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When NCAP’s Five-Star Rating Don’t Mean Much – And How Honda Is Moving Ahead

FEATURE
Hans December 14, 2015 15:16

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – not all NCAP (new car assessment programme) ratings are the same, and not all 5-star NCAP cars are equally safe. While it is indeed a positive step to see more consumers referring to NCAP ratings when buying a car, many have a wrong understanding of what NCAP is and how it works.

Firstly, each region has their own respective NCAP systems to reflect their local market requirements, and none of their results should be compared against one another, as the test methodologies and vehicle specifications are different, even if it’s referring to the same model.

The table below summarises the differences in testing standards among leading Global NCAP affiliated organisations.

Read more at: Euro NCAP, ANCAP, ASEAN NCAP – What’s The Difference?

Secondly, NCAP standards are constantly changing. A test result from 2013 should not be compared against one from 2015.

It is also important to know that NCAP ratings are not the be all and end all when assessing a car’s safety. All NCAP tests involves only a single vehicle, done in a controlled lab environment. Clearly this is very different from what happens in the real world, where multi-vehicle collisions are common.

Only very few car manufacturers go beyond what is required by NCAP standards. The ones that do, are usually higher-end premium brands.

Volvo for example, takes into consideration of situations where cars are likely to have slid off the road before crashing. A typical frontal offset collision test done on a flat surface does not adequately simulate the often violent, and unpredictable angles that the car might struck an object from.

Daimler designs its smaller cars to hold-up in a collision against larger cars – including even its smallest smart fortwo against its largest Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

Honda – the focus of today’s topic - is the odd one among the trio, as it is not a luxury brand but yet takes initiatives to ensure its smaller, lower riding cars can withstand a collision against taller, larger SUVs.

The image below highlights the problem with unaligned ride heights. Unlike a flat surface structure which NCAP crash its test vehicles into, the situations in the real-world are far more complex.

In such situations, a typical 5-star NCAP car can have its passive safety features rendered useless as the energy absorbing structure is unable to work as designed.

Back in October, we were given an opportunity to witness first-hand how Honda’s Advanced Compatibility Engineering (ACE) Body Structure and G-force Control (G-CON) safety features is filling the gap left by NCAP’s rating system.

Carlist.my spoke to Mr. Koichi Kamiji, Senior Chief Engineer at the Automotive R&D Centre of Honda R&D in Tochigi, Japan to learn more. Our meeting was arranged by Honda as part of the 2015 Honda Meeting event in the run-up to November’s 2015 Tokyo Motor Show.

“Not Merely Meeting Government Regulations”

Kamiji gave us a tour of Honda’s sprawling 41,000 square metre (about four football fields) indoor vehicle-to-vehicle crash test facility – the first of its kind in the world.

Prior to this, all crash labs can only simulate accidents involving one vehicle, while multi-vehicle collisions had to be studied in the open.

Opened in March 2000, it is from this research facility that Honda’s famed ACE and G-CON technology was developed from. The former has been gradually introduced on all Honda cars since 2004.

Today, all Honda models including the cheapest entry-level Brio that is sold in India, Thailand and Indonesia, are equipped with ACE technology.

What’s more impressive is that the facility was built in just eight months!

“We cannot stop at just building cars that merely meets minimum government regulations,” explained Kamiji-san. “What didn’t exist, we had to build it,” he added.

We weren’t allowed to bring our cameras into this very well-guarded facility but we stumbled upon this rather old video on Youtube. As you can see from the video above, the facility is like a huge indoor stadium – just imagine replacing the grass-covered pitch with a white, super-clean lab-like floor surface, minus the stadium seats, and with a quarter-circular layout, complete with bright flood lights overhead.

Rising above the ground from one side, snaking upwards towards the centre is a glass-covered circular-shaped control centre that grants technicians observing the test a 300 degrees view of the pillarless facility. Imagine combining the top of an airport control tower with the base of a table lamp and you will get the picture.

Just as footballers entering the pitch would normally emerge from tunnels at the sides, this facility has eight ‘tunnels’ for cars to be propelled out from, allowing Honda’s safety engineers to simulate collisions with a wide variety of lateral approach angles – the tunnels are built at 15 degrees intervals from 0 degrees to 90 degrees, with the last tunnel aligned at 180 degrees (direct hit with another vehicle coming from the 0 degrees tunnel).   

There’s also a movable barrier that allows Honda to conduct regular single vehicle collision test.

This multi-configurability also means that conventional floor- or wall-mounted power sockets cannot be used. Instead, the 1,000 frames per second high speed cameras are suspended from above, and on both sides of the test area.

At the middle of the test area is a transparent floor that allows another high speed camera mounted below surface to capture the effects of the impact on the vehicle’s under body.

