It doesn't take a genius to figure out why collaboration accelerates the pursuit of safer vehicles, but a dummy can help.
Engineers from General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and other companies have been working together for years to develop advanced crash-test dummies that can more accurately gauge vehicle safety. Progress has been slow, but their efforts are close to producing smarter dummies.
"We fight with our competitors fiercely in the marketplace, but when it comes to crash dummies, there's a lot more cooperation than people realize," says Jack Jensen, technical manager of GM's crash-test lab.
Developing new dummies is difficult because they must react to horrendous impacts in the same ways the human body would. But they must be durable enough to absorb scores or even hundreds of crashes. They use digital sensors to record thousands of bits of information during every crash test, even though the typical crash impact lasts only about one-seventh of a second.
Imagine wrapping your laptop in rubber casing and slamming it into a wall hundreds of times a year. That's what it's like for a dummy.
Naturally, they're extremely expensive. GM, for example, has about 400 dummies worth about $45 million at a half-dozen crash-test safety labs throughout the world.
"The development of the dummy is a hard job," says Jesse Buehler, principal engineer for vehicle performance development at the Toyota Technical Center south of Ann Arbor, Mich. "It's trying to take assemblies of steel and vinyl and mimicking the response of muscle and bone."
Here are four developments in anthropomorphic test-device technology that could soon lead to changes in crash-test procedures.
WorldSID: This side-impact dummy is close to reaching the market after more than a decade of development. It has more than 200 electronic sensors that can translate digital readings into a summary of how crashes physically affect a human. That's about double the number of digital readings today's side-impact dummies can record. It could cost much more than today's dummies, possibly as much as $400,000 a copy, Jensen says.
THOR: The frontal-impact dummy, which was originally funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is being tested by several automakers. THOR is an acronym for Test Device for Human Occupant Restraint. It would represent significant improvements on the Hybrid III dummy, which was created in the 1970s by GM and is still widely used in test labs today.
BioRID: This rear-impact dummy was created by Chalmers University researcher Anna Carlsson in collaboration with automakers such as GM, which has developed tests to examine its effectiveness. Volkswagen, Chrysler, Ford and others have also contributed to its development.
Software models: Researchers are constantly tweaking computerized human models to improve digital assessments of crash test safety. For example, Toyota scientists have developed a Total Human Model for Safety (THUMS) to improve digital analysis of crash tests. It's already being used.
Despite new developments in crash-test dummies, obstacles remain. Getting the required regulatory approvals to start using them could take time. "There is a long process before new technologies become implemented in regulations or used by the industry," Carlsson says.
Navigating the complex network of auto-safety regulations throughout the world also is a challenge. "It's very important that the world governments harmonize on crash-test regulations so we can run standardized tests on vehicles in multiple markets," GM's Jensen says. "It allows for more efficient design of vehicles, and in the long run, it allows for better design of vehicles."
Read about it: Learn more about crash-dummy research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website: nhtsa.gov/Research/Biomechanics+&+Trauma