Crash Course

Tim Marrs

Safety features normally don't get a lot of play in car reviews, for the simple reason that crumple zones and seatbelt pretensioners tend to induce extreme boredom. And it's not like you, the driver, can test any of this stuff. Five-star crash rating? I'll take your word for it.

But while I was in Marysville, Ohio, dropping in on Honda's factory, I also got a peek at the nearby R&D center in Raymond, where they run crash tests and try to figure out how to make their cars safer. If passive crash equipment is boring, the work that creates it is interesting indeed. Cars smash!

Chuck Thomas is Honda's chief engineer for automotive safety. Right away, I attempt to strike up a little crash conversation by mentioning a car I saw at a junkyard on my way to the airport. It backed into a telephone pole so hard that they just sawed off the pole and left it in the trunk, wrapped in a steel embrace. Thomas asks what kind of car it was, but I don't know. The rear end, which faced me as I drove past, was significantly restyled.

They don't run a reverse 40-mph telephone-pole test at Honda, but they do just about everything else. They crash cars into walls, run sleds into cars, and hit dummies standing in the road. A big machine fires loose dummy heads into automobile interiors to ensure that unbelted noggins are treated as kindly as possible, given the circumstances. One projectile-head is labeled "Larry." The two others are named Curly and Moe. It's possible that Honda needs to hire more female crash engineers.

If you imagine that a crash-test facility includes a large room filled with disquieting plastic humanoids, then you're absolutely right. Most of these dummies go into test cars, but one named Polar II has the even more stressful job of measuring pedestrian-impact data. Polar just got back from a European vacation -- instead of standing in the road getting hit by cars, he spent some relaxing time sitting on his bike getting hit by cars. It's so hard to actually get away from work these days.

Other than crashes, the coolest tests involve the simulator sled, a naked metal frame into which interior parts are fitted. If you're testing an airbag, a seat, or a dashboard, then you don't need to run a whole car into a wall, no matter how cool that would be.

So how do you simulate an accident without a crash? With violent acceleration. The "car" faces backward, so accelerating it creates the effect of a forward impact. Of course, you need a lot of acceleration to mimic an accident, so a piston driven by giant tanks of nitrogen fires the sled. I ask Thomas the sled's 0-to-60-mph time. He replies, "Eighty milliseconds." Today we'll see it hit 35 mph, a speed it will attain in five feet. That's a pretty fast Honda.

I ask Thomas, "If that sled were a car, how many horsepower would it need to make it take off like that?" These guys are accustomed to thinking in terms of newtons and watts, but some back-of-the-napkin calculations generate a number that we cretins can appreciate: 46,576 horsepower. That's a pretty strong Honda.

In the control room, the engineers signal that they're ready to run a test, so from behind the glass I struggle to keep my eyes pried open -- if I blink, I'll miss it.

After a NASA-style countdown, the piston fires and the sled leaps backward, the dummy's head whipping into the exploding airbag. I've never been in an accident, and now I'm sure I'd like to keep that streak intact. Even with a seatbelt and an airbag, it would not be a good day.

Cars have come a long way, safety-wise, and they keep getting better thanks to work at places like this. "You shouldn't have to pay with your life to get from point A to point B," Thomas says. To him, an acceptable highway-fatality rate is zero. Nonetheless, when you find yourself sliding backward toward a pole, you're hoping these guys did their homework on tensile strengths and load paths and shear points. The most boring aspect of your car is about to become the most interesting.

On my way home a couple of days later, I stop to take a look at the telephone-pole car. The passenger compartment and front end are remarkably intact, rendering the machine's identity immediately apparent. It's an Accord. Nice work, everyone.

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