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Until crash prevention works 100% of the time, IIHS will continue to enhance its crash-testing techniques.

Crash testing advances on many fronts

Traffic fatalities have declined significantly over the last several years, but the U.S. is on track to have its deadliest year since 2007, according to the National Safety Council. That’s shining the spotlight on crash testing, which helps automakers create the safest vehicles possible.

Crash-testing research being done by testing groups and tool developers is extending its reach to crash avoidance. Some of the latest developments in collision avoidance and protection were recently explored by four industry experts in "The Future of Crash Testing" Technical Webinar Series from the Editors of SAE, which is now available for on-demand viewing.

Avoiding crashes is a critical factor for development at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The group recently built a crash avoidance dome where next level testing will occur.

“We want to prevent crashes when possible, and to reduce the severity when collisions occur,” said Becky Mueller, Senior Research Engineer at IIHS. “We’re taking a twofold approach on all our future research.”

IIHS introduced a frontal crash prevention test in 2013. Prevention is now a factor in its Top Safety Pick Plus award, which requires vehicles to have technology for avoiding crashes and good rankings on all crash tests.

There’s also an effort to reduce collisions that occur at night, Mueller added. IIHS is preparing a new evaluation for headlights, looking at vision and glare. A new ratings program is expected “in a year or so,” she said.

Though crash prevention has become a hot topic, crash worthiness remains a central factor in the push for improved safety. Design tool providers are working on a range of strategies that will help automakers build safe vehicles. Reducing weight to improve fuel consumption is a challenge for safety, as is keeping costs in check.

“Safety regulations are becoming more strict; one issue is meeting those requirements within cost budgets,” said Marc Schrank is Director of Strategic Projects at Simulia. “Secondly, the increase in the number of new lightweighting technologies plays a substantial role in safety.”

Changes in materials such as high-strength steel, aluminum, magnesium, and composites like carbon fiber are making it more difficult for design and simulation tools to precisely predict what will happen in collisions. High levels of predictiveness are important because they let automakers run tests on early production vehicles instead of creating prototypes to determine whether simulations are accurate.

“Carbon fiber is an interesting material that presents opportunity and challenges,” Schrank said. “It has high energy absorption, but composites have little resiliency. Deformation is in stark contrast to metal’s performance.”

The number of factors that can be included in virtual tests has soared in recent years while the time needed to run tests has fallen. That makes for more realistic tests and more iterations.

“There’s significantly more speed and increased model size,” said Jean Michel Terrier, Altair’s Senior Business Development Director. “Now there are over 5 million elements and crash simulations can run in one night.”

While simulations bring significant benefits, webinar speakers noted that real world tests are still needed. SEA Ltd. specializes in reproducing real-world crashes, using autonomous vehicles that let employees cause very specific types of crashes.

“Autonomous vehicle controls permit crash testing that is not possible using traditional crash tests,” said Gary J. Heydinger, Director of Vehicle Dynamics at SEA. “We do things like full fuel testing that you can’t do in a lab. We can also do complex tests like recreational off-highway vehicle rollovers, which are common for these vehicles.”

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