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Crash tests getting smarter, more efficient - and more expensive

A crash test dummy can cost between $50,000 and $600,000, making crash tests expensive for auto makers.

Crash tests have been key to producing vehicles for decades, and recent innovations around virtual simulations have opened doors to better building materials as a step toward reducing injuries or eliminating collisions altogether.

Ford conducted its 20,000th crash test at its research and development facility in Dearborn, Mich., in late January, on a vehicle that has yet to be unveiled. Prior to this, as many as 100 virtual simulations tested numerous configurations and iterative designs. Full-vehicle simulations now have up to two million elements, a four-fold increase from five years ago.

The improved precision and computing power needed to run these simulations, which are expensive in their own right, reduces the number of physical tests that cost even more (Ford would not disclose figures). A single crash test dummy can cost between $50,000 to north of $600,000 when all the sensors and data-collecting components are taken into account, says Steve Kenner, Ford's global director of its automotive safety office based in Dearborn.

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"In the past, repeating the physical test to gauge baseline performance was not only a lengthy and costly procedure, but dealing with statistically small sample sizes brought with it risk that some of the variability involved in the testing process could have a significant influence in getting the final results we wanted," says Kenner. "We now have a tenfold increase in the number of virtual tests in a vehicle's development because it gives us more data, more quickly."

That requires performing 100 virtual tests for each physical one. These tests revealed that a vehicle's frame could benefit from different materials, such as the high-strength steel found in the 2015 Ford F-150's frame, despite its aluminum body.

As auto makers feel the pressure to lower fuel consumption partly by using lighter materials, high-strength steel in key areas has been pursued as an ideal way to achieve that and meet or exceed crash-protection and safety standards.

Hyundai is doing exactly that with its 2015 Genesis Sedan, which is composed of 52 per cent high-strength steel, compared with 14 per cent in the previous model. The goal is to make the Genesis the "safest premium car on the market" and achieve the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) Safety Pick Plus designation for front crash prevention.

"You want to limit the crush into the occupant area, and there's a ton of work done so that the underbody absorbs a lot of the energy to push the engine itself underneath the vehicle, rather than pushing it into the cabin," says Michael Ricciuto, national manager of strategic and product planning at Hyundai Canada. "Absorbing that energy is the key issue, and there was a lot of virtual and physical crash testing put in to lessen the impact on passengers in the cabin."

Hyundai revealed that the 2015 Sonata also features a new high-strength steel frame, and Ricciuto suggested it will be integrated into vehicles across the lineup as well, but couldn't reveal which ones and when.

For its part, Volvo has been using Boron steel in its vehicles for more than a decade. Since 1970, the auto maker has investigated every collision involving a Volvo in Sweden, where they make up one in five vehicles, pooling that information into a database that plays a role in crash testing.

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Marc Engelen, president and chief executive officer of Volvo Canada, believes cages and cabins fitted with Boron has been part of the reason traffic fatalities involving Volvos fell 50 per cent in Sweden from 2000 to 2009.

Like Hyundai, Engelen says Volvo engineers using the research recognized that the engine's movement in a frontal collision was crucial to protecting passengers.

"We've been creating safety features and conducting crash tests based on actual accidents, whereas others were building their vehicles to succeed in crash tests," Engelen says. "We're not afraid of the new IIHS Safety Pick Plus criteria because we probably already qualify for them anyhow."

The upcoming 2015 XC90 luxury SUV will undergo 130 full-on crash tests, 80 of which will be virtual, he says.

A higher composition of Boron steel will also be built into the frame, along with the back of the plug-in hybrid version to protect the battery.

Despite more efficient crash testing and improved passive safety features, the long-term vision of Volvo's 2020 initiative is to avoid collisions entirely within six years using active safety systems.

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"We know that 70 per cent of collisions are caused by driver error, so we think we can reduce that with the four world-first crash avoidance systems that we will unveil in the new XC90 in August," Engelen says.

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