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Building a better dummy

Automakers collaborate on technologies to better gauge vehicle safety

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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 co-operation than people realize," said 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. Some of them last more than a decade, which is longer than an average NFL player's career. 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," said 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 mimic 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. Automakers and governments in the U.S., Europe and Japan have contributed to WorldSID's development. The dummy could cost much more than today's dummies, possibly as much as $400,000 a copy, Jensen said.

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.

The device would particularly improve the collection of information on neck and shoulder injuries.

"It's important to have a dummy that acts like a human so that the restraints that you develop have a benefit for the human," Buehler said.

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.

Carlsson said her device would improve automakers' ability to limit neck injuries among women, who are twice as likely to sustain whiplash during a crash than men.

"To further reduce the whiplash-injury risk, it is important that future whiplash-protection systems are developed and evaluated with consideration of the female properties," the Gothenburg, Sweden, researcher said in an email.

Despite new developments in crash-test dummies, several 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 said. Then the dummies must accurately reflect the average weight of Americans, who have got heavier in recent decades.

Navigating the complex network of auto-safety regulations throughout the world is also 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 said. "It allows for more efficient design of vehicles and, in the long run, it allows for better design of vehicles."

-- Detroit Free Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2013 A1

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