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[NEWS] Thatcham opens second UK site to test safety of new brands' cars

Thatcham opens second UK site to test safety of new brands' cars

Thatcham research test
Thatcham Research is best known for its vehicle testing operations, especially safety tech

Vehicle testing organisation aiming for new Gamston Airport site to become international assurance centre

Vehicle-testing organisation Thatcham Research has begun its first research programme at its new centre in Nottinghamshire, less than a year since construction there began.

Based at Gamston Airport, which Thatcham purchased in 2021, the new centre aims to ensure the organisation can keep pace with the near-30 vehicle platforms that it anticipates will emerge from new manufacturers in the next couple of years, in addition to the 15 or so that it expects to come from existing car makers – the smaller number owing to platform sharing. 

The airport itself will remain operational (Thatcham last year upgraded the main runway), but it has created workshop and testing facilities within the existing hangars and associated buildings. 

"Our current 18-strong team is still becoming familiar with the new site, which is a lot better and much more suitable than our old test centre at Upper Heyford, whose lease had expired," said Gamston’s chief engineer Ben Townsend.

"We will be expanding on the work already carried out at our Newbury HQ with the aim of becoming a centre of excellence in vehicle technology research and safety testing."

Within the 100-acre site is a newly resurfaced 120-square-metre area of hardstanding and a one-mile long, three-lane highway for, among other applications, the testing of autonomous technology.

With the option of accessing it via a single gate leading to a public road, engineers can quickly switch from controlled to real-world test environments. 

"Gamston is hugely flexible, while the location places us between the manufacturers and university and research centres of the West Midlands and Nissan and its suppliers to the north," said Townsend.

While Newbury continues to carry out Euro NCAP crash testing, data analysis, vehicle repair research and skills training (more than 3500 technicians pass through its school each year), Gamston will help close the gap and improve understanding between car makers and technology developers, regulators and insurers.

"Thatcham's focus has rightly been on improving crash safety, but now we want to look at other areas of the risk spectrum," said Townsend. "For example, it's becoming apparent that some car makers and their developers haven't considered the end user when designing and installing new assistance technologies. If users can't operate or are frustrated by them, acceptance falls off a cliff and they switch them off, undermining safety gains elsewhere. Societal acceptance of new technology is key."

In this regard, Gamston aims to become an international assurance centre, promoting more user-friendly technology that gives drivers confidence to use it.

"The speed at which technology is developing,” said Townsend, “is such that we have to do more real-world testing and faster too, because what we don't want is insurers and regulators to stifle it because they don't understand it."

Another area that Gamston plans to focus on is vehicle sustainability.

"For the past 10 years, we've been helping to develop Euro NCAP test protocols," said Townsend. "However, the problem with improving crash safety is that you forget about anything that doesn't injure people. I'm thinking of scenarios such as low-speed crashes that can cause cars to be written off. 

“So as well as its level of safety, we need to focus on the lifecycle of a car. For example, repairers need to know how safe an EV's battery is after an impact so they don't just write it off. It's about saving cars now, because we've done a good job of saving people."

Gamston will also put its weight behind additional EV crash testing.

"A huge amount of work is going into understanding the implications of heavier cars such as EVs striking smaller and lighter ones," said Townsend. "We're already performing tests on these lines at Newbury, but we need to learn more."

He described Thatcham's work as linking the corners of the triangle comprising car makers, regulators and insurers – a triangle that's increasingly global, saying: "Thatcham works for UK insurers, but a car that's insurable for the UK must be insurable for the whole world. If manufacturers want their cars to be adopted by society and so more saleable, they should bring them to us."

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