Honda World Class Crash-testing Facility

What Kennedy Space Centre is to spaceships, Honda’s Research and Development Centre (R&D Centre) in Tochigi, Japan, is to the advancement of its automobiles. With the help of state-of-the-art research equipment, Honda’s engineers conduct in-depth research in pursuit of their ultimate objective: bringing originality and leading edge technologies for use around the globe. The advances pioneered at this enormous facility play a key roll in the development of automobiles that are right for the time, right for the environment, and, perhaps more importantly in an ever more competitive market, right for the customer.

In March 2000, Honda expanded its horizons by adding a new crash-test facility to the existing structure. Generally, consumers take safety very seriously, and so to stay ahead of the times and the ever-changing regulations in automotive safety, Honda will conduct all future crash testing at this centre. The objective is to ensure continuity across the product range. Honda’s research showed that the fixed-barrier collision testing is best suited to the evaluation of occupant restraint systems, including airbags, in cars of similar weight and little else. In light of these findings, Honda felt it necessary to conduct its own independent research into a vehicle’s crashworthiness. This thinking precipitated the world’s first indoor, Omni-Directional Crash-Test Facility.

At a cost of $90-million and with an impressive 41,000 square metres of floor space, this facility is designed for year-round operation, which ultimately reduces design and development time. Built into the floor of this laboratory are eight test tracks that are laid out in a spoke-like (radial) configuration. This setup allows Honda’s engineers to simulate a variety of frontal, side and rear-end collisions in increments of 15-degrees from any direction, meaning everything between a head-on impact to a full sideswipe can be accommodated. The design is such that a wide range of operating parameters can be built into the research. But it goes beyond that, allowing a comprehensive range of collision profiles – such as two vehicles travelling at different speeds or two vehicles of different sizes (a passenger car and truck) to be fully evaluated. In addition, it can simulate and analyze collisions between automobiles and pedestrians.

According to one of Honda’s top safety engineers, the knowledge of what really happens in real-life crashes is the foundation for designing and producing a safer cars, one that offers the best protection for occupants in the passenger cell. The ultimate goal for the car-to-car crash tests is to replicate real-world situations. By performing these tests, Honda’s engineers and researchers can accurately determine how its cars will function when the environment switches from a sterile test facility to the highways and byways around the world, as well as developing a true understanding of how human injuries occur. The results of these findings will lead to the development of new technologies designed to minimize the injuries resulting from a collision. It will also enable future products to not only meet current standards, but to take them to a level that should comply with future standards.

During the recent Tokyo Motor show, Honda invited a group of North American automotive journalists to its Tochigi R&D Centre, to observe a couple of crash tests first hand. One an offset head-on vehicle-to-vehicle crash, the other a vehicle-to-pedestrian collision.

The 50% offset frontal car-to-car crash test involved two cars from Honda of America’s press fleet – a 2001, 4-door Civic and 2001 4-door Acura RL. Both cars were outfitted with two crash test-dummies – one in the driver’s seat and the other in the front passenger seat. The Civic and its occupants weighed in at approximately 1,300 kg (2,866lbs) and was position at one end of the track. The RL and its passengers, weighing about 1,830kg (4,034lbs), was positioned at the other.

Both cars were accelerated by to speed using an in-floor propulsion unit down their respective tracks. Just before hitting each other at 50km/h, the cars were cut loose. Here the story gets a little bizarre. Rather than hearing the engines roaring and then the loud screech of brakes as the drivers realized the worst was about to happen, there’s almost total silence. Only the echo from the clanking from the propulsion units, sounding very much like the noise as you enter a carwash, broke the hushed silence. However, when the two cars made contact the surreal world of a crash test facility was instantly shattered by that horrible noise you hear when cars collide. In little more than the blink of an eye, the two cars came to rest – both totaled!

The entire process – the loud explosion type of noise and flying debris that followed after the collision – was watched and monitored by a wide array of computers, sensors and cameras record the entire event. A thick plexi-glass stage below the impact zone houses the some of the cameras needed to examine what happens underneath as one car crushes into the other. Others cameras, mounted from every conceivable vantagepoint capture the exact moment, storing the data so that it can be reviewed at a later stage.

After clearing the dangerous debris out of the way, Honda allowed us to examine the wreckage. Looking at the aftermath, the airbags deployed as intended, saving the heads, faces and upper bodies of the dummies in both cars. The pair in the RL would have survived and probably walked away with hardly a mark. Only the driver in the Civic suffered any visible signs of injury. His left knee had impacted the lower dash area, causing it to break. While difficult to tell how severe the injury might have been, I came away thinking that he would have hobbled for a couple of days, and little more.

After experiencing, first-hand, the collision research that is ongoing at Honda’s crash testing laboratory, I am certain that its engineers are on the right track in their approach to ensuring maximum passenger, pedestrian and vehicle safety. This could not have come at a more appropriate time, as according to the World Health Organization, road traffic accidents kill more than a million people a year, injuring another thirty-nine million (5 million of them seriously).

If this is an example of how future cars are going to survive a serious crash, I for one, feel much more comfortable about driving a smaller car. If something the size of a Civic can tangle with a significantly larger vehicle and allow the occupants to walk away, that has to be seen as a step in the right direction.