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.