July 08, 2019 By Paolo de Borja

Modern cars are meant to crumple

Over the past 20 years, automotive manufacturers ramped up development (and investments) to put passenger safety at the forefront of the industry. But not everyone clearly understands this fact. Hence, a good number of the people, especially those from older generations, actively claim that rigid constructions from the 1980s and below provide safer vehicles compared to those of today.

Safety features such seatbelts, airbags, the anti-lock braking system (ABS), and traction control are increasingly becoming more universal and relatively recognized by common consumers. But crumple zones in modern cars and its crucial functions remain generally unfamiliar.

Crumple zones are structures engineered to dissipate kinetic energy in the event of a crash. Crumple zones are found on the front, rear, and even sides of a car. Such areas are designed to crush or deform in a controlled manner to reduce serious injuries on passengers by minimizing impact inside the cabin.

At Honda R&D’s Omnidirectional Crash Test Facility in Japan

A frontal collision is a clear example of the crumple zone in action. Upon impact, the area before the a-pillar crumbles and ripples as it absorbs the sudden impact. By deforming, this area takes in the force generated by the crash. The crumple zone slows down the car’s collision; thus, the energy transferred inside is reduced. For instance, if a car is travelling at 60 km/h then suddenly hits a concrete wall or barrier, the vehicle abruptly stops from said speed to zero – all while passengers continue to move forward at 60 km/h due to inertia.

Although the application of crumple zones only became prevalent in the last two decades, initial design and development root all the way back to the 1950s. In 1951, Austro-Hungarian engineer Béla Barényi registered a patent on the crumple zone. Barényi had a passion for crash prevention inventions and passive safety in automobiles. He joined Daimler-Benz in 1939 as the head of the pre-development department. And eight years after his breakthrough on the crumple zone, the 1959 Mercedes-Benz W111 series was introduced – the first vehicle to utilize the Barényi’s patented bodywork.

The misconception on crumple zones still tends to be actively voiced. But in the end, modern car structures are designed to sacrifice themselves for the sake of its occupants. This type of design indeed creates more damage to a car during an accident, but passenger injuries – along with the risk of fatalities – are significantly reduced.

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