By Chris Chase
Dearborn, Michigan – Tucked away at Ford Motor Company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan is a new safety facility that the company is banking on to help its engineers design some of the safest cars in the world while allowing the company to pump out more new models more often.
The Certification Test Laboratory (CTL) represents about one-quarter of a $65 million investment by Ford into vehicle testing aimed at helping the automaker deliver safer cars and trucks while reducing the time between the conception of a new model and its arrival in dealerships. The CTL houses six safety-testing facilities that can be used to conduct crash-tests concentrating on individual areas and components of a vehicle — without the need to destroy expensive prototypes.
“Safety is one of the key elements consumers look for in a new vehicle,” says Phil Martens, Group Vice-president of Product Creation for the Ford Motor Company. “This new safety technology provides us with data that allows us to deliver to those consumers vehicles that are among the safest in the world.”
This summer, Ford invited Autos to tour the CTL and witness a couple of its impressive safety devices in action.
The tour started with a look at one of two vehicle interior head impact test laboratories. Each is fitted with a “velocity generator,” which is engineer-speak for a really big mechanical arm that moves around on air bearings, similar to the way a hovercraft floats just above the surface of the water or land. A simulated human head equipped with electronic sensors is attached to end of the arm, and using hydraulic pressure, the arm rams the “head” into various surfaces in the vehicle’s interior at speeds of about 80 km/h. (Anyone got a couple of Tylenol?) The data gathered is used to help engineers design vehicle interiors to reduce the chances of head injuries in the event of a real-world collision.
Next we moved on to one of two “occupant out of position” test labs. Here engineers study the effects of impacts on vehicle occupants – from children to adults – who are not properly seated at the time of a crash. Using data collected in this lab, engineers can develop airbag systems that use various sensors to adapt deployment based on both the size and position of a driver or passenger.
The final stop on the tour was the Servo-Hydraulic Reverse Crash Simulator, known by Ford engineers simply as the “servo-sled.” By far the most versatile device in the CTL, the servo-sled can simulate five different collision scenarios. This is an interesting device in that it simulates a collision not by crashing an entire vehicle into an obstacle but by securing the passenger cabin of a vehicle – complete with a full interior and test dummies – onto the sled, then accelerating it backwards, simulating the deceleration that occurs in a frontal collision. The most important feature of the servo-sled is that it can recreate the way a vehicle pitches – or tilts – forward during a frontal impact. It can also recreate a frontal impact without pitching as well as side and rear impact collisions.
The servo-sled demonstration was the most dramatic of the day. A typical test begins with a few minutes’ wait while hydraulic pressure builds within the numerous cylinders and tubes that surround the sled. Then comes a ten-second countdown before a loud bang as the equivalent of 550,000 horsepower is released, sending the sled shooting down its track at an incredible speed.
Servo-Hydraulic Reverse Crash Simulator. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge
Blink and you’ll miss it, though – the test lasts just 100 milliseconds before the sled comes to rest barely 100 feet from where it started. Safety project engineer Cindy Bohen says about 10 such tests are conducted every day, each of which allows engineers and designers to make important safety-related design decisions before a single prototype vehicle reaches the testing stage.
The CTL houses three other testing devices that we didn’t get to see on this day: a second reverse crash simulator that’s used to test different occupant safety devices at the same time to better understand how they work together; a dynamic test sled used to isolate and test specific vehicle parts and components, a process that’s more efficient that testing whole vehicles; finally, four dynamic linear impactors are used to test small, secondary components like engine mounts and glove box doors to see what happens to them in a collision.
By using all six devices in tandem, Ford ostensibly hopes to not only build safe cars, but to build cars out of parts that are as safe as possible. But there’s another angle to the CTL, and that is to enhance Ford’s ability to churn out new vehicles more often and to compete better with Asian brands, whose vehicles traditionally have shorter life cycles than the Big Three’s vehicle line-ups.
“Our aim is to cut as much as 10 months out of the development process for new vehicles,” said Martens. “With shorter turnarounds of about 18 months (rather than 28 months), we can turn out new vehicles faster which will make us more competitive with Japanese brands in terms of keeping our vehicle line-up fresh.”