Behind the scenes at the lab that helps cut insurance costs

Crashing cars for a living isn’t reserved for stunt drivers creating scenes in a Hollywood blockbuster. And while the shattering of glass and crunching of metal makes a great setpiece in any film, there’s a much more serious reason to catch the moment on camera.

That’s the job of experts at Thatcham Research, who pour hours upon hours into making sure our cars are as safe as they can possibly be.

You might not have heard of the Berkshire-based organisation, which was founded in 1969, but you’ll undoubtedly have benefited from its work.

The research facility houses one of only seven Euro NCAP-approved crash test facilities in the world, and Auto Express paid it a visit to get a sneak peek and find out how Thatcham Research is helping the industry.

First up is the crash lab itself. Up to six cars are tested each year for Euro NCAP, with four examples of each model offered up to be sacrificed. The three tests taking place here are a 40 per cent offset front crash at 64kph (39mph), a 50kph (31mph) side crash into a moving barrier and a 29kph (18mph) impact into a static pole.

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The tests themselves are closely guarded, but we’ve been allowed to inspect three recently crashed Audi TTs. The two-door coupé was the first to be tested under new Euro NCAP 2015 regulations, and it scored four stars – one star shy of the maximum five awarded.

Alex Thompson, a crash research engineer and one of only 11 Euro NCAP inspectors in Europe, explains the split-second crash is just a tiny part of the work.

“There’s a huge amount of effort and preparation for a short amount of assessment,” he says. “You have to be extra careful that you have got everything correct – you don’t get a second chance. We take a huge amount of pride in our work and the quality of our output.”

It can take as much as a week to prepare a car for testing and several days to analyse the data before Euro NCAP

is happy with the final star rating, as Alex reveals: “You’ll see us polishing a car before a crash because it’s got to look as good as it does out of a showroom. The images are as important as the results themselves.”

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The Audi TT test was the first time that Euro NCAP had used the dummy of a small female driver and a rear seat passenger, too. As cars have become a lot more robust and able to deal with higher impacts, deceleration forces have increased, causing potentially severe injuries to smaller occupants.

The dummies are constantly being updated in the pursuit of the most realistic and accurate representation of a human being, and this doesn’t come cheap.

The Hybrid III dummy – originally developed to represent the 50th percentile male at five foot nine inches and weighing 80kg – costs £100,000. It’s designed to research the effects of frontal impacts, and the range has now expanded to feature a woman, two children and a larger man.

While the Hybrid III is pricey, it pales into insignificance next to the new WorldSID dummy, which will set you back £300,000. It’s been developed to measure rib, spine, and internal organ damage in side collisions, plus spine and rib deceleration and compression of the chest cavity.

With a dummy costing more than a supercar, you’d think it was the most expensive item in the Thatcham crash lab. You’d be wrong. Whiplash testing is also carried out here on car seats, and for this you need a Hyper G sled. There are only two in the world and they cost £1million each.

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It can be accelerated to 10mph in just a tenth of a second, thus recreating the forces endured by a driver or passenger in a typical low-speed shunt. It’s extreme stuff, but totally necessary to ensure we’re as safe as we can be in our cars and help reduce the amount of whiplash claims – one of the biggest outlays to insurers.

These insurers are the ones who fund the non-profit Thatcham Research, as the work done by the organisation goes some way to cutting claim costs and ultimately allows insurers to offer drivers cheaper policies.

While crash testing for safety is important, putting cars back together is also high on the priority list in Berkshire. Thatcham’s Repair Technology Centre houses an independent bodyshop that develops the best methods and practices to repair cars. It provides instructions for the cheapest and safest processes on the best-selling UK models and will advise a manufacturer if it thinks that they’ve got a repair method wrong. Such is the significance of Thatcham’s work that its repair methods are now being rolled out in Australia.

Andrew Hooker, advanced repair study manager of Thatcham Research, says the team works on around 45 cars per year. During our visit, a tripped-down BMW i3, Mercedes E-Class and Volkswagen Golf were being given the full treatment. He adds: “Cars will always have accidents, but can we prevent the big catastrophes?

“New models are coming to the factory thick and fast. We do our work so that the consumer doesn’t have to worry. People are a lot harder to fix than cars.”

A further challenge to Thatcham is the rapid development of technology that’s fitted to cars – including the changing methods of power as the internal combustion engine increasingly gives way to hybrid set-ups and ultimately full electric power.

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Neale Phillips, strategy and development director, says: “We have never seen the rate of change in vehicles that we are seeing today – it’s exponential. More sensors on EVs and safety systems make repairs more complex and may push up repair costs.”

The complexity of any repair and how well a car performs in a crash lab all feeds into how much drivers pay for their insurance policies via group ratings. Thatcham assesses every car and gives it a rating between one and 50 to advise insurers on what they should be charging drivers. Getting a better rating means a car is cheaper to repair, safer in a crash and, in this day and age, has more advanced safety tech fitted.

Manufacturers’ safety kit is a growing area for Thatcham, and technicians spend hours analysing data to see which systems have the biggest impact on safety. If there’s something that has a real-world benefit in cutting claims or reducing accidents, Thatcham will incentivise it by offering a lower insurance group to cars fitted with it.

Phillips explains: “We test each generation of a model and if, for example, two or three have autonomous emergency braking fitted, it gives it a different risk profile.

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“Manufacturers aspire to get the best rating on their cars that they can, as it means it’s safe and cheaper to insure – which will result in them selling more cars.”

Thatcham works between the manufacturer, insurers and consumers to get the best deal for everyone while ensuring drivers are safe and not being ripped off.

It’s an unsung role to play, but one that’s necessary. Summing up what it does, Phillips adds: “Every bit of research we do is about what we can do to reduce claims costs – be it in repairs, safety, theft or whiplash.”

The future of safety

The biggest battle for Thatcham is keeping up with the tech race being pushed along by manufacturers.

As new systems are developed, Thatcham Research has to decide which ones will actually contribute to cutting insurance claims, reducing accidents and helping motorists drive more safely.

If it thinks a system ticks these boxes – like autonomous emergency braking – it’ll actively support it and lobby Government to do the same.

One system that has potential to save a “huge amount of money” is parking assist, as a quarter of insurance losses are related to parking.

So, what else does the future hold? Matt Avery, Thatcham Research director, says: “We’re already seeing real-world benefits of technology, so we know it is working. The next big target is systems that think on behalf of the driver – they’re the building blocks towards autonomous cars.”

However, some systems are distracting and not advantageous to safety. Avery adds: “Lane departure warning systems don’t really have any benefit. It’s when you intervene on behalf of the driver you get the real safety benefits.”

The new Volvo XC90, plus the Mercedes E-Class and S-Class, are already demonstrating high-level assistance systems, and from 2018, Euro NCAP will introduce new test procedures for the most advanced set-ups.

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