Testing a Car

Testing a car in the United States is a long, expensive and often tedious process. The manufacturers' goal is to make a vehicle that meets established government safety standards, that will stand up to normal consumer use while incurring minimal warranty claims and will hit that sweet spot between customer demand and profitability.

One of the more well-known tests is crash testing. You may know the slow-motion films of cars being crash tested with dummies inside "playing" car passengers. Depending on the purpose of the film, the mannequin either goes flying through the windshield, or is protected by a car seatbelt and airbag. Manufacturers like to sound the proverbial trumpet when one of their vehicles, especially a family-oriented vehicle, scores well in government and independent crash-safety tests.

In the United States, the two main bodies that conduct crash safety testing are the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Both operate independently of the automobile industry.

In addition to crash testing, automakers must track a plethora of quality measurements. These tests are conducted by the manufacturers themselves to refine their vehicles as much as possible. Here are a few questions that manufacturers may tackle:

  • How noisy is it inside the cabin? How much noise comes from the engine? How much is wind noise?
  • How much noise is created by tires contacting the pavement?
  • How much vibration is there at different speeds?
  • How fast does the air conditioning system or heater kick in?
  • Does the amount of quality and luxury match other products in this brand? Does it equal or exceed competitive offerings?
  • Are we meeting our own standards for how neat and precise the fine details on the car are?
  • What drive train combination will give us optimal fuel efficiency while satisfying emissions requirements?
  • How do we reduce weight and waste without compromising safety or comfort?
  • How does the car perform in extreme conditions?

If that seems like a lot to keep track of, that's because it is. However, automakers typically assign specialized teams to address each one of these questions so that they can come up with the best solutions in short order.

Depending on what's being measured or tested, engineers can make changes on the spot. In other cases, test findings may require an extensive rethinking of how a part or set of parts function. To make sure the entire testing process stays reasonably on schedule, manufacturers make multiple "test mules," or pre-production cars, for testing. This way, multiple systems can be designed and experimented with at once.

Not all manufacturers follow the exact same test procedures for all their cars, trucks and SUVs. Find out how these procedures differ on the next page.