Though many startups would have us thinking otherwise about
self-driving cars, we’re still not that close to handing the wheel over to the robots. We human beings are still very much responsible for road safety, which means we have to be self-aware about our tendency to
crash. Our secret weapon? Crumple zones in cars.
Dumping on the crumple
The crumple zones are the parts of the car that are designed to absorb impact. Usually made of plastics and certain types of lightweight metals, crumple zones in cars do exactly what you might expect: in the event of a collision, they get crushed, sometimes beyond repair.
To the car designer who lived and worked before about the 1960s, this would be a bizarre premise. Why would you build a car that is designed to break upon impact? Surely a strong car means a strong shield? Have you seen Superman?
Unfortunately for our friends from this era, this was not the case. A video from
Popular Mechanicspits a 2009 Chevy Malibu against a 1959 Chevy Bel Air in a head-on collision, and it’s no contest. Though both cars end up mangled, the experience of the dummy passengers is the smoking gun—the Malibu dummy remains seated as it headbutts the airbag, while the Bel Air dummy is very clearly off to dummy heaven.
The key difference? The Malibu is much more mangled than its sparring partner. Here’s why this counterintuitive conclusion works.
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Physics wins again
Collision safety is basically an inverse relationship between car and driver—taking into account diminishing returns—wherein the worse the car’s front looks, the better the driver probably did. This is thanks to a little formula called force = mass x acceleration, as helpfully explained by
Getting a heavy car to move in the first place requires a lot of effort, and getting it to stop, thanks to the first law of thermodynamics, is correspondingly difficult. All that energy has to go somewhere when we ask the car to stop, and in an ideal scenario it will be released as heat from the brakes. If you crash into something instead of using the brakes to stop, the energy will be released via the crunching of your crumple zone.
The point of both of these release valves is to slow down the process of stopping—you control the deceleration process in the brake scenario, and the crumple zone controls it in the accident scenario. In both cases, the idea is to reduce the number in the “acceleration” part of the formula. Lower acceleration means lower force, and lower force is exactly what vulnerable human organs need in an accident scenario.
In other words, if you crash your car into a wall, and the crumple zone does its job, then all the stuff in front of you should crunch down like a used aluminum can. The used aluminum can has absorbed all the force, and you are shaken, but unscathed. Crumple zones in cars—making drivers safe and physics fun!
Crumple zones triumphant
The creator of this concept was one Béla Barényi, an inventor and engineer who worked for Daimler-Benz.
The first car that incorporated his crumple zones was the Mercedes-Benz W111 Fintail, released in 1959, reports
How Stuff Works. Considered a bit outlandish in its time, the crumple zone concept was soon lauded by automakers everywhere, and now no one would buy a car that wouldn’t crunch right up in an emergency.
The moral of the story? Being rigid and inflexible is not only annoying, it’s potentially life-threatening. Try giving a little, and you might gain a lot.