How do automakers use independent research?

Image Gallery: Car Safety A 2009 2-door Ford Focus is seen in a 40 MPH frontal offset test at the IIHS test center in Virginia. See more car safety pictures.

Most large automakers have their own research and development departments. These R&D wings -- such as the Toyota Technical Center (TTC), Ford's Scientific Research Laboratory, and Volvo Technology -- specialize in discovering the future of automotive design, including ways to build safer cars, more attractive cars, cars that produce less pollution, and cars that run on something other than the fossil fuels that are now the standard. This includes R&D on alternative fuel technologies, state-of-the-art safety technologies and new ways of driving cars.

But transportation is such an important field that automotive research can't just be left to the automobile manufacturers. Universities, private firms, even the U.S. government have organizations devoted to studying how automobiles function, the direction in which automobile transportation is headed, the ways that automobiles affect the world around us, and methods for making cars safer and less polluting. These independent research organizations can do research that might not be possible at the carmakers themselves because the result might not be what the auto manufacturer wants to hear. And even when they produce results that the manufacturers would like to hear, those results might be perceived as biased by the public if they came from, say, Nissan or General Motors.

Independent automotive research generally falls into two areas: market research, which can determine what the public wants in a car and what direction automakers should be moving in, and technological/scientific research, which determines what technologies will be available in the future and how cars affect society as a whole. The latter kind of research might concern automotive safety or the effect of internal combustion engines on the environment. The results of this kind of research show automakers what can be done in the future and can even prod them into doing it.

Of course, not all of these independent research firms are truly independent. Many are funded at least in part by the automobile manufacturers themselves. However, they are independent inasmuch as a large portion of their funding comes not from the carmakers but from universities, the government and private organizations. How do automakers use this research? We'll look at some of the ways over the next few pages.

Independent Research on Automotive Trends

Takata technical manager Greg Stanley places an infant carrier on a seat for testing in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Takata technical manager Greg Stanley places an infant carrier on a seat for testing in Farmington Hills, Mich.
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Where is automotive technology headed in the future? In part, that's up to the public. If enough people want something in a car, auto manufacturers will find a way to put it in. Finding out what the public wants is the role of market research firms, which organize focus groups to learn what people like about their cars and what they'd like to see (or not see) in their next car. These firms often contract with automobile manufacturers to monitor public opinions on concept cars and new technology to determine if new models are going to sell.

But carmakers can't test public acceptance of new technologies before they determine what those new technologies are. Often new technological discoveries are generated by think tanks and private R&D organizations. For instance, Google is currently testing what might be the car of the future. Known as the Google Car, it essentially drives itself, relying on computers and automated sensing technology to navigate its way down the highway. The Google Car -- actually a fleet of six cars based on the Toyota Prius and the Audi TT -- drives back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco piloted solely by computer. It uses a GPS for route planning, radar and laser sensors for detecting objects and other cars in its path and cutting edge artificial intelligence programming to integrate this data. It'll be some years before Google Car technology is good enough for general use, or can be trusted on anything other than the freeway. Imagine using such a car to navigate complex neighborhood roadmaps -- but the technology will eventually be available for license by automobile manufacturers for use in production vehicles. If nothing else, its very existence proves to carmakers that an automated car will be possible much sooner than anyone might have guessed and this knowledge will guide their research. Besides Google, private organizations and industrial associations like the North Carolina Center for Automotive Research (NCCAR) and the European Council for Automotive R&D (EUCAR) work with the automotive industry to research advanced technology and study future trends.

One of the most important trends in the automotive world today is the development of alternative fuel technologies, such as electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells. Much of the research into these technologies is taking place at universities, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to the University of Eastern Kentucky. (The latter recently opened its Center for Renewable and Alternative Fuel Technologies, also known as CRAFT.) Additional research into advanced automotive technology is performed at Ohio State's Center for Automotive Research and the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. Much of this research is made possible, in part, by funds from the auto industry. For instance, the Ohio State program receives financial support from a wide range of partners, including not only the big three American car manufacturers -- Ford, Chrysler and General Motors -- but Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and automobile-related corporations such as Goodyear. The result of this research is in turn made available for all companies to use, profiting the auto industry as a whole.

