Crashing Carbon Fiber Prototypes Is Painful But Necessary

Imagine investing thousands of dollars to produce a prototype carbon fiber car body only to watch it shatter into hundreds of tiny pieces during crash testing. The amount of time and money necessary to create the prototype makes crash testing extremely painful. But it is also very necessary.

We know why car companies crash their prototypes. Crash testing is required to fully understand safety issues. And unfortunately, there is no way around crash testing even if you are using an expensive material like carbon fiber. It still has to be done.

The Drive contributor Máté Petrány recently wrote an excellent piece discussing supercar builder Rimac and its C-Two prototype program. The car company is crashing expensive carbon fiber monocoques to see how they perform. But they are doing so responsibly.

A Planned Crash Process

Every Rimac prototype will eventually be fully destroyed in a crash test simulating collision at 40 mph or greater. But the company isn’t starting its tests there. Before full impact testing, prototypes are put through a battery of other tests involving much slower speeds and less forceful impacts.

This allows testers to look at things like doors and body panels without fully destroying a prototype. They test a full range of other components before doing the ‘big one’. All of the information they glean along the way is thrown into the mix when the final test occurs.

Without all of this intermediate testing, Rimac would be spending a lot more on prototypes. But by carefully planning a testing regime from start to finish, they can limit the number of monocoques and bodies they destroy and save money at the same time.

Donating Cars for Research

Rimac does something else notable. They send the destroyed monocoques to other facilities for research. For example, one destroyed car was donated to the University of Zagreb along with computer simulations of the crash data. Engineering students can now re-create the crash tests in a virtual environment for purposes of studying the results.

Combining physically destroyed monocoques with virtual models give the university the opportunity to instruct students without having to build and destroy their own prototypes. As such, Rimac’s investment in expensive monocoques is extended by giving them a second life.

Prototyping in a Nutshell

What Rimac is doing with their prototype monocoques is really prototyping in a nutshell. The whole point of building prototypes is to test them. You want to see how a given design responds under certain conditions. Prototyping allows you to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the design. It shows you where modifications are warranted.

The need for prototyping does not change just because a company decides to use carbon fiber. That is why companies like Salt Lake City’s Rock West Composites offer prototyping services to manufacturers. They assist manufacturers with their composite prototyping programs to ensure integrity of design. They also develop vital manufacturing processes.

Let’s say Rock West was assisting a customer building prototypes for a new drone. Early prototypes would normally help the manufacturer adjust the design for both performance and efficiency. As early problems were ironed out, later prototypes would focus on developing the manufacturing processes that will eventually allow the client to go into full-scale production.

Along the way, plenty of money would be spent on producing prototypes. The client might even have to destroy a few of them to better understand design weaknesses. Doing so is painful. It is expensive. But it is absolutely necessary if the company wants to end up with a finished product it can be proud of. Rimac is in the same position.