Ford has introduced an unusual range of new, extreme tests – such as ramming shopping carts into car doors and blasting water cannons to force vehicles into skids – to fine tune new safety technologies.
“These novel tests 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.”
Ford engineers are conducting these unusual 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 airbag systems use pressure pulses from a side impact to deploy up to 30% faster than a conventional airbag 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 airbag sensor to disregard typically minor collisions.
In one test, a lab robot repeatedly pushes a shopping cart loaded with a 110 lb weight into the vehicle doors at 10mph. 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, airbag-deployable crash and relatively harmless daily abuse that should not require airbag 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.
Engineers also conduct airbag 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 airbag pressure sensors,” said Steve Kozak, chief engineer, Ford Safety Systems.
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 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.”
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