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Inside Honda's safety labs

Honda engineer takes measurements ahead of a simulated crash test
Honda engineer takes measurements ahead of a simulated crash test. Photo: Honda

In the ever-evolving world of car safety where billions are being spent on the most advanced lidar systems and deep learning algorithms, some companies are also focusing on how to improve occupant protection.

The big picture: Self-driving cars are a long way off, and newly available crash avoidance technologies like automatic emergency braking can’t prevent all collisions.

  • Until cars are smart enough to avoid crashing entirely, automakers will keep working on ways to reduce the potential for injuries when they inevitably do.
  • There are many aspects of safety under the microscope, including mulling how to compensate for gender differences in crash tests, developing better seats for women and redesigning the air bag.

Driving the news: Honda is introducing a next-generation airbag designed like a giant catcher's mitt. It not only cushions the front passenger's head but also reduces twisting neck injuries that often lead to brain trauma.

This week, I got a rare peek behind the curtain at Honda's safety labs on the campus of the company's huge research and development facility in Raymond, Ohio.

  • Besides the new airbag, Honda showed journalists its work on improving pedestrian safety and its use of crumple zones and other structural engineering tricks to divert crash energy away from the occupant cabin.
  • From behind plexiglass we watched as technicians crashed a bright yellow 2019 Honda Civic coupe into a 90-metric-ton block of concrete.
  • Seeing a crash test in person is pretty horrifying. (Watch how high-speed cameras capture the impact from multiple angles. You can actually see the energy flow through the vehicle.)
  • The car was destroyed, but the crash test dummy inside fared pretty well.
  • "Any time something deforms, breaks or bends, it's a beautiful thing," because it means energy was directed away from the cabin, said Brian Bautsch, manager of crash safety at Honda R&D Americas.

How it works: Before Honda crashes its vehicles into a concrete barrier, it spends a lot of time in a simulation lab.

Details: Honda's new passenger airbag is designed to reduce the potential for injuries that can occur in the real world, where crashes rarely happen directly head-on. Per Honda...

  • When a crash occurs at an angle, the lateral forces can cause an occupant’s head to rotate severely or slide off the airbag, increasing the chance of serious brain injury.
  • Instead, its new airbag has multiple chambers that sandwich and cradle the passenger's head, mitigating the potential for injury. (Watch video here.)
  • The airbag, which will debut in 2020, was co-developed with Autoliv, Honda's new airbag supplier.

Flashback: Honda recalled 12.9 million Honda and Acura vehicles in the U.S. to replace faulty Takata airbag inflators in recent years.

  • The Takata airbag recall hit Honda the hardest, but has affected virtually all major automakers.
  • With 56 million defective air bags being recalled, it was the biggest auto safety recall in U.S. history, according to the NHTSA. (Check your car's status.)