Last year's executive shuffle at DaimlerChrysler gave Susan Cischke more than just a fancier title.
She had been vice president of vehicle certification, compliance and regulatory affairs; then she was called on to replace the retiring Ronald Boltz as senior vice president for regulatory affairs and passenger-car operations. Now that she reports directly to product czar Tom Gale, the safety of Chrysler-brand vehicles is her direct responsibility.
Cischke spoke with Automotive News Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson recently at the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Mich. An edited version of the interview follows.
Chrysler-brand vehicles generally do not do well on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests. How much of a priority is it to change that?
It's true that we haven't done as well as other companies on that test. Our priorities have been on the life-threatening issues of head and chest injuries, while those tests are very concerned with lower leg injuries. We are now paying a lot more attention to intrusion because we know those injuries involve long-term disability. We're really taking a look at intrusion and improving the lower foot area. But the tradeoff can affect real-world safety.
Testing is a way to replicate what you think is going to happen in the real world, and it's only as good as the test. Obviously, you're trying to set it up so the test is repeatable and measurable. But it's only a replication of what you think is going to happen in the real world.
What really does happen sometimes is very different. With the (Chrysler) LHS, for example, we knew we had an issue with the design of the Institute's barrier. It was designed for smaller cars, and with larger cars, the interactions are different. Our sensor was having difficulty detecting the crash, and we had two choices. We could lower our deployment speed so we were sure we could fire the airbag in time. But if we did that, we'd have airbags in the field firing when we didn't want them to. Instead of firing at 14 mph, they would be firing at 8 or 9 mph, and that would not be the right thing to do.
The other thing is to try to figure out how to change the bumper structure so the sensor would pick up the crash. We tried to point out that when we did a real-world crash by taking two vehicles and running them into each other at 35 mph, the bag fired at the right time. We're not saying the IIHS test isn't representative, because it does represent a real-world event, but the two-car test better simulates a rear-world offset crash. The IIHS even agreed with us in this case because we made a good choice. We didn't just change the sensor and calibration to do better in a test.
What's the best way to solve that problem?
A lot has to do with what's happening in the crash and how you are managing the energy in the engine compartment. If you've got engine components moving and they're going to go into the passenger compartment, that's not a good thing. You've got to figure out: How do you change that mode path?
Other things are easier. When they put the dummy in the vehicle, they put the foot on the accelerator and they put the other foot wherever. If you have a dead pedal, they'll put the foot there. You can change your score quite a bit if you define where the feet need to be. The problem is that in very few crashes do you have your feet on the accelerator. The way the test is run vs. the way it works in the real world is a concern. In order to replicate with a test what a person is really doing, you'd have to run a million tests. So what the industry is trying to do is run the one, simulate the others, and do whatever it can to try and anticipate all your real-world events.
What tests should the public be paying attention to?
The fallacy in people's minds is that as you keep raising the crash speed, you're protecting everything up to that speed. Under that philosophy, a 70-mph crash into a rigid wall means everything below 70 has got to be safer. What you find out is that you've made it safer for 5 mph on either side of the 70 point, but degraded everything else.
Right now we've got a federal 30-mph rigid barrier crash with a belted occupant. We're trying to balance a requirement for offset crashes for both the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Euro NCAP. We have a 25-mph Canadian offset test, and the real world data that we know. Some of them want a stiffer structure and some want more the structure to absorb more crush. In the ones where you want more crush, you don't want intrusion into the passenger compartment. So we're trying to figure out what is the right balance for all of that. There's not really one particular answer.
Then how should consumers rate the safety of vehicles?
Safety is a very important attribute that people look at when they're buying a car, but I also think that because of the government standards, all cars are pretty safe. But no matter how much engineering is involved in terms of the overall structure of the vehicle, the laws of physics are going to prevail. That's why I think it's really difficult to throw this on the consumer with a lot of rating systems. The ratings can be misleading. What you have to do is look at the real world safety. But how do you tell people that? It all involves injury and other statistics that aren't really easy to get your arms around.
What is your strategy for working Mercedes-Benz's new safety technologies into your cars?
We have to look at every vehicle line individually. What we're trying to accomplish in terms of the base level of safety is really the same whether you're in a Neon or an M class. But every solution won't work on every car. You do have to balance the vehicle type with the feature you want to offer.
How did you decide to put the side airbag curtain, a fairly pricey item, on the 2001 Dodge Stratus?
At the time we were talking about side airbags, Chrysler was a little bit concerned about what was happening in the media with front airbags and what was going on with the child deaths. We said: We need to work on this technology, and we need to make sure that we're balancing a true benefit in the vehicle. The vehicle's structure could handle a side impact, but we wanted to make sure a side airbag would offer more benefit.
There are companies offering door-mounted bags, feet-mounted bags, head and thorax bags, tubular bags and curtains. We always have to decide where we think the technology is going and pick a platform to develop that on. On the minivan we have seat-mounted airbags. In the case of the JR (Stratus), we decided to try the curtain approach. That makes it difficult sometimes because there are people who say one is better than the other. We say both of them have advantages.
What are they?
The curtain does offer some value, especially in terms of head protection. There are some advantages for ejection as well. We need to do it all, and after we understand all of the factors better and have more of the real-world experience, we'll figure out what to offer in other models.
We did find that, from a design standpoint, trying to do a curtain was a lot tougher because of where it has to come out of the headliner. Frankly, we learned a lot from our supplier (Autoliv). They understood the development process in terms of how you design the bag and fill it right with the shape characteristics you're looking for. Also, this was one instance where the merger really helped us get up to speed quicker. In our merger plan, we had to shortcut the trial-and-error process by being able to make design judgments based on experience.
Where is there the most room for improvement in vehicle safety?
Crash sensing is a big area where we can make some improvements. Right now the airbag operates in a band that is 'fire' or 'no fire.' But there are some shades of gray. The more you can narrow that band, the better the safety response.