Safety has always been a factor in vehicle design, but took on a more critical role in the seventies with the first 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers. Remember those beauties that protruded about one foot from the front and rear? Recall how they marked the beginning of the end for British sports cars and all kinds other vehicles?
The engineering and design communities have learned over the years, with the aid of computers, to incorporate safety considerations from the earliest concept stages of a design. Within a few years, as new vehicles came to market, the structure necessary to absorb the force of an 8 km/hr crash had been built into designs and bumpers were no longer a visual affront. Computers came to the rescue, allowing engineers to repeatedly and digitally crash new designs and tweak the underlying structure accordingly. These virtual crashes proved exterior sheet metal plays little if any protective role in a crash. Armed with this knowledge, designers were able to shape the body more closely to the contours of the metal beneath.
The next hurdle was headlights. Whether round or rectangular they required a lot of real estate at the front of a vehicle. Technology to the rescue again. This time, it was the development of new lighting methods to replace the old tungsten bulb and giant reflectors. Smaller, brighter, sources of light, concentrated and aimed by precisely manufactured reflectors, allowed more light from smaller units. Not only did these new molded and chromed units act as rolling jewellery, they freed designers of size constraints, allowing lower and more adventurous styles. The latest development is LED headlights which are even smaller and can be arrayed to suit any design.
Almost every new passenger vehicle in the world today has to be designed for manufacture and sale in multiple world markets. These designs have to incorporate the various safety and emission regulations of these markets. Currently there is considerable harmony among major markets with respect to these standards.
The basic structure beneath the sheet metal for these new global platforms – the pickup points for the suspension, body mounting points, passenger capsule and windshield shape and location are common. Using those hard points, designers come up with a variety of clothes for that skeleton to wear. But this newest roadblock will likely require a redesign and more “soft” crush space between the sheet metal and the major components beneath.
With new safety issues constantly hanging over their heads, it’s back to the drawing boards – oops computer screens – for designers around the world.