Decades of engineering preceded the milliseconds before this Honda was crashed

Hidden in crumpled metal, rippled hoods, shattered wheels, and smeared paint, Honda engineers have found order.

Order exists all around them, of course. The research and design center near Columbus, Ohio, coats cold office space with white paint and lots of sterile concrete, hard walls, and inanimate dummies. Every worker wears a white coat to work every day—engineers, managers, everyone, all the way up to Honda’s CEO in Japan—a workaday mentality for the automaker that permeates every facet of its carmaking. The walls are adorned with hoods signed by line workers. So are the meeting rooms where engineers pore over data gleaned from crashes, and the lives they’re trying to save in every car.

Order even exists in the sacrificial cars they crash test, almost one per day. Today’s victim: a pale yellow 2019 Honda Civic Coupe now scattered in chunks like onions, peppers, and mustard from Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace down the interstate. It’s wrecked, broken, and heaps of parts are shoveled away, but engineers will learn from every bit.

The way the cars’ metal undulates, breaks and bends at 40 mph after it’s hurtled toward a 90-metric-ton wall that moves less than 1 millimeter after impact are all part of the automaker’s comprehensive testing schedule. What begins in computers, ends up in a scattered heap of plastic and wires, metal and glass, eventually.

Eric Heitkamp, a safety engineer at Honda, holds a part of the patents for the automakers’ newest airbags, which will debut on some of its cars beginning next year. A welcoming smile seeps past his thin beard when he talks about the forces at impact, monumental engineering, or lunch. His interest clearly is in the technology, but his results save lives—maybe yours. 

It may not be as sexy as a new engine or new body style, but Heitkamp’s role in how cars perform is just as critical—even if it’s not as visible. 

“Every person lost on the road is something we take personally, it’s something we take to work every day,” he said.

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

Every millisecond matters

In Honda’s research and development workshop near Columbus, Ohio, Heitkamp hand-sewed early versions of a new three-chamber, two-stage airbag conceived by him and other engineers. A sewing machine sits in the corner of this workshop where airbags are routinely blasted open under lights and high-speed cameras. His new airbag will go into cars soon, although Honda didn’t say what cars those would be. 

Heitkamp’s airbag, which inflates on the passenger side, looks like the traumatized cousin to a pillow and a neck cushion. In front, a piece of fabric—engineers call it a sail—catches the passenger’s face while the bag inflates behind it in 40 milliseconds. As the front passenger moves toward the dashboard during the crash, the airbag’s lateral cushions restrict head rotation, which can cause further injury. The airbag’s window to prevent injuries is just 100 milliseconds long, faster than a blink, and it must be done in concert with the rest of the car’s airbags and seat belts.

Heitkamp said the new airbag cuts “brain strain,” which is head rotation and inertia that can cause injuries in a crash—by 75 percent. Reducing that strain may cut down the number of fatal crashes each year; in 2017, car crashes killed 37,133 people.

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

“This isn’t just a number to us. This is a person that’s not going to make it home tonight,” said Safety and Strategy Planning Chief Engineer Bryan Hourt. 

Honda, along with supplier Autoliv, developed the passenger-side airbags and said other automakers could adopt the new bag design in their cars soon. Honda’s led the charge for others before. Engineers at Honda helped develop life-like dummies and components of dummies that have helped measure crashes that involve pedestrians. The automaker’s design for lower legs is used industry-wide in pedestrian crash tests, changing the way grilles and hoods have been made for more than a decade.

The newest airbag is just one of many safety systems Honda has designed to reduce injuries in a car crash—or eliminate crashes altogether. 

At its test facility in Ohio, Honda crashes nearly one car every workday each year—225 each year—and each crash creates 35 gigabytes of data. Engineers say four miles of cable are added to each of the cars that take 80 hours to prep before they’re crash tested. They’ll comb over the data from the real-world crash for months, from nearly every camera angle available, recorded at 1,000 frames per second. 

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

Up to speed, faster

Before those cars ever hit a wall, safety engineers simulate 30,000 crashes for each design on computers equipped with more than 16,000 cores and write 220 terabytes of data. It’s enough storage for digitized versions of every book in the world four times over. 

The simulated crash data precedes any metal formed for the car or any tools made for crash protection. 

Kishore Pydimarry, an engineer with Honda’s crash simulation and visualization team, said the data from virtual crashes is integral to how the cars will perform in the real world. 

The team began using simulations in 1996, in a limited capacity to design bumpers or small components. Now, the company uses computers to simulate entire car crashes, rendered for the big screen and virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Besides being pretty, with reflective metal, rippling tires, and real-world textures, the rendered simulations offer engineers an uncompromising look at how the cars will crash when they’re made—right down to the spot welds. 

“It’s a very useful tool to check if (our) design is doing what we need it to do,” Pydimarry said. 

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

Years of testing go into every car virtually before the first screw is turned on the line. It’s a long way from more than 20 years ago, even if the verification looks the same. 

Down the hall from Pydimarry’s lab, 48 dummies await their fate in a temperature-controlled room near the crash-test facility. 

Honda maintains a fleet of dummies in nearly every shape and size, sex, and age. Some of the dummies cost upward of $750,000, equipped as they are with more than 100 sensors to record everything in the car. Engineers perform 2,400 tests on the dummies each year; they’re twisted, whiplashed and hurtled into correct calibration. Some of the dummies specialize in side-impact crashes, others in pedestrian safety or rear crashes. 

The dummies will be whipped by a 550,000-hp canon that simulates hitting something else at 40 mph in milliseconds. It’s a full-speed sled that simulates the thrust of eight 747s instantly and can press the dummies into the seats at up to 35 Gs in a blink. 

Honda safety demonstration

Honda safety demonstration

“Final stop”

“This is the final stop for everything we’ve done up until now,” said Brian Bautsch, a principal engineer for crash safety at Honda and the manager of the crash lab. 

He means it in the literal and figurative sense: the lab has a 200,000-pound block of concrete that cars will hit at 40 mph. 

Nearly every workday, engineers will crash another car, a final step for verification in the simulations, designs, engineering, and airbags up until now. 

Heitkamp says he’s seen enough tests to predict within inches where the dummies will hit, what gets broken and where, and how the cars perform. The dummies’ faces are painted blue and yellow with chalk paint. Their imprint on airbags smears chalk across the white bags in predictable patterns—Heitkamp reads the blue and yellow smudges like tea leaves to find areas to improve. 

“If it’s off even just a little bit…then we know something must’ve been different inside before the test,” he says. 

The cars are drained of fuel and liquids before the crash tests, the batteries are drained just hours before the tests. A non-combustible spirit fills the gastanks before each crash to simulate the weight and viscosity of gasoline. The trunks are filled with sensors and recording data, and the dummy or dummies set in place. 

The long haul leading up to the 90-metric-ton brick accelerates the cars up to speed, in this case for the 2019 Honda Civic Coupe, about 40 mph. 

Bautsch inspects the crashes, looking for force and load paths to examine. After the coupe blasted the wall, Bautsch pointed to a small ripple in the roof, near the driver’s door—a small 1-inch divot easily lost in the carnage of a shattered wheel, metal shards, and broken plastic at the front of the car. 

“See that? Engineers love that. It’s a load path that shows the energy from the crash pushed all the way up here,” he said. 

From there, Bautsch inspects the door and frame before opening it later. Despite the violent collision, airbags and carnage, the driver’s door opens without cutting it open—proof that the safety systems worked. 

“This could be how this person could be saved,” he said.