or mini MPV as Europeans like to describe this sort of vehicle It is powered by a 1.7-liter engine so it could be a practical car for the US.
The Civic is easily Honda's most important vehicle worldwide. A hybrid version of the car goes on sale very soon and will make the Civic even more attractive especially in countries where gas prices are high. The Civic Hybrid uses a newer version of the IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) System that has proven so successful in the Insight. It manages 67 mpg in controlled testing which is the highest ever achieved for a five-passenger car powered by a gasoline engine according to Honda. In a brief drive the car feels as good as a regular Civic. Performance is fine with a five-speed manual transmission and is also acceptable coupled to the optional CVT transmission. The Hybrid has a 1.3-liter i-DSI gasoline engine and the battery pack and controls are much smaller than in the Insight so they can be located directly behind the rear seats without taking away too much space from the trunk.
We also got to try out the FCX-V4, Honda's latest hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle. No surprises here as it drives just like an electric car but with a much greater range of 187 miles and a top speed of 88 mph.
Other cars tested were even further from production but demonstrated the type of research being done. One car had no steering wheel; instead steering was controlled by a joystick on the center console. Another had a hand operated control lever for accelerating and braking by utilizing the power steering system to operate the brake and accelerator pedals.
Automatic avoidance of collisions is a hot area of research for all companies. Honda let us ride in a car equipped with an Inter Vehicle Communication system. A GPS unit keeps track of vehicle positions so that the driver can be alerted when an approaching vehicle or motorcycle is too close, hidden from view at intersections or when exiting a street with partially blocked view of the road. The system obviously only works when each vehicle is fitted with the system, which means it would be years away from being practical.
Another idea that could be implemented more easily is the Lane Keeping Assistance system. In this system a small CCD camera mounted inside the windshield reads the road ahead by looking at lane markings. If the car starts to leave the lane the driver receives a warning. In the more advanced system the car actually steers the car without any driver input in order to keep the car in the correct lane. Similarly another system uses a radar gun to detect the distance to the car in front. If the gap gets too short the brakes are automatically applied. It’s also quite easy to use the same system to speed up the car should the gap increase.
Did we spy any future vehicles that had not been sufficiently well hidden from our sight? No, of course not. Honda is too cautious for that. However, we did spot a Lotus Elise sports car being driven within the facility. It could have belonged to an engineer, as Lotus cars are popular in Japan. On the other hand Lotus has a test facility for sale in the UK and the manufacturing side is likely for sale as well. Perhaps Honda is evaluating Lotus cars and considering purchasing the company from Proton, the current owners. Or perhaps it’s yet another benchmark test.