The VRC's 22,000-square-foot crash hall has three runways. There's room for not only single-vehicle tests but also head-on and front-to-side tests in which both vehicles are moving.
The system that propels the vehicles to impact can accelerate full-size pickup trucks to 50 mph on the VRC's two 600-foot runways. Speeds up to 25 mph can be reached on a 200-foot runway situated perpendicular to the longer ones. The propulsion system, the first of its type in North America, uses compressed nitrogen to run hydraulic motors that, in turn, drive the cables that tow the vehicles to their designated impact speeds.
The crash hall's lighting system provides up to 750,000 watts of illumination without glare, which contributes to clear crash test footage at multiple angles.
Detailed before and after photos of vehicles are taken in a special studio with a turntable that displays vehicles from various angles.
The front, side and rear tests used for the Institute's vehicle ratings are what the VRC is best known for. Other crash tests are conducted for research and investigative purposes.
Crash test dummies
Biofidelic dummies are calibrated and then positioned in vehicles for crash tests. The dummies mimic the movement of humans in real crashes and record the forces that would be inflicted on the body.
For frontal crashes, the VRC has a whole family of Hybrid III dummies, representing people of different sizes from a large man to a 3-month-old child. BioSID and its smaller cousin, SID-IIs, are the dummies designed specifically for side testing. For the VRC's rear tests, there's BioRID with its complex spinal column.
Each dummy includes 25 to 40 sensors to record forces on the head, chest, abdomen, legs and other body parts. Careful calibration ensures that the measurement of the forces can be compared with what's measured in crash tests conducted at other facilities worldwide.
Tests don't always involve crashing entire cars. Components like head restraints and car-related gear including child restraints can be tested on a sled that runs on fixed rails to simulate a crash.
The components are attached to the sled, and, for most tests, dummies are positioned in or on the components. Then the sled is programmed to create accelerations or decelerations mimicking those in a vehicle's occupant compartment during the fraction of a second of a real-world crash.
The sled can be programmed to simulate a range of crash types at both high and low speeds. This method is useful to study components whose performance in a crash wouldn't be influenced by the deformation of the vehicle itself. When crash forces alone are sufficient to evaluate a component, sled tests make sense because they're less expensive and easier to set up than full-scale vehicle tests.
Roof strength testing
One important vehicle test conducted at the VRC doesn't involve any kind of crash, real or simulated. To measure roof strength a metal plate is pushed against one corner of a vehicle's roof at a constant speed. The maximum force sustained by the roof before it caves in 5 inches is compared with the vehicle's weight to find the strength-to-weight ratio. This is a good assessment of vehicle structural protection in rollover crashes.
The Institute evaluates booster seats at the VRC to assess which models are likely to provide good lap and shoulder belt fit in a range of vehicles. Engineers use a specially outfitted crash test dummy representing an average-size 6-year-old child. For any given booster seat, the engineers measure how the safety belts fit under four conditions spanning the range of safety belt configurations in vehicles.
The VRC's outdoor track, at 1,000 feet, accommodates both vehicle research and demonstrations. When wet, part of the track simulates an icy road. VRC researchers have used the track to demonstrate, among other things, the effects of antilock brakes and electronic stability control.
VRC video tour (04:30, opens in pop-up window)