Automakers Face Tougher Safety Tests

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has announced that it will be more difficult for automakers to qualify for the agency’s “top safety pick” award beginning in 2010.

The Insurance Institute, which provides automotive safety research to the insurance industry, says that in addition to receiving a “good” rating on front-, rear- and side-impact tests, vehicles will also be required to receive a “good” rating on the Institutes new roof strength test in order to be named a top safety pick.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also announced that it is preparing more stringent crash testing guidelines which will be implemented for all 2011 models. The new system will include a tougher side-impact test and an overall safety score for all vehicles tested.

Once the new tests and rating systems are in place, many expect fewer vehicles to receive the coveted NHTSA’s five-star safety rating or be awarded the IIHS’s top safety endorsement as a top safety pick.

Some say that the new tests and rating models will result in confusion among consumers and will present new challenges to automotive engineers. For automakers, the challenge will be in convincing prospective buyers that their vehicles are no less safe than in previous model years even though their safety scores have dropped.

For the past two decades or so, automakers have in essence designed safety features to the degree necessary to pass such safety tests and the tests themselves have remained largely unchanged. For consumers attempting to differentiate safety features of one make or model against another, the differences appear nearly non-existent.

By raising the bar, both the NHTSA and IIHS are highlighting the differences in engineering and safety technology that exists between the hundreds of new vehicles on the market.

Last week the IIHS released the results of its roof strength tests on six micro vehicles. The test was designed to simulate an impact force experienced in a rollover accident. The vehicles tested were the Smart Fortwo, Chevy Aveo, Mini Cooper, Hyundai Accent, Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris.

Although the Smart Fortwo tested poorly in the Institute’s front impact crash test this past April, it was the winner of this test. Based on its test results, the IHHS predicts that the Fortwo would provide better protection for passengers in a rollover accident than the other cars tested.

The worst performer in the test was the Chevy Aveo. Whereas the Fortwo was found to support 5.4 times its own weight, the Aveo could support only 3.09 times its own weight. However, that figure is still double the current federal safety standard.

In a statement that underscores the confusion that can arise from multiple tests, Janine Fruehan, a GM spokesperson, said, “One test alone doesn’t determine whether a vehicle is safe.”

IIHS president, Adrian Lund, said in a statement that the NHTSA’s “leisurely phase-in of the new standard means roofs won’t have to get stronger right away, so we plan to continue rating vehicle roof strength for the foreseeable future.” Lund says it’s a way for the Institute to “reward manufacturers who are ahead of their competition when it comes to providing protection in rollover crashes.”

The NHTSA agreed to postpone beginning its phase-in of more rigorous standards until 2012 at the earliest. Automakers claimed that the current economic state of the auto industry combined with the need for a minimum of one product cycle to meet new structural regulations justify their request for more time. The agency says that the new standards will be phased in between 2012 and 2016.

Posted in In the News

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