From airbags and ABS to crumple zones and collapsible steering columns, one independent automotive body continues to hold a mirror to the market. So, is yours a five-star fleet?
WORDS SCOTT MURRAY | PHOTOS SCOTT MURRAY/ANCAP/KASI METCALFE
Ever been in a serious car crash? Not some nose-to-tail bump in stop-start traffic. We’re talking about a flying crunch into something solid at well over 50, maybe closer to 80km/h. Something chest-crushing that stops you breathing properly for weeks. Where your car punches into something hard enough for your brain to collide with the inside of your skull, causing severe concussion or life-threatening swelling. Airbags deploy at 300km/h into your face. Weightless limbs splinter on impact with doors, spinal cords snap, arteries rupture and your knee caps crack like crabshells as they smack under dash. No? You’re lucky.
Sitting in a dark room inside a vast warehouse facility, glints of light bounce off cameras, equipment and faces immersed in the inky blackness. Only whispers from personnel and vested parties are audible as we wait. Across the cold polished concrete runway is a matching room with engineers, computers and many pairs of folded arms, eyes eagerly watching the doomed beast, a glossy black SUV, sitting in the middle of the arena 90 degrees to the runway.
Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) crashes cars all the time, week after week, in controlled environments. They’re called ‘Crash Labs’, based in Sydney or Melbourne, run by teams of highly qualified engineers, data analysts, scientists – some very skillful minds. Their workplace is equally impressive. An amphitheater of specialised deliberate destruction where soulless new cars with no fluffy dice, dog hair in the carpet or prams in the back are totaled. Why? To keep your staff, their kids or yourself alive in a crash.
The man behind the numbers is Steve Cooper, general manager of APV-Tech Centre in Campbellfield, Victoria. From his Glaswegian roots, he moved to Australia for a 12-month stint. Eight years later he’s still here assisting ANCAP, making a difference.
“My first crash test was at Jaguar Cars as senior designer,” he recalls. “The car we crashed was the XJ41 prototype given later by then-parent company Ford to Aston Martin to rename the DB7. We built five prototypes costing £5million each in 1990 – crashing one of them. I was working in occupant protection on steering columns, airbags, instrument binnacles, knee bolsters and belts.”
Crashing a ‘Big Cat’ V12 Jaguar XJS back then, Steve remembers vividly the results of those tests saw the enormous engine causing the deceleration seen transferred to the occupant pushing chest loads through the roof. Clever design of longitudinal crush tubes, bolsters, airbags, and rip-stitching seatbelts solved this problem. He also witnessed a ten-year-old Holden at the time push the steering column right through the firewall until the steering wheel finished 20mm from the driver’s seat – where a human would’ve been sitting. It wasn’t just the cars that were primitive.
“Twenty years ago the dummies were night and day compared to today’s. The data acquisition systems and instruments were much less sophisticated. You were lucky sometimes to even get readings from a test because something didn’t trigger. But the equipment now is unbelievable; a dummy now will cost over a million dollars because it’s so accurate, complex and lifelike in the data we collect.”
“Our new models will read up to 135 channels of data, with 240 channels of data capacity in our data loggers.” Think of it like analogue telly vs digital pay-tv and Netflix today.
“We take 20,000 readings every second, recalibrating dummies every three tests even though ANCAP stipulates every four,” Steve said. It needs to be this incredibly accurate because a crash only lasts about 150 milliseconds – about half the time it takes to blink.
When it comes to accuracy, ANCAP cannot afford to compromise. APV-T uses 25 dummies that range from 5th percentile females to 50th and 95th percentile males, plus a six-month old, three year old, six-year old and ten-year old which also help test child restraints. This is the blood-and-guts of crash testing, the part that feels more ‘CSI’ than ‘R&D’.
“You’ve got accelerometers in the head, chest and pelvis, load detectors in the knees,” Steve continues with an onslaught of graphical information. The chest deflects to simulate whiplash “as the seatbelt pyrotechnic pretensioners engage and impart greater than 60G decelerations. We use pendulums to calibrate all the dummies,” Steve describes as yours truly gulps at the rubbery, flesh-coloured likenesses strung up on the lab wall. Like faceless clones awaiting death row.
