There are a lot of ways to measure cars. How fast do they accelerate? How fast do they brake? How fast can it take a corner? How will it help you survive a car crash? How much fuel does it use? How “cool” is it? While some of these are subjective, most are objective, and automakers, insurance companies, government administrations, and car enthusiasts put cars through a lot of testing.
Some tests are all about accuracy, while others are about pushing cars to their limits. Certain tests are used to give buyers an idea about what the car will be like to drive, such as in fuel economy and acceleration testing. Other tests are used to push cars and car parts to their limits. Here are a few highlights on how car testing is done.
The NHTSA and IIHS (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) both crash-test vehicles. This is a destructive and expensive test, to be sure, and not only because of the cars, but because it’s not just a bunch of guys crashing into things. Crash-test dummies, for example, are built to mimic the human body. Embedded sensors detect forces that each part of the body experiences, computer systems capturing data from a crash just tenths-of-a-second in duration.
Both agencies test of number of crash types and characteristics, such as the offset head-on crash, side barrier crash, rollover tendency, and more. The better-protected the crash-test dummy, the higher the safety rating, and the more likely you and your passengers will be able to walk away from an accident!
Fuel Economy Testing
For the most part, the automakers test and report their own fuel economy ratings, but this usually isn’t based on real-world fuel-use statistics. One can’t cover all driving situations, so sophisticated calculations are run, based on vehicle weight, intended use, engine size, transmission type, aerodynamics, and more.
The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is the official government agency testing fuel economy and vehicle emissions, and reviews the results, verifying up to 20% of the new models each year. The EPA laboratory test involves a test “driver” putting the car on a dynamometer, which turns the car into something of a “stationary bike,” only more powerful. The driver runs the car in specific driving patterns or “drive cycles” to simulate the average drive, while exhaust analysis determines how much fuel is burned from moment to moment.
One might think performance testing is “the fun part,” and testing agencies admit that it can be hard to maintain focus. It takes practice, a steady hand, high-speed cameras, and a lot of high-tech equipment. Starting with a full tank of whatever fuel the manufacturer recommends and suggested tire pressure, the measurements begin on a dedicated track.
Acceleration is tested on a short track, times ticked off at 30 mph, 60 mph, and the 1/4-mile marker, sometimes 100 mph, too. Deceleration is checked, basically by slamming on the brakes and seeing how long it takes to stop, after doing this a few times, the brakes start to fade, so that’s worked into the equation as well.
Of course, in the end, what does all this testing mean for you? Hopefully, automakers have pushed enough limits that they could identify weak parts and upgrade them, so you end up with a more reliable vehicle. Fuel economy testing should hopefully result in more reliable fuel budgeting for you, though there have been some failures in that respect. Safety testing, though it can’t account for every single occurrence, improves your safety.