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Automakers Seek Numbers in Safety

In the heated competition for market share, some manufacturers further shift their focus to protecting passengers. For Honda, the goal is to 'become the top.'

March 14, 2004|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Tochigi, Japan — The big Acura sedan slammed into the tiny Honda at 35 mph. In a blink, the smaller car's front end compressed to about half its normal size. Glass shattered and air bags deployed in both vehicles with loud pops.

A dozen white-coated engineers wearing safety goggles raced from the shadows to the middle of the crash test center's floor to examine what was left of the Honda Life, a mini-car designed for Japan's tight streets and with barely half the weight of the 3,970-pound Acura.

It was a point of pride for Tomiji Sugimoto, Honda Motor Co.'s head of safety engineering, that the test dummies in the car emerged battered but without having sustained enough damage to have killed a human passenger.

One reason the little Honda did well was its newly developed frame. Mercedes-Benz is generally credited with developing the so-called crush zones, found in most of today's autos, that crumple to absorb energy to protect occupants. But Honda's re-engineered front end does a better job of absorbing and directing energy when a small car collides with a bigger vehicle. And Honda wants to introduce this technology, along with other new safety features, in the family sedan.

In today's ultra-competitive auto market, safety is a marketing tool.

"Manufacturers are looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition, and safety is one way to do it," said Dan Gorrell, vice president of San Diego market research firm Strategic Vision.

Indeed, safety rarely appeared on auto buyers' radar screens in the 1960s and '70s, but researchers say it is becoming increasingly important these days.

"People have gradually begun paying attention and getting interested in safety ... and the automakers saw that and decided that they had to compete," said Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

For decades, many consumers have considered DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, today a unit of Ford Motor Co., to be the leaders in automotive safety.

In the mid-'90s, Honda's safety campaign sped up when Chairman Yoshihide Munekuni challenged Honda to become "a company society wants to exist" in the 21st century.

The point man in Honda's quest to make the safest vehicles on the road is Sugimoto, who joined the safety team in 1978 and was named head of the program in 2001. Sugimoto, 49, now runs a team of about 300 engineers in Japan and the United States.

"Volvo and Mercedes-Benz were the leaders before, and in Japan we were ... a follower, not a leader," Sugimoto said. "Our goal is to become the top" in automotive safety.

Taking the checkered flag in the safety race won't be easy for Japan's No. 2 auto company. Volvo and Mercedes aren't about to sit back and watch an interloper take away the safety crowns they have worn for so long.

Mercedes-Benz spokesman Geno Effler scoffed at Honda's determination to lever itself into the safety leadership slot. Mercedes, he said, has "more safety firsts and more sophisticated safety systems" than any other automaker, "and we're not about to slow down."

The spokesman for Volvo's safety division, Christer Gustafsson, laughed when told of Sugimoto's desire to see Honda take over as the industry safety leader.

"I don't want to evaluate Honda's chances to take away our No. 1 position," he said. "But I will say that it would be better if all auto companies focused on safety. We encourage anything that makes cars safer for people."

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Crash Course

To build a car or truck that better withstands the forces unleashed in a crash, engineers must first know how every piece of metal is bent and how every piece of plastic and glass is shattered. So Sugimoto stages about 600 collisions a year. His staff spends hundreds of hours viewing and reviewing crash films and data collected by sensors in the vehicles and on the test dummies that ride in them.

In recent years, Honda's safety record has improved significantly. In the latest tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Honda's vehicles earned more top crash ratings than those of any other automaker.

Honda has said that by 2006 every vehicle sold in the United States under its Honda and Acura brands will come equipped with a standard suite of safety gear, including items such as side air bags and anti-lock brakes that at present are often expensive options.

"The rate at which improvements in safety are coming is very encouraging," said David Champion, director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports magazine and a former engineer at Honda rival Nissan Motor Co. Collapsing brake and clutch pedals, side air bags, rollover sensors that keep air bags inflated longer, skid-control systems and anti-lock brakes are all features developed by automakers but not yet required by the federal government.

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