x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Smart thinking for real dummies

As governments in many countries implement evermore stringent regulations on passenger protection in motor vehicles, so the industry steps up the technological sophistication of its human-like accident 'victims'.

Crash-test dummies at the Humanetics Innovative Solutions facility in Huron, Ohio. The company has created a male dummy that is capable of testing chest deflections. Ty Wright / Bloomberg News
Crash-test dummies at the Humanetics Innovative Solutions facility in Huron, Ohio. The company has created a male dummy that is capable of testing chest deflections. Ty Wright / Bloomberg News

Meet the kids in the Q family. There is Q1, a newborn, and Q1.5, who is 18 months old.

Other siblings in this family include Q3, Q6 and Q10, who are between the ages of three and 10, and despite featuring ribs, clavicles, a pelvis and vertebrae, are each an anthropomorphic test device.

In other words, a crash-test dummy.

These particular ones have each been outfitted with more than 30 sensors throughout their body. They have also been designed to mimic the size and weight of human children in their age group, as well as certain movements and reactions.

Kids from the Q family helped a company by the name of Jané test its car seats. The firm did so by strapping the dummies into a vehicle, which travelled at about 65km an hour and stopped in 1.7 seconds.

"This means that Jané safety experts will now have the opportunity to more accurately measure, through crash tests, damage and injury in the event of whiplash, seat belt tension, side impacts and vertical displacement," the company says.

But Jané's dummies are far from the only ones researchers are trying to more closely match to their human counterparts. Other companies are also working with car makers while designing and testing dummies in a global industry where vehicle sales now total US$4 trillion annually, according to market research from IBISWorld.

Ford has launched a research project to better understand crash-force effects by creating a digital model of a human child. This virtual version aims to include more lifelike recreations of a child's skeletal structure, their internal organs and even their brain.

"In the virtual world, hundreds of designs can be virtually tested in days, then the best of the designs can be physically tested for confirmation that the design works in the real world," says Stephen Rouhana, technical leader for safety advanced engineering at Ford.

"This saves significant time and improves the robustness of designs."

Over the past decade, more companies have also started rolling out specialised dummies with body types that closely resemble a spectrum of people - a pregnant woman or an elderly person for instance.

"Originally, there was only one size of dummy, very few sensors to determine the loads applied to the dummy, and the dummy was mainly for frontal impact testing," says Mr Rouhana.

"Today, there is a family of dummies, from newborn up to the 95th percentile male [a dummy that just 5 per cent of human males are bigger than], over 200 different sensors, and there are different dummies for frontal impacts, side impacts, rear impacts, pedestrians etcetera," adds Mr Rouhana.

Some companies are also going further than before as they attempt to analyse more specific movements different people make during an impact.

Humanetics Innovative Solutions, which released the Q10 child dummy last year, announced the creation of a male dummy last month that is capable of testing chest deflections in different conditions. Its neck has also been tweaked to more carefully track how a collision might cause joint stiffness or neck strain.

The challenge for businesses such as Humanetics, however, will continue to be incorporating technology fast enough to keep up with more stringent safety standards and growing pressure from drivers who want safer vehicles.

"There's always going to be some potentially new innovation you might be able to leverage to make your dummy more sophisticated," says Bill Visnic, the senior editor of Edmunds.com, an automotive information website.

"I could see at some point there might be some advantage from binocular cameras impregnated in the dummy, like eyes, where you could potentially see from the camera inside the car, or how the head reacts," he adds.

General Motors (GM) has said it routinely tests a range of adult dummies - both male and female - as well as child-sized devices.

One of the dummies it uses, known as the BioRID, includes a spinal column with 24 vertebra simulators that help it to "sit naturally and demonstrates human-like neck movement in rear-end collisions," GM says.

The aim, here, is to better understand how crash victims get hurt in car collisions when the rear gets impacted. But as the weight and height of individuals has changed over the years - yes, we have been getting taller but also bigger compared with our ancestors - crash-test dummies have also had to evolve.

The first one, named Sierra Sam, dates back to about the Second World War, automotive analysts say. That was when Sierra Sam was used to test ejection seats on aircraft. He was among first 95th percentile dummies.

Soon, dummies such as Sierra Sam were being used to help determine the safety readiness of automobiles.

"When car production started again, companies got interested in expanding their research and development in all areas," says Mr Visnic.

"The car companies began to understand they had to get more sophisticated about safety, and identify safety as something that was going to become more important."

Small, computerised sensors began appearing on some crash-test dummy models in the mid 1970s as car makers and dummy suppliers started collaborating more closely.

At the same time, they tried to glean as much digital information as possible about what happens during a car crash.

"Now you start to understand not only what happened to the dummy after the crash but what kinds of crash forces were working on the dummy, and where they were working on the dummy," says Mr Visnic.

"It wasn't until you started to implement, and impregnate, the dummies with sensors that you could determine a new level of data from what happened to the dummy in the crash," he adds.

But some of their efforts at innovating on the data-gathering front also came about due to financial reasons.

"A typical crash test is a pretty expensive proposition, so they wanted to grab as much data as possible," explains Mr Nerad.

And today, the search for ever more information about what happens during a crash continues unabated.

"You'll continue to see increasing sophistication and the ability to mine more and more information from each of these crash tests," says Mr Visnic.

Maybe, one day, that binocular-eyed dummy will be added to the Q family, or even become the first member of the R family.