GM test facility aims to tame rollovers

It's a rollover crash, the type you're least likely to ever find yourself in. But if you do, it's statistically the one most likely to kill you.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Milford, Mich.—It’s over in a heartbeat: one moment the Buick is on all four wheels, and the next, it’s up in the air, and then sliding on its side.

It’s a rollover crash, the type you’re least likely to ever find yourself in. But if you do, it’s statistically the one most likely to kill you.

In this case, the driver survived. He’s one of General Motors’ crash-test models, and the crash was performed at the company’s brand-new $10.2 million (U.S.) indoor rollover crash testing facility at its proving grounds here.

It’s the only inside rollover facility owned by a North American auto maker, and it will be used for both North American and global testing, says Albert Ware, director of vehicle safety and crashworthiness labs.

“Now we don’t have to wait in line to use an independent facility, so we can be more cost-efficient and develop our technology sooner,” Ware says.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that rollovers account for just 2 per cent of all crashes, but claim 40 per cent of road fatalities. With technology such as airbags and stability control now more readily available, auto makers are concentrating on rollovers.

“Over the last 45 years, we’ve put a lot of attention into barrier testing,” Ware says. “This is the next frontier we’re going after. We want to look at how to avoid the crash, and if there is a crash, we want to minimize the injury.”

The new facility is a huge building. The testing area is 100 metres long, flanked by two enormous banks of lights containing 1,872 bulbs, each 1,000 watts. The lighting is computer-controlled and can be moved from a few centimetres off the floor to 25 metres up.

The bright lights are necessary for the high-speed cameras to photograph the crash from start to finish. Currently, cars are being crashed to validate the facility; actual vehicle testing will begin in February.

For this demonstration, they’re using a 2007 Buick Rainier SUV. All of the glass is intact, but its rear seats have been replaced with lights and recording equipment, and its undercarriage components have been painted in different colours, to make it easier to differentiate them on the photos.

The unsuspecting driver is an “integrated” dummy, or iDummy, a self-contained unit that stores its own data for downloading later. A regular dummy costs $100,000 to $120,000 (U.S.) each, an iDummy $140,000 to $150,000. GM estimates it owns more than 190 dummies, from infants to adults.

The facility can simulate four rollover scenarios, including the “corkscrew” used with the Rainier. The staff calls it the “Dukes of Hazzard”: one side of the SUV travels up a ramp, which rotates it onto its side. Most real-life corkscrews are the result of a vehicle climbing up a highway median. It’s a relatively rare type of rollover. The most common is a “trip” crash, when a vehicle sliding sideways hits a curb or shoulder and flips over.

The Rainier is equipped with rollover-enabled curtain airbags, which GM will have standard on all light trucks and SUVs by model year 2009, and on all cars and trucks by model year 2012, except for convertibles.

While regular airbags inflate and deflate in milliseconds, rollover bags remain inflated for about five seconds, reducing injuries and helping to keep the occupants inside the vehicle. I’ve seen a video of a rollover without them. The dummy’s head went through the side window and slammed into the asphalt as the truck rolled over. It’s not a pretty sight.

The Rainier is hooked to a cable in the floor that will pull it along at 70 km/h. The crash itself is surprisingly unspectacular: the truck goes up the ramp, turns on its side in mid-air, and then slides along the cement floor into a net that helps bring it to a stop.

It’s the footage afterwards that impresses. The dummy’s head smacks into the inflated airbag as the truck turns over. All I can think about is how it would have smashed into the glass otherwise.

Of course, preventing the crash is half the battle, and during remarks afterward, Beth Lowery, GM’s vice-president of energy and environment, says it’s estimated that almost 80 per cent of single-vehicle rollovers could be avoided with electronic stability control.

To that end, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed that electronic stability control become mandatory by model year 2012. GM has announced it will put its StabiliTrak stability control program on all vans and SUVs by the end of 2007, and on all cars and trucks sold to retail customers by the end of 2010.

Unfortunately, while the government can mandate safety equipment, and auto makers can develop better rollover technology, there’s one factor they can’t control: common sense. The latest statistics show that only 81 per cent of Americans use seatbelts (Transport Canada reports that 90.5 per cent of Canadians do).

You can only do so much to save people from themselves: of the 40 per cent killed in vehicle rollovers, 70 per cent were not buckled in.

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