Crash test dummies or ATDs (Anthropomorphic Test Device) are designed to be as biofidelic (human-like) as scientifically possible. They can weigh about 80kgs depending on the percentile human they’re meant to mimic. But they don’t just use dummies for vehicle crash tests, they’re used to measure head impact loads on, for example, hard poolside tiles compared to new, innovative soft tiles; measuring kinetic energy.
Measuring the event of a crash requires exceptional skill and equipment to understand the violent levels of G-force only astronauts, fighter pilots or Formula 1 drivers might struggle to comprehend.
“We have 11 high speed cameras capturing 1000 frames-per-second during the crash, with yellow tape switches on the side of the car triggering the whole sequence. We can then analyse the crash from the car’s point of view through matching acceleration, deceleration and all those channels of data to see how it crumples. We then plot graphs for ANCAP and can show them everything that’s happened in those 150 milliseconds.” It takes three days to prepare one car for a crash test that lasts 150 milliseconds. It’s then a week’s worth of work for one engineer writing reports afterward.
Pedestrian testing is done in Adelaide where headforms and legforms are fired by air cannon onto bonnets, grilles, bumpers and windscreens to assess the ability to deflect head and injury for adults and children. Another part of the protocol is seeing how easy it is to get a child seat installed and uninstalled, particularly noteworthy in the event of a crash. Any difficulty sees the vehicle marked down.
Looking backstage, a forlorn wreck sits to one side with engineers poring all over it, assessing its endlessly deformed lines. Dangling bolts, cracked plastic, split rubber and scuffed red paint mishmash together like a shiny juicy apple pelted at a brick wall. In saving a life, there is a death. Aesthetically, poetically, it’s impossible to think someone could survive such an event. Fortunately Steve is there to remind that this is the science of survival.
“Here in post-crash assessment we measure pedal intrusions into the cabin because it can damage tibia and fibia in the leg where the dummy is fitted with load sensors. Amongst other criteria, you’re allowed one tonne of load on each femur in the crash, otherwise you fail the test,” he explained.
In other rooms of the facility seatbelt webbing is pulled to breaking point using tensile machines (when was the last time you saw a seatbelt snap?). Buckles and harnesses are stress tested under insanely high loads; seatbelt pretensioners are put onto a G-lock rig and subject to immense force to ensure belts hold you in place in the event of a crash. A tilt-lock rig simulates a rollover to test if a tractor rollover system works. FIA-regulated machines create 30 tonnes of load to test the sort of belts that keep racing drivers alive. Even child seats are put under the microscope.
“Testing race car seats and harnesses, as well as child restraint systems, is done using a sled that impacts at up to 34G of deceleration. The FIA [global governing motorsport authority] have now said it’ll need to go to 60G soon.” There’s something dark and medieval about seeing a child dummy strapped into a harness on a mobile sled capable of such destructive power.
James Goodwin is the face in front of the cameras, a CEO feverishly advocating for ANCAP’s work and a man on a mission.
“ANCAP exists to reduce road trauma and we sit above the Australian Design Rules, trying to raise the bar continually and push manufacturers to be above ADR regulations.”
“The more support we receive from government, manufacturers and our 23 member organisations around Australia and New Zealand goes into running the test, never influencing it. Some raise concerns for manufacturers ‘funding tests’, but it means we have more to spend on covering the rest of the market which may not donate vehicles.” But not all independents are as independent as ours.
Thinking about the deluge of imported vehicle products over the last five years, especially with the demise of local manufacturing, ANCAP is keeping Australian and New Zealand roads safe by continually providing transparency with consumers.
“One or two overseas programs are to some extent influenced by the government or by manufacturers. Regardless, it creates a rulebook and we’ve seen cars coming out of China for instance dramatically improved in the last few years as a result. They were resisting it initially, testing at lower speeds etc. but then became embarrassed by it; worried they wouldn’t be able to export their cars.”
“There are various maturities in the nine NCAPs around the world. We’re trying to get Autonomous Emergency Braking into our cars as we look forward to joining leading EuroNCAP standards, while others are still working on crash survival by getting airbags into cars.”
Talking to James is an exercise in 007 levels of suave, but with subplots of a man forced to keep political
frustration beneath a convincing smile. Trying to instil consumer safety in MPs who rarely drive themselves, to employ regulations that don’t line their pockets is not a position to envy. What makes it worthwhile is when things do change.
