Crashing Through The Safety Barrier

by Thomas Geiger, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, October 14, 2003

Hamburg – Motorists who survive accidents with nothing more than a fright can thank, besides their lucky stars, a variety of factors coming into play: tougher car bodywork, airbags, and seatbelt systems.

To make this work, motor manufacturers and their parts suppliers must indulge in a fury of creative vandalism-crash tests.

Long before series production begins, prototype cars are driven into brick walls and other barriers. The crashes fulfill a legal requirement. A certain number of prescribed hits must be performed. Without them, a car in Germany would not be allowed to reach the showrooms.

Many virtual crashes are also performed, but even the most sophisticated computer can only set engineers in the right direction. Physical impacts are needed. Individual components such as airbags are tested independently so the vehicle’s bodywork is not damaged. But afterward, accurate tests are carried out, and the expensive piece of scrap metal is laboriously investigated.

Crashing is an expensive business. Mark Johnson, responsible for the safety concept of the new Jaguar XJ, says the car has crashed against the virtual wall more than 1,000 times. That needed more than 175,000 hours of mainframe computer time. On top of that were 156 tests on individual components and 79 real crashes where the cars were written off.

It might have been more, but for the fact that the Jaguar XJ comes in a few variations. Therefore, the procedure must be repeated for each motor and each car variant, such as saloon, convertible, and station wagon models, and for models with diesel motors.

Renault press spokesman Martin Zimmermann says the firm stages about 400 major tests in Paris a year. Firms selling their cars in different countries must fulfill other crash criteria. And the number of tests remains the same regardless of whether the vehicle is compact with expected sales of a million or an exotic sports car with limited sales expectations. So, for example, DaimlerChrysler says that, in developing the luxury Maybach, which is produced in limited numbers, it had to sacrifice 24 of them in the interests of safety.

Motor clubs, motoring magazines, and industry organizations also want to evaluate the results of crash tests. Perhaps the most effective test program is the European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP) in European countries. This requires all new models to be involved in three crash configurations before they are awarded stars for occupant safety.

So far, more than 150 vehicles have been out through these tests. Unfortunately, few have achieved the maximum rating of five stars. The list: Renault’s Laguna, Megane, and Vel Satis; Mercedes’ C and E class cars; Saab’s new 9-3; Toyota’s Avensis, and four vans -Citroen’s C8, Fiat’s Ulysse, Lancia’s Phedra and Peugeot’s 807.

Copyright 2003 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH