Car tech: Building the zero-fatality car

An automobile that's so safe, nobody will die in it? New technologies are bringing us ever closer to that goal.

In the future, new cars might include an appealing sticker: This car is rated for zero fatalities.

Over the next 10 to 20 years, car companies will rely increasingly on computer simulations and virtual engineering to build safer cars and help reduce fatalities. With magnesium and carbon-fiber parts in strategic locations, active safety systems that slow the car as it follows curves in the road, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication that warns you about approaching traffic, future cars will be much safer to drive.

Volvo Car Corp., for instance, has launched a program called Vision 2020, which states, "By 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo." It includes not just new protective measures in the car, but technology for communicating dangers to and from the car. Other car companies have similar, less formalized programs.

Interactive

still shot of car safety infographic

Click to see an interactive graphic showing advanced safety features in current and future cars.

As ambitious as it seems, the zero-fatality goal is achievable, according to Ed Kim, an analyst at automotive research firm AutoPacific Inc. in Tunstin, Calif. In the next 10 years, there will be a confluence of safety technologies -- such as road-sign recognition, pedestrian detection and autonomous car controls -- that lead to safer cars, says Kim.

Getting there will require carmakers to develop and strengthen an underlying technological infrastructure that can support intense crash simulations using tens of millions of data points, as well as a robust communications network that sends out safety signals between cars. The result will be the deployment of new active safety methods that can predict a crash and drive you out of a jam -- literally.

Advanced crash-test simulation

Crash simulation has changed in recent years, says Majeed Bhatti, a car safety engineer at General Motors Co. In the past, engineers designed physical prototypes and ran them into a barrier, then analyzed the results on a computer. Today, the physical prototype is just the last piece of the puzzle. Bhatti says computer simulations are now used as the primary test method.

High-performance computing advancements have enabled GM to move to an interactive design process, according to Bhatti. "We now [simulate] a full vehicle model -- that is, bumper to bumper, including interior trim, with [crash test] dummies in it -- using as many as four million elements."

Engineers create test scenarios and send the results back to the designers, who use that information to develop the next round of car models for retesting. "We can see what happens to the trunk, the dummies, and we look at the information as you would do in a physical test. And then we look to see if we need to change body structure, airbags, seat belts -- or, in a side impact, the interior trim on door, B-pillar, roof rear headers. All of this would be done after several iterations on a computer," Bhatti says.

Only after a car design has passed every virtual crash test is a full physical prototype created.

Honda engineer with LS-DYNA car crash simulation software
A Honda engineer uses LS-Dyna software to simulate a crash test. These simulations use millions of elements, such as the front fender and the interior roll cage, to examine impact conditions. © American Honda Motor Co.
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