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Ford's crash-test smarties

Engineers use good old-fashioned lab fun in addition to the usual physics and number crunching to make sure its cars are life-proof.

Ford Motor offered a glimpse into one of its testing labs on Tuesday. The showcase was assumably to promote the new safety features in its upcoming lineup of cars, and as you can imagine, the peek into this world of crash test dummies is rather amusing.

One of the technologies Ford talked about testing was a new air bag system, which was put in the 2009 F-150 and will be in the 2010 Ford Taurus. Instead of being acceleration-based, the new sensors are pressure-based, which makes them more accurate, according to Ford, but also more sensitive.

The company wanted to make sure the highly sensitive system in its cars was not set off by minor everyday annoyances. Obviously, there's no need for an air bag to deploy when things like shopping carts, baseballs, and bicycles hit the side of a car. To that end, Ford's safety group engineers incorporated real-world scenarios combined with robots and other sophisticated lab equipment that go beyond the usual car collision tests.

One of its tests involves a robot plowing a shopping cart filled with 110 pounds of weight (roughly one kid and a full cart of groceries) into the side of a Taurus at 10 miles per hour.

Another test has Ford engineers driving the cars at high speeds on a test track of curbs, potholes, and ditches to re-create the real-life carelessness most drivers engage in at some point, but likely never admit to.

Is this method really necessary, or just something Ford engineers came up with to break up the monotony of sifting through safety testing data?

"Blasting and ramming cars may seem over-the-top, but they're part of a serious testing regimen that Ford had to invent, because increasingly sophisticated technologies require more advanced testing," Sue Cischke, vice president of Ford's Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering Group, said in a statement.

Ford's new air bags are sensor-based so they can deploy before the full impact of a crash occurs, but not so sensitive they go off from an errant baseball or shopping cart. (Click above to see more photos.) Ford Motor