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Auto Design and Safety

Sleek Car vs. Safe Car

Automakers wrestle with design and safety features

black car

— Karl-Fredrik von Hausswolff/Gallery Stock

Boomers are flocking to cars with these sleeker designs, such as the Acura ZDX and Honda Accord Crosstour, says Tom Mutchler, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports. They’re both stylish, large, five-door hatchbacks with spacious cargo areas intended for those tired of their SUVs but who still want to sit up high. Mark Phelan, auto critic for the Detroit Free Press, adds the Infiniti M56X and the Lincoln MKS to the list.

Phelan and Mutchler both give low marks to the 2011 Ford Taurus, considered a visibility bandit. A previous version of the Taurus had a large glass area and big doors, and you sat up high, but the redesign pinched down the windows, says Mutchler, “so it’s more like sitting in a cave.” The new Taurus and the Buick LaCrosse are “terrific-looking cars that push the visibility problem for sedans to an extreme,” he says.

Looks, of course, can sell. Ford’s automotive safety director, Jim Vondale, says the Taurus’ raised beltline is one of its most attractive features. Retail sales have more than doubled over last year, according to figures from June. “A lot of people find the design of the vehicle to be very appealing,” Vondale concludes, and much preferable to its boxy forebears. “One of the most interesting parts of motor vehicle safety is all the balancing that has to go on.”

While automakers say they’re able to accomplish the task of keeping the car safe overall, they agree that the process is incredibly complex. “There are always multiple things you’re trying to accomplish,” says Larry Erickson. “A person could be balancing dozens of requirements. That’s why it takes a lot of people a lot of time to build a car.”

Safety vs. safety

Ironically, several new safety requirements may reduce visibility even further. For model year 2012 vehicles, the pillars, or columns supporting a roof, will have to be stronger to prevent the top from collapsing in a rollover accident. That probably means thicker pillars on the sides of the windshield, which are already two or three times thicker than they were a decade or so ago, further restricting the driver’s visibility, says Autoline Daily’s McElroy. “They specifically block the driver’s view of cars or pedestrians that are coming out of side streets.”

The pillars “are a safety hazard themselves that make the car look chunky and clunky,” he says. GM’s Max Wolff says accommodating these new pillars is a daunting task. They’re supposed to contain air bags but not hinder visibility. “We can never compromise safety, but the balance between the various safety features and design creates an interesting challenge,” Wolff says. Hyundai, for one, is attempting to address the pillar problem by using high-strength steel to keep them thin, leaving room for more glass.

New pedestrian safety requirements present another challenge. Rules will require softer, rounded bumpers to dampen the impact to a pedestrian who is hit. And though this new design should protect pedestrians, softer bumpers won’t protect the vehicle itself as well as conventional bumpers, according to Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America and author of The Car Book. “This is a very challenging engineering tradeoff,” Gillis says. “Increased damage in low-speed collisions increases insurance costs for the consumer.” However, Gillis stresses that these new bumpers shouldn’t reduce occupant safety.

Another aspect of pedestrian-friendly regulations is that designers will probably have to raise the hood of the car even higher. Creating a pocket of air between the hood and the car’s engine block lets the hood crumple more easily in an accident, allowing it—rather than the pedestrian—to absorb the energy of the impact.

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