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A Four-Letter Word

How important are top ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS, www.iihs.org), an insurance industry supported safety organization?

How important are top ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS, www.iihs.org), an insurance industry supported safety organization? According to sources within GM, it is a differentiator that is quickly becoming a requirement in the eyes of the general public. As a result, GM is undertaking a plan that reportedly will update those vehicles that score below the organization’s “acceptable” rating, and institute a program whereby all new vehicles are designed so that they will receive the top rating of “good” when tested.

In the short term, this will require some structural changes be made to current vehicles, and the addition of technologies like electronic stability control (ESC). That’s because for its 2007 ratings IIHS requires that ESC must be offered for a vehicle to get this rating. Except for the midsize Saab 93, there are no 2007 GM vehicles listed as a “Top Safety Pick” on the IIHS’s web site. According to a GM engineer familiar with the program this omission has “really angered our top executives, especially considering how important these ratings have become to buyers as they sift through web sites looking for items that will either keep a vehicle in contention or remove it from their shopping list.”

Since GM, like other automakers, is already working to increase frontal impact performance to match the IIHS’s 40-mph offset test with its new vehicles, most modifications will have to be made in other areas. These include side impacts and rear crash protection/head restraint performance. Supplier sources indicate GM recently expressed increased interest in active head restraint systems. This is noteworthy given that it’s possible to meet the standards with a headrest that sits immediately behind the occupant’s head, but forces passengers to tilt their head slightly forward. “It’s an option we don’t recommend,” says the source, “because it can make the driver and passengers very uncomfortable. An active head restraint, on the other hand, allows them to sit normally, and springs forward to meet the back of their head in an accident.”

GM sources say the company hopes to complete this update program in time for the 2011 model year, and will use mid-term freshenings to accomplish most of the work.—CAS