Ford's new airbag tests – Click above for high-res gallery

One of the cool things about being an engineer is that in addition to designing innovative new features, you get to develop novel ways to test those features. The 2009 Ford F-150 and 2010 Taurus both feature a new airbag deployment system that incorporates sensors to measure the pressure of a side impact in order manage the inflation rate of the bags. The pressure-based system provides more precise data than typical accelerometers and allows the system to better resist false positives that come from incidents like rolling shopping carts in parking lots and flying basketballs.

In order to calibrate the system, Ford's engineers devised a number of simulations to evaluate these different types of impacts and how they register to system sensors. In addition to the usual slate of slamming cars and crash sleds into each other, the engineers came up with other tests like a shopping cart loaded with 110-pounds of ballast that was rammed by a robot into the car. Since the sensors are located on the bottom of the car, a steel "cat'o'nine tails" whip was also used on the underside to simulate what might happen on a gravel road. Water cannons, pumpkins and basketballs also played a part in the development. Sounds like fun to us. Check out Ford's press release after the jump and a high-res image gallery of the new testing procedures below.


Related GalleryFord airbag sensor testing

[Source: Ford]


ENGINEERS PIT SHOPPING CARTS, WATER CANNONS AND METAL WHIPS AGAINST NEW SAFETY TECHNOLOGIES


* Ford is using new types of testing as it leads the industry in introducing advanced safety technologies for mainstream vehicles
* Ford engineers test the predictive, pressure-sensing air bag technology featured on vehicles such as the new 2010 Taurus against shopping carts, bicycle wheels and metallic whips
* Ford holds more Top Safety Picks awarded by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) than any other company and more U.S. government 5-star-ratings than any brand


DEARBORN, Mich., May 12, 2009 – Ford Motor Company has ushered in new, extreme tests – such as ramming shopping carts into car doors and blasting water cannons to force vehicles into skids – to fine tune new, industry-leading safety technologies for its mainstream vehicles.

These tests are part of Ford's ongoing efforts to accelerate new collision protection and avoidance technologies. Ford's safety leadership is built on having more Insurance Institute-rated "Top Safety Pick" vehicles than any other automaker and the most U.S. government 5-star test ratings of any brand.

"Blasting and ramming cars may seem over the top, but they're part of a serious testing regimen that Ford had to invent, because increasingly sophisticated technologies require more advanced testing," said Sue Cischke, group vice president, Ford Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering. "We will continue to build on our safety leadership with advanced safety technologies that help enhance crash protection or even help customers avoid accidents."

New Tests for a New Technology

Ford engineers conduct unusual "crash" tests to take thousands of impact readings that help calibrate the sensitivity of new air bag pressure sensors being introduced on the new 2009 F-150 and 2010 Taurus. The new air bag systems use pressure pulses from a side impact to deploy up to 30 percent faster than a traditional air bag system that uses acceleration-based sensors.

Engineers, however, were concerned that everyday mishaps – such as shopping cart collisions in parking lots or errant basketballs from neighborhood children – could trick the new sensors that now help predict crash forces before the full impact occurs. The engineers used reams of data from these unusual tests to calibrate the air bag sensor to disregard typically minor collisions.

In one test, a lab robot repeatedly pushes a shopping cart loaded with a 110-pound weight into the vehicle doors at 10 miles per hour. Another robotic test replicates the impact of a bicycle wheel on the car door.

Pressure-based sensors more accurately measure the severity of a crash than acceleration-based sensors, which makes them better able to differentiate between a life-threatening, air bag-deployable crash and relatively harmless daily abuse that should not require air bag protection. They also perform better in new federal side-impact and oblique-impact tests, are less likely to be affected by vehicle design differences, and give designers more flexibility because they take up less space.

The new F-150 is one of North America's first vehicles to offer this new technology. According to a recent study by the IIHS, the truck offers better side-impact crash safety than the Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram and Nissan Titan.

Whipped, Stirred and Shaken

Engineers also conduct air bag sensor research on a test track rife with jarring, jolting surface imperfections, ranging from potholes and chatter bumps to curbs and ditches. There, certified test drivers are encouraged to push vehicles to the limit.

"They drive the test vehicles into curbs and railroad tracks at high speeds," said Todd Clark, sensor development supervisor, Ford Safety Systems. "Most people wouldn't drive that recklessly, but it's our job to find out how much abuse the sensor will take before deploying the air bag and adjust the sensors accordingly."

Ford's safety engineers also have concocted a clever test method using a multi-tailed, lead-tipped steel whip. They use it to repeatedly "pepper" the underbody area where side impact air bag sensors are located. Data collected from such tests is used to refine sensor calibrations as well.

"Ford leads the industry in top crash-test safety ratings; now we're helping take crash protection and prevention to new levels with technologies such as our new air bag pressure sensors," said Steve Kozak, chief engineer, Ford Safety Systems.

From Pumpkin Patch to Test Track

Ford researchers also use a water cannon test to analyze how a moving vehicle reacts to being struck from the side, without putting test vehicles and drivers at risk of damage or injury. Researchers say the new test could prove useful in the development of next-generation stability control technology.

In this highly coordinated maneuver, Ford engineers mount an air-powered cannon – a tool commonly used in mining operations and pumpkin-throwing contests – in the rear compartment of a test vehicle. The cannon blasts water outward, causing a recoil impulse that forces the vehicle into a skid. Engineers use the test data in computer simulations to help study how to enhance stability control technology, reducing risks to test drivers and damage to test vehicles.

"It's a very effective test that demonstrates the ingenuity of our engineering team to think outside the box," said Jeff Rupp, manager, Ford Active Safety Systems Engineering. "We know of no other automaker doing anything quite like it."

According to the 2008 New Vehicle Customer Study, safety features account for one of the top ten reasons why Ford buyers chose their vehicle. More than 53 percent of Ford buyers indicated that safety features are "extremely important" in their decision to purchase a Ford vehicle.

"Ford's efforts to advance vehicle safety are driving more car buyers to the brand," said Mike Harper, brand and tracking manager, Ford Market Research. "And their interest in safety continues to fuel innovation among our vehicle designers and engineers."