5 Things You Didn't Know About Automotive Testing

Image Gallery: Car Safety A 2006 Buick Rainier performs a rollover test at the General Motors Corp. crash test facility in Milford, Mich. See more car safety pictures.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Each year, car enthusiasts salivate at the prospect of seeing what bleeding-edge designs automakers will unveil on the car show circuit. Those same enthusiasts are often disappointed when the amazing concepts still haven't made it to the auto dealer's showroom floor several years later.

But before any new car model can ever go on sale to the public, it must first undergo a battery of testing to make sure it'll be safe, reliable and reasonably in tune with the demands of the motoring public.

The government demands some of this testing, while other major components of it are devised by the car companies themselves in an effort to ensure they meet specific standards for performance, fuel economy, comfort and other measures.

The popular conception of car testing is pretty narrow -- sure, most of us are familiar with the slow-motion crash-test videos that companies run in commercials to advertise their cars' safety. And if you're a performance car fan, you're no doubt familiar with scenes of sleek muscle machines gobbling asphalt on winding road-course tracks in Germany or Japan.

But car testing is much more. There are aspects of it that you might find surprising, quirky or even downright bizarre. It's with these not-so-well-known areas of car testing in mind that we offer you these 5 things you didn't know about car testing. These factoids not only make great cocktail party conversation, but you'll also gain a much greater appreciation for the untold numbers of cars that gave their lives, so that you could drive your vehicle.

5

How do those crash ratings actually work, anyway?

This photo provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows a frontal offset crash test of a 2008 Smart Fortwo.
This photo provided by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows a frontal offset crash test of a 2008 Smart Fortwo.
AP Photo/Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Car commercials, if they can legitimately make the claim, like to brag about things like getting a "five-star" safety rating. For a large segment of the driving public, knowing that one's family is well-protected in case of a crash is a top buying consideration.

But besides being a great marketing hook, what does that bit of safety info really mean?

To help answer that, you should know that it's actually two bodies that conduct crash testing to determine a car's safety rating. One is the federal government -- specifically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA has been responsible for mandating many of the safety features that we often take for granted -- things like seat belts and padded dashboards. The other major testing body is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an organization supported by the major car insurance firms.

The two testing bodies actually use two different ratings criteria (as well as having somewhat different crash test procedures).

The NHTSA uses the star system we're all aware of from car commercials. The frontal crash ratings, for instance, go from poorest, which is one star (46 percent or higher chance of serious injury in a collision), to the best, which is five stars (chances of being seriously injured in a collision are just 10 percent or less).

The IIHS simply ranks vehicles as Poor, Marginal, Acceptable or Good.

Those ratings are conferred after literally a battery of crash tests that include frontal collisions -- up to 40 miles per hour (64.4 kilometers per hour), side collisions and rollover tests [source: Greco].

Car testers cover a lot of ground, from ride and handling to interior rattling to how well the heating and air work. Automakers generally work really hard at eliminating noise, so it might come as a surprise to learn that there's a certain type of vehicle they actually want to make some noise.

4

Tests to Cease Electric Cars' Silent Running

The Nissan LEAF, a 100 percent electric, zero-emission car, is seen at the LA Auto Show on Nov. 17, 2010, in Los Angeles.
The Nissan LEAF, a 100 percent electric, zero-emission car, is seen at the LA Auto Show on Nov. 17, 2010, in Los Angeles.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

You know how electric cars are barely audible when they're puttering around at low speed? And you know how you sometimes rely on the sound of a car or truck to determine how close it is or what direction it's coming from?

Well, the fact that electric vehicles are so quiet has many people worried about potential carnage in the streets as the vehicles gain in popularity. They're worried about a wave of pedestrian injuries and perhaps fatalities, because the quiet of electrics makes them harder to recognize as hazards.

For that reason, testing is taking place for artificial sounds that can be added to electric vehicles -- simply to make them louder. Of course one of the things that make electric vehicles special is the fact they don't have the sound of internal combustion vehicles. No matter how refined, the internal combustion engine is merely a series of controlled explosions. Electrics, however, are a completely different technology and almost demand their own signature sound.

Researchers at Warwick University in England are experimenting with an electric van specially equipped to emit a number of fake but plausible noises for electrics. Part of the testing includes driving the van around the Warwick campus and asking the opinion of people in the vicinity. At the time of this writing, you could even take an online immersive survey (complete with 3-D animation and van sounds).

Is car testing reserved for the driving elite, those skilled pilots able to navigate twisting closed courses at breakneck speeds? Or need you be a clipboard-wielding technician able to measure every technical quirk of the car in question? The answer might surprise you.

