When it comes to safety, speed is critical. Autos operate in “milliseconds,” or thousands of a second. Front airbags have about 30 milliseconds to sense an impact, analyze incoming data (from brakes or the steering wheel), decide whether to deploy—and at what level—and inflate in time to shield occupants. Side airbags deploy three times faster.
Every few milliseconds, the engine control computer must decide how much fuel to inject into the engine and when to ignite the spark plug in order to optimize fuel economy and minimize emissions, and all of this occurs while the driver is directing the vehicle to perform in different ways, such as accelerating onto a highway.
Preparing for a crash… in the blink of an eye
Today’s automobile includes components that work together moments before a crash.
Safety belts can tighten to keep occupants in place. Windows may go up and the sunroof may close. Rear headrests may spring up. Interior door paneling may shift to brace passengers.
Front radar may sense the distance from an object and adjust braking power to the best level. Power seats may automatically adjust to a safer position and seat cushions may adjust. However the driver seat will stay still, so the driver focuses on controlling the vehicle.
From the moment an impending collision is detected to the moment of actual impact, vehicles can use a network to quickly analyze data and provide occupants with the best possible protection.
Suspension may adjust to keep the auto level and reduce the chances of the vehicle sliding under something. Airbags may inflate differently depending on crash type. If the auto senses it’s being struck from behind, the front seats may move up to help protect backseat occupants. The hazard warning lights may turn on after impact to alert other drivers.
Crash testing helps make vehicles safer through months of different tests and analyses
- A crash test may only take two-fifths of a second, but the computer sensors can generate a stream of 4,000 data sets...and engineers need many weeks to analyze all that information.
- In an auto test facility, a new model of vehicle undergoes testing for about 30 different crash conditions, including side impact, front impact and more.
- As many as 25 crash test dummies may be used for testing just one model. Each high-tech dummy, which typically costs $100,000, is wired with sensors connected to a computer.