The facility can also simulate collisions involving motorcycles and pedestrians.

Outside the test area, many severely smashed up Honda models can be seen. We were told that to date, the facility has completed over 20,000 crash tests, including vehicles made by other manufacturers.

Kamiji explained that laws of physics meant that occupants in a smaller car are more likely to be injured in a collision with a larger car. Still, there are some engineering solutions that can be done to improve the survival rates of occupants in smaller vehicles.

“A large car has a stronger body to sustain its own weight, and in a collision with a smaller car, much of the energy is absorbed by the smaller car. The idea is to spread the collision force across a wider surface area, rather than just on a few particular points (conventional solution) used,” said Kamiji.

Thus the basic principle of ACE is to use multiple-frames for impact absorption to create more paths for the impact energy to be dispersed around the smaller car’s occupants.

To prove the point, Honda did a live crash test demonstration involving a 1.7 tonne CR-V and a 1.3-tonne Jazz. The frontal-offset tests were conducted at 50 percent offset (meaning only half of the car’s front hits the other car, severely reducing the available area to absorb the impact energy), 180 degrees, at 50 km/h.

The standard NCAP single vehicle test is conducted at 40 percent offset, at 64 km/h, but Kamiji explained that car-to-car collisions mostly happened at between 50 km/h to 60 km/h (at point of impact), and that the standards used are based on real-world data collected by Honda.

He adds that the facility is able to simulate car-to-car collisions at speeds of up to 80 km/h, from 50 percent to 10 percent offset.

In any case, Kamiji also adds that Honda’s G-CON body is already designed to meet a much more rigorous internal standard, which is more demanding than NCAP’s guidelines – including a 55 km/h side-impact and full frontal impact (5 km/h higher than NCAP), and 55 km/h rear impact (not required by NCAP or any government regulation).

Seeing crash test videos on Youtube is one thing, seeing its live is quite another as nothing can prepare you for the shock of witnessing two cars crashing into each other live.

With the pleasantries over, we were politely asked to leave floor area and were reminded to wear our safety goggles. The ambient lights were dimmed down, leaving only the test area lighted, and the countdown begins. Thirty seconds later counter drops to zero, a final warning horn sounded, followed by the whirring sound of a pair of 800 kW electric motor pulling both cars on opposite ends towards each other. The noise from the rapidly accelerating cars became louder, they came into view and then ‘wham!’

The sound of steel crushing was so loud that it created a momentary boom that was strong enough to be felt on my chest. The impact was violent enough to throw both cars several feet away from their original path of travel.

Notice how far the Jazz continues to roll back while the CR-V comes to a stop almost immediately. This goes to show how much energy is transfered to the smaller Jazz.

Now we understand why they don’t bother testing at any higher speeds, because any higher, the human body won’t be able to sustain the g-force even if engineers can keep the car intact.

After the floor has been cleared of sharp debris, we were allowed go down to the test area. Kamiji-san showed us how ACE and G-CON worked.

Despite having a nearly 400 kg deficit over the CR-V, the Jazz’s cabin remained intact. He invited someone to try and open the driver’s door – it opened normally with little effort, revealing an almost-OK cabin. Neither the dashboard nor steering rack had deformed or injured the dummy driver. The dummy driver’s legs were not trapped in any manner, and if he was a person, he could’ve easily opened the doors and walked away unassisted.

We moved over to the passenger side, and there was hardly any deformation. In fact, if viewed from this side, at an angle where you don’t see the deformed hood, the car appeared to be perfectly fine. As we were not allowed to bring any cameras, I didn’t have any pictures of the passenger side. It’s hard to believe it, but if I were to show you the view from the other side, you would’ve thought it’s a perfectly fine car.

Toyota also has a similar facility, and some of its models also incorporate ACE-like features, but so far, it is only available on Japanese or European market models like the Crown and European-market Yaris (different from ASEAN’s Yaris).

The difference with Honda is that ACE and G-CON are available on even their cheapest Brio, and certainly on their other compact models like the City, Jazz, and HR-V. Does this apply to all Honda models sold worldwide? Yes. Normally, we will exercise caution when linking the crash safety performance of a particular model from another country with the ones sold in Malaysia, as some car companies have been known to sell cars with less sophisticated body structure in developing countries like Malaysia, where regulations are still lax. Kamiji-san assures us that Honda does not have such a practice, and that all their cars, whether aimed developed or developing markets, come with G-CON and ACE.

We know that Mercedes-Benz (including smart) and Volvo models also have similar features but Honda probably makes the most affordable ‘crash compatible’ car.

About Hans

As someone who appreciates cars not just for their horsepower value but also for their cultural significance, he is interested in the art of manufacturing and selling cars just as much as driving them. Prior to swapping spread sheets for a word processor, he spent his previous life in product planning and market research.

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