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IIHS Considers Beefing Up Side-Impact Test

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is considering beefing up its side-impact crash test, one of eight evaluations that inform the agency’s influential safety awards, with a revamped test likely coming within the next nine months.

Related: IIHS Testing Finds Pedestrian Detection Systems Vary Widely in Crash Protection

IIHS’ current side-impact test involves ramming a 3,300-pound barrier into a vehicle’s side at 31 mph, then measuring cabin intrusion and other data from crash-test dummies to assign the model one of four grades. The test, which dates back to 2003, differed from an extant side-impact test run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because IIHS’ barrier was taller, mimicking the impact from higher-riding vehicles such as pickup trucks. Automakers subsequently built cars that performed better in IIHS tests, but the agency notes that side impacts still caused 23 percent of occupant deaths in a passenger vehicle in 2018.

As a result, IIHS is developing a new, tougher test that will “likely roll out in mid-2020,” spokesman Joe Young told Cars.com. 

82% More Crash Energy

The agency announced plans Nov. 21 to unveil a higher-speed, heavier barrier that’s more representative of a modern vehicle. Although it’s still in the research phase, IIHS has experimented with a 4,200-pound barrier — 900 pounds heavier than the current barrier but representative of the average weight for a model-year 2019 SUV, the agency claims — rammed into the car at 37 mph instead of the current 31 mph. Together, those changes add 82% more crash energy than the current test, IIHS says.

That’s not all. After comparing side-impact results from the current barrier against results from other cars launched into side impacts, IIHS is also considering changes to the structure and shape of the barrier to mimic the uneven stiffness of another vehicle.

“The weight and speed of the barrier have been settled,” Young said. “We’re now trying to find a barrier design that’s going to interact with the struck vehicle in the same way as a pickup or SUV.”

The agency is currently testing various designs, he said. Asked if other criteria would change — data from the crash-test dummies, for example, or measurements of structural intrusion — Young said agency researchers are still sorting that out.

“We are very close to wrapping up the barrier design piece, and once that is finished, we will need to perform a lot of tests to figure out exactly where to set the cutoffs for different ratings,” he said. “The idea is to create a new test where a good rating is achievable but not a given. We expect vehicles to earn a range of ratings in the new test, like what we see in our newest frontal test — the passenger-side small overlap test.”

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Ratings Likely Lower

The agency has yet to unveil all changes in its revamped side-impact test, but two takeaways stand out. First, many cars’ scores will inevitably drop, and cars that won one of the agency’s two safety awards, Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick Plus, may fail to garner such awards going forward.

Indeed, IIHS conducted its tougher side-impact tests among four cars that received top ratings in the present test — a Honda Accord, Infiniti QX50, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Atlas — and some, the agency expects, will fare worse with the new grading.

“All four of these vehicles get good ratings in our current side test, but the Accord and QX50 are closer to the borderline between good and acceptable, so we expected these vehicles to perform worse in the more challenging test,” Young said. “The idea was to select some vehicles that we knew would perform slightly worse so that we could design a test that would really tease out those differences.”

Second, the test may set a precedent to beef up other tests. IIHS periodically bolsters criteria for its awards, which it doles out every calendar year, such that an award-winning model one year may fall short of the same status with the following year’s award requirements. But the agency has thus far moved such goalposts only by phasing in new tests, not revamping existing ones.

Although it’s made minor changes, such as how seats are positioned, Young said IIHS has never made significant updates to its six crash tests. The new side-impact test would signal the first such major change. But it wouldn’t be the last: IIHS is currently working on a new test to replace its moderate-overlap frontal test — a 24-year-old evaluation in which virtually all new cars perform well.

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