Every year, millions of dollars' worth of vehicles end up as masses of tangled sheet metal and twisted parts in crash tests across the country. Those tests have saved millions of lives since they began six decades ago. Here is a look inside that world.
Crash testing runs counter to a basic instinct of car lovers everywhere: it deliberately turns a brand-new vehicle costing tens of thousands of dollars into scrap. But that doesn't stop safety engineers from performing hundreds of tests every year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration commissions 200 tests annually at proving grounds around the country. They help determine whether new models meet safety standards and how many stars they will get in the coveted NHTSA safety ratings.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does about 100 each year at its facility in Virginia. Manufacturers also undertake or commission hundreds more at roughly a dozen sites in the United States.
It's a big, costly business, with some crash test dummies priced at $125,000 apiece while a single test costs $100,000 or more. A vehicle prototype used in a test could easily run $250,000.
MGA Research does about 300 crash tests a year, operating at former American Motors Corp. proving grounds near Burlington, Wis. Over the past year, it has tested new models like the 2007 Dodge Nitro, Acura MDX and the Chevrolet Silverado 1500.
It is there that some auto icons have completed their NHTSA rites of passage. They were subjected to the kind of abuse that would bring tears to their designers' eyes. In 2006, MGA crash-tested a $45,000 Porsche Boxster, four months before its debut. The 2005 Ford Mustang was also tested there in a "star rating" test in 2004, earning four out of five stars.
But 80 percent of the MGA tests are undertaken for the auto companies themselves, not for NHTSA, said David Winkelbauer, the facility's director. They are doing safety research or getting an early reading on a model's likely crash performance in a NHTSA or other test.
A simple frontal test varies little from facility to facility. A powerful electric motor (or some other power source) tows a vehicle to impact speeds of 30 to 60 miles per hour (or more) over about 500 or 600 feet, crashing it into a barrier.
"We also do rollover tests, bumper tests, frontal impacts with barriers at an angle and pole barriers, car-to-car impacts, and all the different side impacts where you have a moving barrier running into cars," Winkelbauer said.
It takes about two days to prep a vehicle for this kind of punishment. In each case, the vehicle is crammed with sensors and components are drained of fluids. The underside of the vehicle is color-coded for video coverage, and the staff sets up video cameras that take pictures at 1,000 frames per second. Sensors are wired to solid-state data recorders within cars and the dummies.
The drill is similar at IIHS. On the morning of a test, "we start out by putting the dummies in the car and making sure that their sensors are hooked up," said David Zuby, senior vice president at the IIHS Vehicle Research Center. "Then around lunchtime, we send the vehicle down the runway into the block."
Afterwards, the data boxes and photos are retrieved after the test, and, in many cases, engineers analyze the data at a workstation on the spot. Measurements are made to determine how much the vehicle structure has been deformed. Telltale grease paint from the dummies shows where they struck the dashboard, windshield or interior panel.
If a private contractor is running a test for an automaker, the data might lead to new safety research findings or design changes.
Interestingly, NHTSA, the national arbiter of vehicle safety, has no crash facilities of its own. But it does have a research office at a facility owned by TRC Inc. in East Liberty, Ohio. The research there takes many forms, often helping to shape NHTSA standards.
"For example, we have a certain amount of lab space where we build our own test devices for testing of variety of different types, such as deploying an airbag into a child dummy to see if the dummy is damaged," said Don Willke, chief of the NHTSA Defects Analysis and Crashworthiness Division.
Since founding its own crash test lab in 1992, IIHS has undertaken thousands of carefully monitored crashes. The tests range from crash sled impacts (often used to test restraint systems) to single-vehicle and multiple-vehicle crashes. They take place in a 21,600-square-foot crash hall with three runways.
IIHS does roughly two high-speed front or side crash tests a week. Zuby says it deliberately seeks out ways to complement, not duplicate, the work of other crash testers. That's why it's now looking closely at a somewhat neglected area: rear-end collisions.
Recently, it crash-tested a Nissan Xterra and Frontier, both without side airbags, and scheduled more tests for the same models equipped with the devices, for comparison purposes.
There was a reason for the double-testing: IIHS wants to see more cars equipped with side airbags and educate consumers about their value as an option, Zuby said. The data it collects will help it do that.
Rollovers are also a key research area, and a new General Motors facility in Milford, Mich., offers a glimpse of how these tests are run. They involve a car or truck racing up a corkscrew ramp and doing a gymnastic-style flip in mid-air, before crashing onto the floor.
Before each rollover at GM, technicians spend four or five days outfitting the vehicle, mounting sensors, cameras and lights inside and outside the car or truck. During its short flight through the air, the sensors will take 10,000 samples of data and cameras will take 500 to 1,000 images per second.
The cameras and data boxes are then retrieved from the vehicle and their contents downloaded. The facility boasts 40,000 pounds of lighting fixtures in a hangar-like space of 38,500 square feet.
The brilliant illumination is considered essential for cameras to capture an event that is over in a tenth of a second. Extra lighting is also embedded within the vehicle and trained on the darkest corners of its interior.
"We install cameras in the vehicle because we not only want to see what is happening outside of the vehicle but also what is happening inside," said Albert Ware, director of GM's Vehicle Safety and Crash Worthiness Lab.
Whatever the test, dummies are the stars of the spectacle. They are used in many types of crashes and are essential for NHTSA's star ratings, which measure an impact's effect on occupants. The dummies usually cost about $25,000. But GM says it recently purchased wireless dummies for $125,000 that are well-suited to rollover tests.
The basic dummy design, known as Hybrid III, emerged at GM in the 1970s. One variation, developed at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in the late 1990s, simulates a 115-pound pregnant woman. The dummy helps researchers figure out how to protect a woman of that size and in that condition from a rampaging air bag or a misplaced seatbelt.
The dummy is officially known as the Maternal Anthropomorphic Measurement Apparatus version 2B. That, of course, lends itself one of the neatest acronyms in crash testing: MAMA-2B.