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Making safer vehicles: Affordability of advanced materials will be crucial, says Peter Hodgson

Interim deputy vice chancellor at Deakin University, Peter Hodgson, who is in India to deliver lectures on trends in advanced manufacturing, talks about the scope of such technology in the Indian automotive sector.

Written by Ranaditya Baruah |
June 10, 2016 3:13:30 am
Failure in crash tests raise questions about the overall structural integrity of Indian cars and the accompanying safety features. Failure in crash tests raise questions about the overall structural integrity of Indian cars and the accompanying safety features.

In May, five popular Indian cars failed the crash tests conducted by UK-based non-governmental organisation Global NCAP. With the proposed government-mandated crash-test safety norms coming into effect in India from October 2017, these failures raise questions about the overall structural integrity of Indian cars and the accompanying safety features. Interim deputy vice chancellor at Deakin University, Peter Hodgson, who is in India to deliver lectures on trends in advanced manufacturing, talks to Ranaditya Baruah about the scope of such technology in the Indian automotive sector.

Given the need for safety upgrades in markets such as India, what role do you see advance materials playing in the auto sector?

Due to the increasing global demand for cutting fuel usage and reducing the carbon footprint, keeping the weight down of new vehicles is a major concern for the auto industry. Earlier, car companies were working on improving the efficiency of the engines to bring the fuel usage down but carmakers have reached the limit of what they can achieve in that area. So the focus has now shifted to bringing the weight of the vehicles down so that it consumes less fuel. This is where the application of advanced materials comes in. The use of such materials will bring down the overall weight considerably.

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Do you think this will compromise on the safety of cars? Do you see advanced materials becoming the norm for the auto industry in the future?

The objective of western auto makers is to increase safety while making the cars lighter. This comes from better design and the fact that we are using high strength materials. A classic case to think of is Formula 1 where the drivers can walk away from amazing crashes because of the carbon fibre composite structures they use. The future will be very much about advanced materials but they need to come at an affordable cost — especially in the growing markets of China and India which are very cost-sensitive. The use of advanced high-strength steels is accelerating but composites, except for some elite models, is some time away unless we can get the cost — not only of the material but also the manufacturing processes — down. There is also the question of how you integrate different materials into a mass produced vehicle.

Failure in crash tests raise questions about the overall structural integrity of Indian cars and the accompanying safety features. Peter Hodgson

Indian cars are not known for their safety. Do you think it is the design of the cars that has something to do with it?

Safety is mostly about design. Part of that are the materials being used as well. But for example in frontal crashes you need a crumple zone which can slow the energy transfer to the human body. It is not always about bigger is better. When there is a crash there is an energy pulse given to the body and you want to spread that out over time and avoid large peaks. The crumple zone does that — if the front of the vehicle is too rigid and stiff then the energy would be transferred to the driver and passengers. For side impact it is a little more complex because you do need it to be rigid to stop intrusion of the other vehicle inside the vehicle. Therefore in highly safe cars you see a combination of novel materials as well as the use of airbags not only in the front but also curtains for the side impact.

The new government-mandated safety norms will come into effect in India from October 2017. Do you feel that the use of advanced materials in Indian cars can play a role in this specific area?

As I have said it is a combination of materials and design and other safety systems such as the use of seat belts and airbags. Seat belts have been mandatory with high fines for all passengers in a vehicle in Australia for some time and it has massively reduced fatalities and injuries. This very simple safety measure still seems to be hard to get through to passengers in India. Airbag systems are also designed around having safety belts in play and so just thinking you have a vehicle with airbags and so don’t need to wear seat belts is wrong thinking. It is also important to remember that the Indian auto market in the future will not just be about domestic uptake but global and so models that are to be exported really need to be at the top level for safety as well fuel efficiency, style, etc.

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