This research tells the manufacturers where they should be heading in the future. But what can independent research tell the auto industry about ways in which the quality of cars can be changed today?

Independent Research on Automotive Quality

Vehicles being tested in the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's new dynamic rollover test are controlled by computer for accuracy, as is demonstrated in this 2003 Toyota 4Runner.
Vehicles being tested in the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's new dynamic rollover test are controlled by computer for accuracy, as is demonstrated in this 2003 Toyota 4Runner.
AP Photo/Will Shilling

Perhaps the most important area in which research affects automotive quality is safety. Obviously auto manufacturers are doing their own research on technologies that will make cars safer to drive -- Volvo is famous for this -- but government agencies are as well. Driving safely is a matter of public interest and sometimes the government needs to push the auto industry along a little faster than it wants to go.

The government agency in charge of making cars safer is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Safety research by NHTSA falls into several areas, including Biomechanics and Trauma (often using advanced crash test dummies to determine what happens to the human body during a collision), Behavioral Research (which determines why people drive aggressively or allow themselves to become distracted at the wheel), and Crash Avoidance Research (which helps to develop technologies that prevent crashes from happening in the first place). Through its Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network (CIREN), NHTSA brings together experts from academia, the auto industry and the government to foster collaborative research on auto safety. The results of NHTSA's research can be used by the industry to implement advanced safety technology in future cars, but NHTSA can also force the industry to adopt safety technology through legislation requiring that safety technology -- air bags, for instance -- be included in cars.

There are also private organizations with an interest in safety research. Perhaps the best known is the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS performs crash tests similar to those performed by NHTSA and encourages the industry to improve safety with its rating system, which evaluates the performance of cars in frontal crashes, side crashes and rear crashes. These ratings are available to the public and provide an incentive for auto manufacturers to improve the crashworthiness and stability of cars.

Of course, the automotive industry can also use independent research on safety to prove that their cars have been safe all along. In the wake of allegations that faulty electronics were responsible for runaway acceleration in some of its cars, Toyota pointed to independent research performed at Stanford University suggesting that the acceleration could only be triggered by a complete rewiring of the cars' electronic systems and that such unauthorized rewiring would have caused any brand of car to malfunction.

Another private firm well known for its research on automotive quality is J.D. Power and Associates. J.D. Power performs customer satisfaction surveys as well as surveys of dealerships and uses the results to rate cars by their initial quality, their overall performance and design, and their dependability. The organization publishes these results in several ways, including on its Web site. To encourage the industry to improve automotive quality, it gives out the J.D. Power and Associates Awards to those companies that it feels have been most responsive to the needs of their customers.

In the end, of course, the automotive industry can choose to listen to or ignore the results of independent research, even the research they pay for (except in the case of NHTSA), which has the option of turning research into legislation). However, most carmakers understand that paying attention to research on quality and automotive trends is good business, if only because it allows them to brag that their cars are safer, more durable and less polluting that the ones made by their competitors.

For more information about automotive research and testing, follow the links on the next page.

Related Articles


  • Arnott, Sarah. "Toyota denies faulty electronics are to blame for unintended acceleration." The Independent. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • CATT: Center for Advanced Transportation Technology. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Center for Automotive Research. "Innovative Thinking on Automotive Systems." (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • European Council for Automotive R&D. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Gage, Deborah. "Google's Self-Driving Car." (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Holusha, John. "Firm Zeroes in on Car Trends." The New York Times. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • J.D. Power. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Markoff, John. "Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic." The New York Times. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Nissan. "Value Creation: Meeting the Needs of Customers Worldwide." (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Shannon, Ronica. "Center to Focus on Alternative Fuel Technology." (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Toyota. "Research and Development." (Dec. 7, 2010)