Sunday, December 24, 2006

GM to put rollover air bags in all models

Tuesday, December 05, 2006
GM to put rollover air bags in all models
Announcement expected as automaker unveils new $10M Milford crash testing center.
David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With a heart-pounding launch of a dark red Buick Ranier SUV traveling 44 mph off a one-wheel ramp, General Motors Corp. today will unveil its state-of-the-art $10.2 million rollover testing facility in Milford.

If all goes well, the smashed-up $32,000 vehicle will come to rest just 55 feet away as news media and the top federal auto regulator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Nicole Nason, look on.

With a painted crash test dummy in the driver seat, the 1.3-second test is designed to help GM evaluate air bag sensors it is developing to protect people in rollover accidents.

GM also will announce today that by 2012, it will make rollover-enabled air bags standard on all retail vehicles. Currently, the air bags are on 43 percent of light trucks and SUVs. At the new testing facility at its Milford Proving Grounds, GM will perform 150 rollover tests next year in an effort to better understand rollover crashes, unpredictable events that account for less than 3 percent of all crashes but 25 percent of traffic deaths. Nearly 60 percent of SUV fatalities are the result of rollovers. In fact, a driver is twice as likely to die in an SUV rollover as in a car rollover.

To illustrate how unpredictable rollovers can be, several GM engineers, during the first of four practice tests last week in Milford, put tape on the floor to indicate their predictions of where the Buick Rainier would land. None of the engineers guessed correctly, said Bob Lange, GM's executive director of vehicle structure and safety integration.

"In the real world, rollovers are all over the map," Lange said, in explaining why researchers have much to learn about rollovers and how vehicles and passengers respond. "This will significantly increase our capacity and our understanding of rollovers."

During the practice tests, GM had a steel reinforced net in place to catch the careening Ranier, but the automaker took the extra precaution of parking a few junked cars behind the net to make sure the flying Buick didn't crash into the building.

The Ranier flew 55 feet in 1.3 seconds; the back window shattered, but the front window only cracked. That vehicle will be on display today.

New tests, upgrades abound

In 2002, GM began thinking about expanding its crash testing efforts, especially with an eye on rollovers. Then in 2004, the automaker decided to build the in-house facility in Milford.

Like many other automakers, GM had been using an Auburn Hills test facility at Autoliv, a Sweden-based automotive safety parts supplier that conducts nearly all U.S. rollover tests.

At the Milford site, GM will be able to conduct four main types of rollover tests. The first is the flying floor test -- used to simulate a vehicle sliding sideways in soil, gravel or a curb. Those types of crashes account for about half of rollovers. The second simulates a driver veering off of the side of a road onto a steep embankment and over-correcting, leading to a rollover.

The third is today's test, called the corkscrew ramp flip-over. In-house it's also known as the "Dukes of Hazzard" test, because of its similarity to chases in the 1970s TV show. The fourth test, the inclined dolly test, is a tethered rollover that doesn't cause vehicle damage.

GM also upgraded its crash test equipment. It has spent $3 million to upgrade adult crash test dummies and add new passenger dummies simulating 6-month-olds to 10-year-olds. It also spent $6 million for digital high-speed cameras and $6 million for a new sled, a hydraulic device used to simulate frontal and rear crash tests. The new sled is 2.5 times as powerful as two older sleds.

GM also will use new "wireless" dummies to monitor crash responses, instead of the lower-tech dummies with electronic umbilical cords.

In all, GM is spending $33 million to upgrade is safety testing facilities.

Including rollover tests in England, GM has conducted about 400 over the last half dozen years.

The new facility will allow GM to dramatically increase testing and publish the findings in an effort to find better ways to keep unbelted drivers from being ejected; and keeping belted drivers better restrained, Lange said.

Rollover crash tests are rare

Despite the seriousness of rollover accidents, there are surprisingly few rollover crash tests, relative to other crash tests -- in large part because they aren't "repeatable."

"There are a lot of variables: Did the vehicle hit a tree or a curb or another car first? Once a vehicle starts rolling, how do you keep the results repeatable?" said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The institute doesn't conduct rollover tests, but instead uses its resources to conduct side, front and rear impact crashes, Lund said, to try to prod automakers into making safety upgrades.

Lund praised GM's new test facility, saying more research may help automakers better design systems to keep people inside vehicles and protect heads during crashes.

Though NHTSA conducts rollover "resistance" tests to determine their likelihood of rolling over, the agency conducts few rollover crash tests.

NHTSA will conduct nearly 400 rollover resistance tests this year, mostly for research purposes. It has 68 planned next year for its new car assessment program. It conducts separate roof strength tests.

Roof strength at issue

In 1971, NHTSA first proposed a mandatory 30-mph rollover test for all vehicles, beginning in 1977. That mandate has been "temporarily" on hold ever since.

"They've essentially had a 34-year reprieve from a test they should be conducting," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc.

He said electronic stability control is an answer, as are government-mandated improvements to roof strength.

In September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed mandating electronic stability control on all vehicles by the 2012 model year. That anti-rollover technology uses sensors to help avoid loss of vehicle control and, subsequently, rollover crashes.

NHTSA said the regulation could reduce rollovers by up to 80 percent, save between 5,300 and 10,300 lives annually and reduce single-vehicle crashes by 35 percent.

"No one is going to solve the problem until the government requires them to," Kane said. "Government forces a change by the manufacturers in the way they do things."

Overall, rollover deaths increased 2.1 percent from 2004 to 2005 to 10,816.

But SUV rollover deaths actually decreased 1.8 percent, because of increased use of electronic stability control.

GM and Ford essentially drafted the roof strength regulation as it stands, leading an industrywide effort in 1971 to convince federal officials to adopt a minimum standard -- but only after their vehicle fleets failed the government's first proposed test.

In 1991, after SUVs became popular and rollovers increased because of the vehicles' high centers of gravity, Congress told NHTSA to address the problem. Finally, in 2005, Congress ordered NHTSA to rewrite its roof strength rules.

You can reach David Shepardson at (202) 662-8735 or

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