President Donald Trump often speaks of how other countries treat American products unfairly. At a private fundraising event in Missouri, Trump singled out a particular practice in Japan.
"It's called the bowling ball test. Do you know what that is?" Trump said, according to a recording obtained by the Washington Post. "That's where they take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air, and they drop it on the hood of the car. And if the hood dents, then the car doesn't qualify. Well, guess what, the roof dented a little bit, and they said, nope, this car doesn't qualify. It's horrible, the way we're treated. It's horrible."
The Washington Post noted, "It was unclear what he was talking about."
So we wanted to look into it.
We asked the White House press office what Trump had in mind and got no comment. In her regular press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was just joking.
However, we found something that loosely fits what he described.
There are no bowling balls, and no 20-foot drop. But Japan’s National Agency for Automotive Safety and Victim Aid does what’s called a pedestrian head protection performance test. It’s designed to measure the force someone’s head would absorb if a car hit them.
This involves firing a carefully calibrated hemisphere-shaped device (so, more like half of a bowling ball) at the hood and windshield. The device records the force. Here’s a graphic from the agency’s website:
Note that the largest head impactor is 4.5 kilograms, or about 10 pounds.
So, the details about a bowling ball, the weight and the height of the drop are all wrong.
But those details aside, Trump also got the purpose and nature of the test totally wrong.
When he said, "If the hood dents, then the car doesn't qualify," that would be a test of the strength of the hood.
In contrast, the test is all about a person’s head and the force it has to absorb in an accident.
"It’s the complete opposite," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategy, a private firm that studies vehicle and consumer product safety.
In fact, the more a hood dents or flexes, the better it is for the head of the unlucky pedestrian.
"It’s akin to any other type of crash," Kane said. "You look at cars today, and the impact damage to cars is much greater. There’s a lot of crush, but that’s to absorb the energy and keep it away from people."
A biomedical engineering dissertation from Wayne State University made the same point: "To lower head injury criterion, two main principles are necessary: provision of sufficient deformation space and provision of a low stiffness of the impacted vehicle body parts."
However, Trump got one element correct. American cars sold in Japan, at least all models made this decade, have to meet the Japanese safety standard. So Trump was correct that this is a hurdle for American car makers.
It’s worth noting that Europe has a similar standard. In the early 2000s, the problem of cars hitting pedestrians was worse in Europe and Japan than in the United States. In Japan, for example, 27 percent of all traffic fatalities were pedestrians hit by cars. In the United States, it was 13 percent.
"The head impact test is a standardized test and has been there for many years," said Pankaj Mallick, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. "Our car companies are very much aware of this, but at this time, there are no National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requirements to do this test for qualification of a car hood."
Kane noted that the United States stands out for having lower safety standards than Europe and Japan.
"If U.S. car makers wanted to make safer cars, they could sell them in both markets," he said. "If they don’t, that’s a business decision."
Trump said that in Japan, "they take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and they drop it on the hood of the car. And if the hood dents, then the car doesn't qualify."
American cars must meet a Japanese standard. But Trump mangled the highly controlled process, which does not involve a bowling ball dropped from 20 feet.
Where Trump really goes astray is on the purpose of the test; he has it backward. It’s not about seeing if the hood is strong. The more a hood gives way, the better it is for the head of a pedestrian. Trump’s understanding of the test is so far off the mark, we rate this claim False.