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Automakers Face Choices, Tradeoffs In New Government Rollover Test

Oct 14, 2003 | Automotive News

Automotive engineers have several tools they can use to ensure that vehicles, including top-heavy SUVs, perform well in a new government rollover test.

For instance, they can turn to emerging technologies such as electronic stability control and, in particular, anti-roll control.

Carmakers also can make modest changes to suspensions and to weight distribution. Engineering experts say big changes would damage the handling feel or ride quality of vehicles.

"I don't expect to see wholesale, radical changes," says Scott Schmidt, manager of safety regulation for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Trucks will still look like trucks, he adds.

The new rules may help automakers put the rollover bugaboo to rest without a major disruption in business.

Federal regulators decided, after a 30-year debate, to subject vehicles to an extreme driving maneuver to test for rollover propensity. The test is called the fishhook because of the path the vehicle follows on the test track.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, announced the plan at a test track in Ohio on Tuesday, Oct. 7.

Runge says rollover crashes are a growing danger, especially for light trucks. Rollover crashes killed 10,666 people in 2002, up 5 percent from the year before, according to NHTSA.

The likely big winners are suppliers of electronic ride-control systems.

"We are very, very excited about active roll control," says Aly Badawy, an engineering vice president at TRW Automotive Inc. He says his company's anti-roll control, which uses existing vehicle hydraulic power and antilock brake sensors, will be available in a couple of years at a reasonable cost. He would not say exactly how much.

Existing electronic stability controls are designed to keep vehicles out of potential roll situations. But they also are thought to help vehicles perform well in the fishhook test, says Jim Gill, spokesman for Continental Teves N.A. So manufacturers are likely to install more of those systems, too.

A stability control system automatically adjusts brakes and throttle to keep a vehicle from spinning sideways. An anti-roll system uses an actuator to adjust suspension components to prevent tipping up.

No vehicle will fail the government test. A vehicle may perform poorly, but there is no failing grade.

The rollover test is not a safety standard. It only extends the agency's existing consumer information programs.

Vehicles already get one to five stars based on how well they protect people in frontal and side impacts. They also get one to five stars for "rollover resistance'' based on measurements of wheel track and the height of the vehicle's center of gravity.

Beginning early next year, the results of the fishhook test will be used to supplement the rollover rating already given based on vehicle dimensions. Even the most rollover-prone vehicle will get one star.

NHTSA dropped plans to use a second driving maneuver called the J-turn.

Agency officials say they don't know how many vehicles will get the fishhook tests.

Congress has yet to enact a budget for NHTSA for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. The agency says it will concentrate on testing more rollover-prone vehicles, especially SUVs and pickups.

Some safety advocacy groups, including Public Citizen, which was founded by Ralph Nader, still call for a safety standard - that is, a rule that would prevent the sale of vehicles that can't meet a minimum level of resistance to tipping over. The groups are asking Congress to enact such a standard.

Adoption of the rollover test, however, diminishes the already slim chances that a standard will be imposed.

Even David Pittle, senior vice president of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, the chief champion of rollover testing, says the industry must focus on what is achievable. NHTSA concluded in 1994 that it could not devise a rollover standard.

Pittle says the new ratings will force car companies to make safer vehicles - just as they have made improvements to score better in the frontal and side-impact ratings.

"I take some heart from the fact that manufacturers do know how to do this," he adds.

Adrian Lund, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research organization for auto insurers, says rollover testing is "not a magic elixir" but likely will lead to minor changes in vehicles.


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