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CSI Looks at Crimes Against Cars

Engineers perform postmortems to enhance vehicle durability.

Rust is a silent killer that can end your car’s life before its time. This has prompted vehicle engineers to investigate this deadly vehicle destroyer using crime-scene techniques. General Motors Corrosion Engineer Christa Cooper and her team know that rust never sleeps, so they look for corrosion in places the typical automobile owner never sees -- places like the underside of welded brackets and joints, and the thousands of spot welds that help hold a vehicle’s body together.

A recent example of this effort is the Crime Scene Investigation–style effort that was performed on the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze before it went into production. The outcome should mean years of little or no rust. Cooper’s corrosion-prevention quest took place inside the Vehicle Teardown Facility at GM’s Milford Proving Ground in Southeast Michigan. The team analyzed Cruze test vehicles that were subjected to extreme durability challenges that simulated 10 years of wear, tear and elements, not unlike traveling with a rock band.

“We test to the 95th percentile environment, which is the most severe customer environment we can replicate in our labs and road courses,” says Cooper.

The cars are then disassembled piece by piece in a sort of Where’s Waldo? search for the tiniest evidence of rust. Skilled trade mechanics drill out 2,000 to 3,000 individual spot welds by hand, seeking out corrosion in the sheet metal structure. It takes a two-person team two weeks to completely tear down a car to its base elements.

When Cooper and her team find even a trace of rust, they look for ways to prevent it. Rust is a natural result of steel coming into contact with water and oxygen, and the corrosion accelerates when road salt is present. The solution most often is to find a way to keep water out, so sealers and alternative materials are often prescribed. While the Cruze was under development, Cooper and her team uncovered corrosion where the inner panel of the rear door is joined to the safety beam. The team recommended switching from an uncoated steel bracket to a rust-resistant coated steel stamping. The change eliminated corrosion in that area.

An auto morgue may seem like a grim place where vehicles sacrifice their bodies for science, but the benefit is future car bodies that last longer and are more durable. Paging Dr. Frankenstein. …



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