Crash Test Engineers

Crash Test Engineers

I’m not suggesting the usage of engineers in crash testing over the million dollar and well qualified crash test dummies. However, I would like us to consider the people behind the dummies that work on developing safer and safer cars, trucks, motorcycles and roads for us to drive in and on.

As a car and motorcycle user, I’m all too aware of how easy it is to get involved in an accident. Lucky for me, the ones I have been involved in have resulted in no injury to myself or others. I do, however, remember watching one accident that involved a car rolling over and being amazed at the driver getting out and walking away. I’ve also seen motorway accidents where cars and lorries have spun out of control and been not only stunned at the lack of injury but to see vehicles not turn over. The key thing I have noticed over 20+ years of driving is that more and more people walk away. A lot can be put down to luck, but I think few of us realizes how much more cars are doing to save us.

The seat belt is probably the first safety device we think of. This unattractive thick black belt that we plug in each time we drive off has been one of the biggest life savers. However, it is not just a belt that you strap into. It has to flex with your movement in the car, not pull to hard on the shoulder and fix what can only be described as a large ranges of shaped and sized people. Its key role, however, is clear: older cars had hard metal steering wheels and solid glass windscreens. Direct impact between your head and either of these would have resulted in very serious injury or death. Therefore, the engineers and designers who calculate the forces and material used have turned what is an ugly black belt into a life-saving device.

Since the early adoption of seat belts, we have seen improvements to steering wheels and even windscreens which are now designed not to fall apart even when broken, stopping people inside from getting covered in glass. There have been two significant developments which, from an engineering point of view, are very complex. Those are the Air Bag system and then the Electronic Stability Control (ESC).

Air bags are that other thing we all know about but maybe don’t know how complex a electronic, mechanical, material and chemical engineering project it is. Air bag systems contain a electronic computer that is monitoring tons of information about the car. Monitoring accelerators is only a starting point. Other aspects like wheel speed and seat occupation are also considered, too. On newer systems, these electronics will also consider the positions of the seat, the weight of the driver, and if a baby seat is fitted.

Video : Euro NCAP | Audi A4 | 2008 | Crash test

When the electronics detect a deceleration of around 15mph (23kph) the system activates. This can be within 30 milliseconds of the first impact. The system then dumps around 1 or 2 amps though a heater that explodes a material that typically generates large volumes of Nitrogen and can then inflate the bag within 80 milliseconds of first impact. This is to time the bag being ready to take the force of the occupant and to then deflate in a controlled manor and hence soften the blow.

The electronics can also fire other air bags that will be in the car, side curtains to protect from broken glass, knee air bags and well as side impact air bags can all be triggered at different times to control and limit the damage. Another trick is the firing of seat belt tensions that not only lock in the seat belt position but pull it tight, checking the occupant is held in the seat.

The other system I commented on is the ESC system that now often takes place of ABS (Anti-locking Break System). This system upgrade is designed to not only stop us locking up the wheels of a car but to help keep it going in the direction we are pointing it. The electronics constantly monitor the steering wheel as well as wheel speed and gyroscopic sensors. Loss of control can be from not only trying to stop in a straight line, but also from acceleration and harsh cornering or when swerving. The system works by being able to adjust breaks individually to different wheels and also to modify engine speed. This allows the electronics to try and control the car around its vertical axis and keep the car pointing in the direction of the steering wheel as well as stop it rolling over.

Video : Euro NCAP | Audi A4 | 2009 | ESC test

These systems can’t change the rules of physics and save us from impossible accidents or allow us to drive without a care in the world, but they will do their best to minimize the damage to the occupants.

With systems like this now more and more common, it not so surprising that people walk away from high speed accidents and get to talk about what happened. Twenty years ago, people did not get this chance, and it’s thanks to the engineers who design these systems.  They have the dedication to getting the fine details spot on and not cut corners required to turn cars in to life savers and not killers.

If you intrested in watching other crash tests then this is a good site : NCAP YouTube Channel

3 comments

Now all we have to do , is get kids starting out in those cars instead of the ones they can afford. In my case it had no airbags, no abs , a stick , those old windshields, and one of the ultra hard solid steel steering wheels (covered in vinyl 1/16 thick). Granted the seat belt apparently worked, but it sure would have been sweet if i had had access to all that gadgetry to protect my head, neck, back, hips, knees.
Now a days, we should probably focus on not controlling the car our selves, and not crashing to begin with rather then more things exploding in the car to save us when we do (airbag). Just saying you cant get hurt if the car doesnt crash it self.

All the “safety” features do nothing to prevent deaths and injury to innocent pedestrians and bicyclists. Indeed, by making drivers less likely to kill themselves, they increase the risk to pedestrians and bicyclists, because the really bad drivers are not taken out of the pool of drivers.

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