A vehicle undergoes post-test analysis at Calspan’s $20 million indoor crash-test center. Advances in testing and equipment include Thor, right, a more humanlike dummy.
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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Even as automakers and regulators devote more attention to preventing accidents altogether, crash-testing remains a vitally important part of the industry.
In fact, demand for crash-test services is growing as companies race to develop autonomous and electric vehicles — while freshening their existing fleets to keep up with strong sales — and new competitors in developing nations and the tech sector enter the market or scale up.
Across from the airport here, a $20 million indoor testing center that Calspan Corp. opened in January is busy slamming cars and trucks into various obstacles several times a day. The 58,000-square-foot site, one of the most advanced and secure independent labs in the world, can conduct 1,000 tests a year, five times the number Calspan could handle at the outdoor center it replaced.
Goupil: One shot to get it right
Preparing a vehicle is an elaborate, multiday process that involves draining fluids and replacing gasoline with a special dye; coding underbody and interior sections with different paint colors to help identify where they moved on impact; setting seats and seat belts in standardized positions; running “inch tape” down the center of the car and sides to facilitate high-speed video analysis; and installing rugged data instrumentation and dummies.
“You’ve got to pay attention to details because you only have one chance to get this right,” said Gerald Goupil Jr., Calspan’s director of crash test operations. “You have to do quality checks so every test comes out perfectly.”
Calspan ensures tight security, which is critical for clients that want to keep prototypes and other developmental models under wraps until they are ready for market.
Test vehicles are delivered by covered transport and unloaded directly into vehicle bays without seeing the light of day. The center is badge-access controlled, with security cameras throughout. Automotive News was granted rare access to see the modernization firsthand.
“If we wanted to get into the business of testing fully confidential vehicles, we needed a fully enclosed facility,” especially with the threat of drones, Goupil said. On outdoor tracks, cars are camouflaged, but “there’s only so much that can be done if avehicle is outside.”
Test prep, above, can take days and involves coding sections of the vehicle with paint, seen below.
Many automakers have their own crash centers to support new-vehicle development but also rely on independent laboratories — there are just four in the U.S. — to handle overflow capacity or to meet government certification requirements. NHTSA officials buy vehicles off dealership lots and send them to labs for crash and rollover tests that underpin the agency’s five-star safety rating system.
“We rate vehicles on their ability to avoid crashes with front-crash prevention systems and do extensive research on the technology side, but crash-testing is going to continue to be important,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which puts vehicles through a different set of tests from NHTSA and publishes its own ratings and top picks for consumers. “Crashes aren’t going away anytime soon.”
Crash-test labs are working to raise their engineering capabilities to meet new testing standards from global regulators aimed at better analyzing how to protect vehicle occupants in an accident.
The standards being worked on by NHTSA and European authorities show that crashworthiness remains a top priority for government and industry, safety experts say. (NHTSA also is considering whether to add active safety systems to its testing and rating program.)
Test modes for the New Car Assessment Program, the government program for rating crashworthiness of vehicles known as NCAP, are expected to change from primarily frontal-wall, side-pole and offset tests to include more real-world scenarios in which vehicles overlap and collide at an angle and at higher speeds. And crash-test dummies also are changing, becoming more humanlike and loaded with many more instruments for measuring force to different parts of the body.
IIHS, which is part of the global NCAP network, designed a driver-side test in 2012 based on research it conducted showing that about 25 percent of serious injuries and deaths occur in frontal crashes with a small overlap. Last year, it launched a passenger-side small overlap test — something NHTSA does not use, Rader said.
NHTSA has yet to issue final test protocols, but automakers already are testing against draft proposals, said Jason Jenkins, who manages the impact lab at Transportation Research Center Inc., a multiuser vehicle test center and proving ground in East Liberty, Ohio.
