Sizing up Auto Safety

The 1,800-lb Smart Car places great emphasis on active, passive and designed-in safety features, but its hard to see how it would not suffer great damage if rammed by a Chevy Equinox.


Every time I run out to the grocery store three miles away, I hop into my 3,961 lb 1999 Mercedes with a 221 hp engine or my 3,470 lb Acura TSX with 205 horses. The Mercedes (which has 190K on the odometer and is rusting away) will go 130 mph, but I rarely go much over 35 on this mundane mission. The trip consumes a third to half a gallon of gas as I have to go through five stoplights. In good weather and when I have the time, I ride my bike.

With gas prices soaring, using my ton and a half rust bucket for errands is overkill to say the least. I'd be just as happy and a little richer taking a GEM e4 weighing 1,340 lb (that's with me in it) and powered by a 7 hp motor. My only fear — no matter how safe they tell me they are — is I'll get creamed by a much larger vehicle. All I see is carnage from a GEM e4 when it gets rammed by a three and a half ton Chevy Suburban (check out Chuck Murray's story on ).

In other words, weight, design, power and especially speed have defined today's safety parameters. They are for ton and a half vehicles on up through light trucks (it'll always be no contest between a Jetta and a Peterbilt tractor). Given cheap gas prices until recently, the economics for ton and a half or heavier metal hulks worked fine. Safety has been designed around them and we've learned a lot. Indeed, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHSTA) uses a 3,015 lb side-impact trolley going 38.5 mph to see which vehicles stand up the best.

The problem is now some of us want to drive street-ready glorified golf carts which compete on the road with vehicles weighing three to eight times as much. Carmakers such as GM don't believe much in downsizing their vehicles. On Tuesday, May 6, I drove its hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinox , which is 200 lb heavier than the internally combusted two and a half ton Equinox. GM tells us the point of the Project Driveway , as the Equinox program is called, is to prove to consumers that we don't have to compromise and drive glorified golf carts even with vehicles using renewable fuel.

But it's hard to imagine what's on the road today won't look vastly different in five or even three years. Cars across the board will get smaller and will redefine the safety equation in vehicle-to-vehicle collisions. The 1,800 lb Smart Car places great emphasis on active, passive and designed-in safety features, but it's hard to see how it would not suffer great damage if it was rammed by, say, an Equinox. The Smart Car hasn't been around long in the U.S., but the company that makes it, Mercedes, has a few online pictures showing how it fared in a collision with a small pickup. There are plenty of videos showing Smart Cars in dramatic crash tests .

One hair-raising crash into a concrete barrier at 70 mph shows the Smart Car holding up quite well, but I would not want to be in one when it careens into a concrete barrier at 20 mph, much less 70 mph. It's hard to imagine vehicles will remain as big as they are today and as they downsize, the collision disparity among big, small and everything in-between should be reduced. For now, I'll take the GEM e4 to the supermarket, but you'll likely find me in the breakdown lane being very, very careful.

Are smaller cars the future? Write me at . Or visit my Design Engineering at Large blog.

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2015 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
2015 Top Plant: Phoenix Contact, Middletown, Pa.; 2015 Best Practices: Automation, Electrical Safety, Electrical Systems, Pneumatics, Material Handling, Mechanical Systems
A cool solution: Collaboration, chemistry leads to foundry coat product development; See the 2015 Product of the Year Finalists
Raising the standard: What's new with NFPA 70E; A global view of manufacturing; Maintenance data; Fit bearings properly
Special report: U.S. natural gas; LNG transport technologies evolve to meet market demand; Understanding new methane regulations; Predictive maintenance for gas pipeline compressors
Cyber security cost-efficient for industrial control systems; Extracting full value from operational data; Managing cyber security risks
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Migrating industrial networks; Tracking HMI advances; Making the right automation changes
Understanding transfer switch operation; Coordinating protective devices; Analyzing NEC 2014 changes; Cooling data centers
Upgrading secondary control systems; Keeping enclosures conditioned; Diagnostics increase equipment uptime; Mechatronics simplifies machine design

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
This article collection contains several articles on the vital role that compressed air plays in manufacturing plants.