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Five-Star crash test ratings coupled with the desire to build safer vehicles motivate automakers to use the latest new vehicle technology (NVT) to make cars stronger in the event of an accident. We’ve heard of boron, anti-intrusion beams, UHSS, HSLA, design deflection materials and other futuristic names, initials and acronyms related to the challenges NVT poses to auto extrications.

We now know that hydraulic rescue tools need to have a bare minimum of 200,000 pounds of cutting force to have any chance at conquering extrications involving today’s new cars. We’ve learned that “work worried NVT metal” can be hardened up to 60 Rockwell C when compromised in a significant accident. We’ve learned that all the tools used for auto extrication just a few short years ago need to be re-evaluated for effective safe use during today’s vehicle rescues. We in the fire service have also learned that we need to rethink and alter our rescue techniques in order to deal with the new challenges that we face.

Currently, there are at least 18 automakers with vehicles on the road in the U.S. that contain ultra high strength steel (UHSS), high strength, low alloy (HSLA) steel and the infamous boron. In many cases, numerous models from each automaker contain these materials, and there are many more to come. New Vehicle Technology can no longer be avoided and is no longer only in high-end vehicles. The 2009 Ford F150 pickup, for example, is loaded with this technology.

Automakers have figured out that the use of these materials helps to lighten the vehicles, making them more efficient. It is actually less expensive to produce vehicles with these materials in them, and the use of new hydro formed structural supports reduces the need for as many as 650 or more weld points on new vehicles. The fact that these materials make the vehicles much safer in an accident is really just an added bonus. Unfortunately for us, these materials create a host of new extrication challenges.

Because of the aforementioned benefits, automakers are now using these metals and hydro formed supports in the following areas: structural supports, anti-intrusion door beams, body side structure, roof rails and pillars, floor pans, seat mounts, wheel wells, bumper systems, engine cradles, sub frames and the dash board cowl area.  Automakers have apparently learned a lot from the car racing industry, as more and more of them are putting boron and UHSS–infused roll cages around the passengers, as well as around vital vehicle components.

The future of NVT is in accident or collision avoidance and will bring with it a whole new set of challenges for the fire service. If I suggested cars that drive themselves, would you think me a few fries short of a Happy Meal? How about cars that stop themselves or cars that recognize pedestrians in the roadway?  Or cars that know you’re about to get in an accident before you do? Would you believe a car that can brace itself for an impending side impact? You’re thinking this guy needs a vacation, right?  ALL of the technology just mentioned is here now – or is coming within the next 24 months.

Six months ago I drove a 2010 Volvo XC60 with “CitySafety.” When traveling at speeds below 15 mph, this vehicle will not allow you to hit a vehicle or a large solid object in front of you. (As a fireman, you know I had fun with this car.) Sensors in the front of the vehicle “sense” other vehicles in front of you and apply the brakes. The Volvo rep had me drive directly toward a wall at approximately 15mph, and as I approached the wall, the vehicle took over control and stopped itself. This technology is on your roadways as you read this article. Volvo is presently working on technology that will allow their vehicles to detect and react to pedestrians in the roadway.

A Road Train

In 2011, road testing begins in Europe on a new system called SARTRE (safe road trains for the environment). A road train consists of six to eight regular passenger vehicles grouped together (mere inches apart), traveling in the same direction (convoy) on a highway or freeway. The lead vehicle of the train has the only driver in full control. As other vehicles merge into and become part of the road train, each vehicle’s “autopilot” (my term) engages, electronically links the vehicle into the train and allows the drivers to release control of their vehicles, freeing them to talk on the phone, watch TV or read the newspaper. When it is time for them to merge out of the grouping, they recapture control of their vehicles. Imagine six to eight NASCAR racecars drafting down Interstate 10, with only the driver of the lead car actually doing any driving. 

Among other things to come in 2012 is APROSYS, which stands for advanced protection system. It will employ “pre-crash actuators” that are linked to a type of radar, which detects imminent side impact. Simplistically stated, upon detection the actuator triggers a spring which pushes (shoots) an ultra strong “bolt” or pin located in the back and/or bottom of the seat, toward the door’s anti-intrusion beam(s) in an attempt to offset the energy of the crash impact. This is all said to happen automatically in the blink of an eye. 

Something Missing

As you can see, NVT is changing in directions far beyond employing the exotic metals that presently give us fits in the field. Now that automakers seem satisfied with building vehicles that can withstand violent crashes, they have shifted their focus to technology designed to help drivers avoid crashes altogether. 

With all of this technology at hand and at our doorsteps, there is still something missing. What happens when people are involved in a crash, and need to get out of these superstructures that are (or will be) loaded with all this technology? Let’s face it, our shift or platoon won’t just be able to take our old rescue tools, go down to the local junkyard and train. Even if we could, it has been proven that hydraulic rescue tools over three years old do not generate enough power, nor is the metal they are made of strong enough to handle the demands of this new technology. Unfortunately, the majority of  “new” rescue tools on the market right now are not tough enough to handle NVT requiring 250,000 pounds or more of cutting force. 

We need to get our hands on the latest rescue tool technology and test it on tough NVT cars for ourselves. Because we can’t simply head to the junkyard, we also need new vehicle technology training programs that employ difficult vehicles. 

Don’t we typically train to the difficult scenarios and evolutions? We, as firefighters, need to be fully prepared to complete the loop of new vehicle technology.

Editor’s Note: Carl Haddon is the national training director for the 5 Star Training Academy sponsored by Volvo North America and Champion Rescue Tools and serves as a deputy fire chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork Fire Department in Idaho. He is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS service in southern California and has served since the early 1980s as a fire/safety director for numerous racing organizations, including Penske Motorsports, NASCAR, USAC and Mickey Thompson Racing. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and teaches auto extrication classes across the country.

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