‘CSI’ teams help automakers spot trouble

on Jun17

Accident research teams, such as this one for Volvo, gather evidence at the crash site and interview people involved.

In 1970, engineers at Volvo Cars set out to determine whether three-point seat belts were safer than lap belts. To do so, they formed a team to investigate accidents involving Volvo vehicles equipped with both types of seat belts, studying the conditions of the accident and the injuries caused to understand the effects of the added shoulder strap.

Nearly 50 years later, the practice of investigating accidents has become ingrained at Volvo and other automakers, such as BMW and Daimler, as a way to learn how to avoid crashes or mitigate their effects. Even as safety and driver-assistance technology improve, these teams are seen as vital to the vehicle development process. It’s this kind of research that is credited with innovations such as the collapsible steering column and inclined rear seats.

“There are quite a few examples of new technology derived from what is going on out there,” said Malin Ekholm, director of the Volvo Car Safety Center. “Even though there aren’t as many accidents happening anymore, the learning from accidents is still crucial.”

Like Volvo, BMW and Daimler formed their investigative groups decades earlier — BMW in 1976 and Daimler in 1969. While much has changed for those automakers over the years, the mission of these teams has remained constant: to gather as much data as possible to make future vehicles safer.

Ekholm: Crash investigations push technology.

Automotive ‘CSI’

Accident research teams operate similarly to crime scene investigators — arriving at a crash site as soon as they hear about it, gathering evidence and interviewing the people involved to figure out exactly what happened.

“It’s very much like CSI, but instead of a crime scene, it’s a crash scene,” said Carl Schulman, a surgeon and injury prevention specialist at the University of Miami’s William Lehman Injury Research Center. BMW has been working with the research center for the past 10 years to study accidents and injuries in the U.S.

These researchers work with local authorities, who alert them to any accidents involving their vehicles as they occur. Volvo’s team, based in the automaker’s headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden, primarily investigates crashes in the surrounding area, while Daimler’s team covers a 120-mile-wide territory in southern Germany. Though it originated in the Bavaria region of Germany, BMW’s team has been analyzing crashes in the U.S. through its partnership with the Lehman Center, flying teams to sites across the country.

Once on the scene, data is collected on weather conditions, road conditions and the severity of the crash, which are used to simulate the accident in a lab environment. Drivers and passengers are interviewed and hospitals provide anonymous medical reports detailing accident injuries to the researchers. The automakers said they do not investigate accidents without full consent from those involved.

Ekholm said Volvo’s team has analyzed 40,000 cases in Sweden while Daimler has investigated at least 3,800 accidents in Germany. BMW has seen 457 cases in the U.S.

Safety innovations

While evidence gathered on the scene helps CSI teams catch criminals, accident research teams use it to isolate specific causes and injuries, incorporating preventative features into new car designs.

By going through its accident database — which dates to the team’s origin in 1970 and includes data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and government agencies in other countries — Volvo’s safety team noticed a pattern of back injuries when cars sped off the road, Ekholm said. As a result, every new Volvo model includes an additional crumple zone under the seat to help absorb off-road impacts and prevent back injuries.

After studying Mercedes-Benz crashes involving whiplash injuries, Daimler developed headrests that move forward when a car experiences a certain amount of force, providing extra support to a passenger’s head and neck.

In U.S. cases, Schulman said the team saw a “significant percentage” of accidents that were caused by medical conditions — drivers experiencing seizures or heart attacks while at the wheel and losing control of the car. BMW and the Lehman Center are now developing ways to detect such events and protect the driver and other cars on the road should they occur.

Even as vehicles become safer, automakers said these investigative practices still prove valuable, contributing the data necessary to achieve a world without crashes.

“The hope is to move more into the area of accident prevention rather than reducing injuries,” said Peter Baur, head of product analysis at BMW North America. “To do so we need consistent development and on-the-ground research.”

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