WASHINGTON -- The auto industry's toughest crash test program could get tougher in a hurry.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has begun to subject certain vehicle models to its rigorous small-overlap crash test on the passenger side. IIHS began the additional testing after discovering that some updated models had received structural reinforcements to improve crashworthiness on the driver side, where the test is normally conducted, but not on the passenger side.
IIHS spokesman Russ Rader described the added testing as a "research project" intended to find out how widespread the practice is and to ensure that automakers are engineering crashworthiness improvements to both sides of a vehicle.
The project's findings could prompt IIHS to add random passenger-side small-overlap crash tests to its testing regimen.
"If we find that this appears to be a widespread issue, we could conduct the small-overlap test program in the same way we do the roof strength program, which is we periodically and randomly switch the side we're testing," Rader said.
The effort shows how easily IIHS, an organization funded by the insurance industry that operates outside the government bureaucracy, can move the goal posts of its influential testing and rating program to keep automakers on their toes.
Lawmakers and safety advocates have long lamented that IIHS ratings' public-sector counterpart, the federal government's five-star crashworthiness rating, has lost its teeth because the testing criteria haven't been updated for years. Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a bill to require that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration go beyond crash tests and account for crash-avoidance technology such as automatic braking in its rating system. IIHS' highest rating, Top Safety Pick+, incorporates such technologies.
Automakers already are under pressure from IIHS to continually improve their performance. Starting in the 2016 model year, vehicles must earn a "good" rating on the small-overlap test to qualify for the Top Safety Pick rating -- and the marketing advantage it provides. Vehicles from the 2015 model year could qualify for the award with a "good" or "acceptable" small-overlap rating. The 2016 changes will also contain new standards for front crash prevention.
IIHS' small-overlap crash gave auto engineers fits when it was launched in 2012. Fewer than 10 of more than 50 models tested received top marks that year. Since then, the number of models receiving the "good" or "acceptable" ratings on the test has grown annually as automakers scramble to strengthen their crash structures.
In some cases, auto engineers have redesigned vehicles from the ground up to meet the stricter IIHS standards. In other cases, they have made rapid changes by adding structural reinforcements during midcycle updates, Rader said.
Those so-called Band-Aid improvements have triggered IIHS' latest action. Recent vehicle teardowns done by IIHS have found some models with structural reinforcements installed only on the driver side, Rader said.
Only about a half dozen vehicles have been tested for the new project so far, Rader said, though he declined to identify the models. Some vehicles were selected because of differences in their driver- and passenger-side crash structures. Some vehicles with symmetrical crash structures also will be tested, he said.
Rader acknowledges that a midcycle update to revamp a vehicle's crash structure is more difficult and expensive than doing so in a full redesign. But the group wants to make sure that automakers aren't cutting corners long term.
"We want to be clear that when vehicles are totally redesigned, the changes need to happen on both sides," Rader said. "We don't want to discourage the Band-Aid approach, but we do want to see small-overlap improvements go into both sides of the vehicle ultimately."