The view from a pit where high-speed cameras capture video of vehicles
The vehicle-offset and oblique, or angled, crash tests use a moving, deformable barrier — a steel frame with wheels and an aluminum honeycomb barrier that mimics the crushable front-end section of a vehicle — that is much less expensive to replace than with vehicle-on-vehicle testing. The oblique test is a bigger, faster and generally more destructive test, engineers said.
Calspan’s Goupil said he suspects adoption of the NCAP updates have stalled, in part, because the lack of a permanent NHTSA administrator under President Donald Trump has made it difficult to get final approval. (Deputy Administrator Heidi King, whom Trump nominated for the post in April, is awaiting Senate confirmation.)
NHTSA declined to make anyone available to interview for this story.
For Calspan, a large, indoor test center offers several advantages, Goupil explained.
Co-locating vehicle preparation, dummy preparation, offices and crash halls in one building significantly improves work efficiency, as does eliminating the need to clear snow and ice from the track. A climate-controlled environment also is important for test dummies, which, by regulation, must be kept between 69 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Dummies consist of a metal composite skeleton covered with electronic instrumentation and a vinyl skin that behaves differently in temperature extremes. Having consistent variables allows for more accurate results and comparisons.
Calspan’s lab is set up to run all current and proposed test modes for European, Latin American and Chinese NCAPs.
Automobiles built on common platforms are sold in markets with varying safety standards. Shipping cars to one center that can test to any national standard minimizes production costs and is much more efficient than testing cars in different regions, Goupil said.
Crash-test dummies come loaded with calibrated electric sensors.
The modernization puts Calspan — which still uses its 47-year-old outdoor center for unrelated tests — on par with European third-party labs, which tend to be newer and more capable than those in the U.S., he added.
U.S. crash-test centers use “home-grown” systems to guide and propel a test vehicle, Goupil said. This creates a lot of variation. Calspan uses a microtrack and propulsion system known as Messring, Goupil said, which is considered the industry gold standard and allows for the greatest accuracy. The same system is used by Toyota, Honda, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which opened a $200 million lab in Germany in 2016.
General Motors tests vehicles at several global engineering centers. Its safety labs are constantly updated to meet changing global regulations, and each lab has unique capabilities, Jack Jensen, a group manager at GM’s Vehicle Safety and Crashworthiness Lab in Milford, Mich., said via email.
Capabilities also may differ between GM and independent labs. GM, for example, typically records more data channels during a crash test for vehicle development than what may be recorded by a consumer-oriented or regulatory test lab.
Jenkins acknowledged the Transportation Research Center, built in the 1970s, does not have the most modern facilities, but he said it can meet most test requirements. Last year, it ran about 200 crashes.
Crash-testing is becoming more expensive, Jenkins said, because customers and regulations add more requirements, data sources and high-speed cameras as the technology advances.
In May, Applus IDIADA, a Spanish automotive engineering and validation services company with U.S. operations headquartered in Detroit, acquired a majority stake in Karco Engineering of Southern California. Karco conducts more than 100 crash tests per year on outdoor tracks under contracts with NHTSA and private companies, said its general manager, Tom Peng.
Another lab, MGA Research Corp., was founded 40 years ago by three ex-Calspan employees. It completed an expansion of its crashworthiness center at its Wisconsin proving grounds in 2015.
Crashing in the future
Test centers also are adapting to accommodate autonomous vehicles and EVs. Driverless vehicles will need new test procedures for interior configurations with no steering wheel, occupants facing each other and airbags that deploy differently.
“That’s an area where regulatory bodies have to look at the current protocols and say, ‘How do we modify them in such a way that we can provide direction to people developing these vehicles?’ ” Goupil said.
Crash-testing also must account for differences in EVs, which have different structures to support and protect the battery in a crash. In gasoline vehicles, labs test whether the fuel system maintained its integrity or spilled fluid. EVs need to be checked for electrolyte spillage and whether they have taken on an electrical charge because of a short. Because lithium ion batteries are enclosed, Goupil explained, special sensors must be attached to the battery to see how it reacted during the crash. a