“If your car didn’t have curtain airbags in 2003, you couldn’t get a five-star rating. But,” he continues, “according to the government, it will not be a requirement for passenger cars to have curtain airbags until next year. That’s not even in light commercials.” LCVs in September sold nearly 18% above 2015 figures and over 11% more than the previous year-to-date. HiLux and Ranger sold 64,346 units in 2015 and yet are not regulated, by government, to come standard with curtain airbags. Likewise ANCAP demanded Electronic Stability Control (ESC) in 2008 – yet 2013 it was mandated just for passenger cars.
There are three types of fully destructive crashes. A frontal offset test sees a vehicle driven at 64km/h into a blue honeycomb-type deformable barrier which partially collapses on impact to simulate another vehicle. These boxes cost about $5000 each. Frontal offset tests the head-on structural design of the car in the most common crash scenario. Not so long ago, this was almost a guaranteed death sentence. Chassis rails would buckle, panels ripped off, doors flung open and devastating amounts of energy rippled through vehicles with poor or no crumple zones and straight into your body.
Then there’s the pole test. Even at 29km/h this one hurts just watching it on YouTube. It’s designed to simulate hitting a tree or powerpole at the roadside in a decelerating slide horribly yet easily imaginable on Australian roads. Unfortunately, all too common in our nightly news bulletins.
Lastly, there’s the Side Impact Test, the one we watched live as a mobile deformable barrier (simulated vehicle) plows into the side of the test mule…
A loud buzzing alarm echoes through the darkness from above. Rows of stadium flood lights shower down, harshly blinding the room. Eyes squint and tension fills every muscle in the APV Test Centre bunkers. Hairs stand to attention and there’s an increasing noise followed by vibration in the office glass. Something’s moving. This is it.
There’s a rushing sound from up the runway that takes an eternity to reach the stage. A flash of yellow and blue punches into the black hulk in the middle of the arena. Tyres wail and splinters fly, shoving it to one side where it becomes still and we exhale.
A crash is over in a heartbeat, but it leaves an immeasurable emotional legacy. Even in a lab
As a rule of thumb, for every one dollar spent on ANCAP crash testing, Australia saves about $135 in emergency services. Making cars safer to crash
means less trauma and mess to clean up on top of the reduced recovery times and suffering that occupants endured even ten years ago.
Hype will tell you autonomous vehicles are the silver bullet to saving lives on our roads, but the reality is our national road toll will read quadruple digits again this year, people will crash next year, in 2018 and into the next decade. ANCAP’s work matters. As fleet managers, you shouldn’t have to suffer first-hand horrific, life-destroying injuries in keeping your people alive on our roads. There are far more effective tools in your belt.
In 2018, ANCAP will change, just like the new cars that roll into dealerships. No longer will it be acceptable to offer a thinly-veiled cut-price import that doesn’t actively try to save lives and prevent crashes. Autonomous
Emergency Braking (AEB) will, as of 2018, be in effect mandatory to achieve a five-star ANCAP safety rating. Why? Because in order to realistically achieve substantial reductions in road trauma, the mindset needs to shift. It needs to evolve
from just surviving the split-second hurricane of twisting sheetmetal and punctured lungs, to actively stopping you from crashing in the first place.
This story isn’t meant to be another scare campaign and it isn’t. It’s a reality check. One intended to inform and empower our members to make strong, sensible decisions when putting your people in a vehicular workplace. Touch wood they’re never unfortunate enough to be in a crash, but they’re called ‘accidents’ for a reason. Protect your drivers with the five ANCAP stars people like Steve Cooper and James Goodwin tirelessly campaign, because nothing else will.
185 vehicles were destroyed in 2015-16, worth $5.6million
Those 209 crash tests costed $6.5million
92% of new cars sold (1 Jan to 30 June 2016) in Australia & NZ were 5-star (580,000 & 66,000)
LCVs = most improved 5 star segment, 59% to 81% from 2015 to ‘16
APV-Tech Centre tests motorsport racing harnesses, bus seat pedestal mounts, top secret military hardware and various accessories, buckles and brackets, wheelchairs and tethers, even the NBN cabinets.
APV-T is the most advanced test facility in the Southern Hemisphere and, as such, is a Tier #1 service provider of engineering and test services to many FTSE100, Fortune500, ASX200, and NIKKEI 225 companies around the globe.