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The Science Behind Car Safety Features: Going Beyond The Crash Test

Crash test dummy

The science behind car safety features is increasingly focused on preventing an accident from occurring in the first place, and not just keeping you protected in the event of a collision. Naturally, traditional crash testing — running cars into walls and other fixed objects — doesn’t really work as a method for validating blind spot monitoring systems or lane departure warning features.

You may have wondered how automakers ensure that the digital nannies inside your car are always on duty. It turns out that the science behind car safety features has a foot in both the virtual and the real world.

Computer Model Everything

Before a modern active safety feature is added to the options list, a team of engineers has to determine how viable it is to build and use. Computer modeling plays a key role in the process, as it allows for the design and testing of a variety of different safety systems without having to actually fabricate sensors and components. By focusing on the software, and tweaking it in the digital realm, engineers can almost completely simulate real world driving situations and finish most of a feature’s programming without ever having to lift a screwdriver or solder a circuit board.

Testing the Eyes and Ears

Of course, even the best virtual testing still doesn’t verify that the science behind car safety features is solid enough for real world use. For that, you have to build a prototype of a given piece of safety equipment and put it through the paces.
Adaptive Cruise Control
There are generally two ways to do this type of testing. The first is to use an automated environment like you would find in a standard crash test lab, where remote-controlled vehicles are run through a pre-defined course simulating the kinds of hazards that the safety features in question are designed to deal with. For example, a forward collision warning system would be tested by remotely piloting a car towards an inflatable cushion in the shape of an automobile, to make sure that the warning flashes across the windshield in time. Other tests would involve obstacles being pushed in front of a vehicle while it is driving, to test its automated braking systems.

For more intricate testing, however, such as a blind spot monitoring system, it is necessary to have actual test drivers in the cars, working to simulate real highway driving. This means cars slowly creeping up alongside each other to confirm that the radar and sonar systems are installed accurately, and both detect their presence and provide the proper warning to the driver.

Remember that a safe car isn’t just one that boasts the latest bells and whistles, but also one that’s been properly maintained.

Check out all the maintenance parts available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on car safety features, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Benjamin Hunting View All

Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time.  I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.

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