3

Regular Folks Are Testers, Too

A 1996 General Motors EV1 electric car is shown at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich.
A 1996 General Motors EV1 electric car is shown at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

When vehicle manufacturers have a radically different car that might make a significant impact on drivers' behavior, they'll recruit large testing groups from the general public. Having a diversity of people makes it more likely to expose the car to the types of strains and stressed it would receive if it was sold to the public. These studies, while large and expensive, help automakers determine the feasibility of certain cars as well as areas of improvement prior to making them available for sale in volume.

One of the better-known of these experiments was with General Motors's EV1, GM's infamous aborted experiment with electric vehicles. The drama was hashed out in the 2006 documentary film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" Starting in 1996, GM needed to know if the cars' performance would hold up to the needs of everyday car drivers. Did it accelerate fast enough to be compatible with driving on the highway? Would it go far enough not to strand drivers? Would drivers be willing to modify their driving to accommodate the limitations of the car? And it all boiled down to the one question, was there a big enough market to make production worthwhile? The many everyday individuals who had won slots to test GM's EV1 electric car (some for years) were aghast when they were informed that GM was canceling the program and destroying the cars.

On a more upbeat note, Nissan benefited from citizen testers' reports in 2009 and 2010, driving the all-electric LEAF. The company could provide estimates of how far the LEAF would go on a single battery charge. But only with real-world testing, by many people and under a range of conditions could the company get accurate numbers for what buyers can actually expect.

For some reason, most of us just can't avert our gaze from a car crash, whether it happened moments ago and is now a roadside spectacle, or if we're watching it as it happens. Then we feel bad about it. But there's a way you can watch car crashes guilt-free, too.

2

Watch Your Car Get Smashed to Bits

This photo released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, shows Volkswagen's Beetle after a crash test in Ruckersville, Va.
This photo released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, shows Volkswagen's Beetle after a crash test in Ruckersville, Va.
AP Photo/IIHS

Crash testing is just a sliver of all the testing that takes place involving the new cars entering the market. But it happens to be one of the most exciting and dramatic.

And what could be more dramatic -- and possibly even reassuring -- than seeing the model of car you own being put through its crash testing paces? You can look up crash test videos and results for your favorite vehicles courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Not all car models available have videos associated with them, but there is a fairly good cross-section of mainstream consumer vehicles. The tests show crashes at normal speed, in slow motion and slow motion close-ups of the dummy occupant. Some people might find the occupant close-ups a bit disturbing -- you can imagine the trauma and emotional pain that such collisions might cause a real person, if you've never experienced it for yourself. But the truth is, the sacrifice of those cars and the dummies provides us with a wealth of knowledge for both making cars safer and for making better-informed buying decisions based on vehicle safety.

Plastic dummies give us a rough approximation of what to expect when testing vehicles for their crashworthiness. Alas, as it has been sung, ain't nothing like the real thing. Find out about one of the creepier car testing traditions on the next page.

1

Crash Test Cadavers

Real human bodies (cadavers) have played a significant role in crash safety testing.
Real human bodies (cadavers) have played a significant role in crash safety testing.
Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

In the commercials, we marvel at the slo-mo camera work as it captures what happens when a few thousand pounds of glass and steel meet an immovable barrier at high speed. The occupants, which are clearly inanimate dummies, are tossed about like rag dolls but for their lap and shoulder restraints. We see the crumple zones work as advertised, breathe a sigh of relief and perhaps silently thank the dummies for their service.

What many people aren't aware of, however, is that real human bodies -- cadavers -- have played a significant role in crash safety testing. And they still do, although they're not used nearly as much as they were at one time. It turns out that even dead people aren't immune from the diminished work prospects brought about by more efficient computers and the general advancement of the industry.

These days, crash cadavers are most useful in their ability to let researchers know how smash-ups affect internal organs.

For just about everything else that once fell to the human body, computer modeling has largely taken the place of corpses.

What's more, while still not perfect, today's car interiors have reached a level of safety beyond which it will be difficult to make much significant progress. Researchers are instead turning much of their focus to technologies that can help prevent accidents from occurring in the first place.

For more information about automotive testing, automotive safety and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Greco, Carmen. "Crash tests for dummies: Car crash ratings explained." Insure.com. Aug. 16, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010)http://www.insure.com/car-insurance/crash-ratings-explanation.html
  • Hyde, Justin. "How a Cadaver Made Your Car Safer." Jalopnik. Aug. 26, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010)http://jalopnik.com/5622667/how-a-cadaver-made-your-car-safer
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Highway Loss Data Institute. (Dec. 2, 2010)http://www.iihs.org/default.html
  • Knight, Matthew. "Making electric cars safe and sound." CNN.com. Sept. 20, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010)http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/innovation/09/23/electric.car.space.noises/
  • Motavalli, Jim. "Road Testing Toyota's Fuel Cell Car Prototype for Six Months." The Daily Green. Oct. 15, 2010. (Dec. 3, 2010)http://www.thedailygreen.com/living-green/blogs/cars-transportation/fuel-cell-cars-connecticut-test-461010