They come in all shapes and sizes and, in worst case scenarios, their bones are broken, their spines compressed, and their joints are violently twisted and torn out of place. But instead of being rushed to the nearest hospital, a crash test dummy is slammed into walls, poles, and other vehicles with unblinking resilience. Teams of engineers collect the recorded crash data, replace any of the dummies' broken parts, and quickly get back to the job of making cars safer.
Far from being simply a human-sized hunk of unthinking steel and foam rubber, today's crash test dummies are high-tech instruments that help save countless lives. At General Motors' Anthropomorphic Test Device (ATD) lab in Milford, Michigan, crash dummies record and transmit data 10,000 times a second. Wired with up to 80 sensors, they're able to tell safety engineers exactly how much and what kind of forces have been endured during a crash.
"Crash tests give you a baseline," says Jack Jensen, a GM safety engineer and Technical Fellow who oversees the automaker's "dummy lab" in Milford. "The game changer has been the number of dummies and configurations," he explains. "The different types and sizes allow us to run crash tests in a wide variety of conditions." GM has approximately $25 million invested in what Jensen likes to refer to as the automaker's "family" of roughly 200 crash dummies.
Like any family, the members come in a wide variety of ages and size. These range anywhere from a 6-foot-tall 233-pound adult male to a dummy representing a 5-foot, 105-pound female. There are dummies built to simulate children, toddlers, and even newborns. Each is a sophisticated piece of machinery loaded with sensors to record the force of an impact. The most advanced new models cost upward of $400,000.
In some cases, plastic bones and steel with rubber-reinforced rib cages are included in the design—to better mimic the effects a crash might have on the flesh and bone of a human body. The basic structure of any dummy is a robust steel skeleton, covered in a mixture of rubber, vinyl and foam. General Motors set the template for crash test dummy designs with its Hybrid III model, developed back in the 1970s.
For every physical crash test involving a vehicle and dummy, an automaker will run hundreds of computer simulations to back up the data and perform countless other crash scenarios. These virtual simulations take into consideration everything from an occupant's size to weather conditions and a vehicle's grip on the road. Yet even in today's digital age, crash test dummies are proving vitally important to vehicle safety. Modern crash dummies not only come in a wide range of sizes, they're routinely built to handle specific jobs such as front, side or rear-impact collisions.
Professor Lotta Jakobsson, technical specialist at Volvo Cars Safety Center in Gothenburg, Sweden, oversaw development of anti-whiplash technology and a crash dummy built to record rear-end collisions. Jointly developed by Volvo, Saab, Chalmer's Technical University of Sweden and Autoliv, the BioRID (Rear Impact Dummy) aided in the development of safety devices to lessen whiplash and other loads on the human body specific to rear-end accidents. Automakers around the world have now adopted this dummy for their own testing purposes.
"Even a door handle has safety aspects," explains Jakobsson, detailing all the safety criteria that must be taken into consideration when designing any new vehicle. "After all, you have to be able to open a door after a crash." Working with a team of roughly 100 safety engineers, the design department, Jakobsson says up to five crash tests can be conducted each day at safety lab.
This includes the partial offset crash test, in which a vehicle hits a fixed barrier or pole with only a small part of its front structure. Developed by Volvo in the 1990s, this test puts a tremendous stress on the vehicle—not to mention its occupants by directing forces through a narrower region of the bodywork and chassis. Volvo has designed a crash dummy with a modified shoulder design to better record the unique twisting forces in this grueling test.
After their working careers are over, some lucky crash dummies are even granted the benefit of a peaceful retirement. This summer, after 15 years of dutiful service, GM's dummy model 50H-1 went into official retirement when it was donated to the Smithsonian National Museum for American History in Washington, D.C. Despite losing innumerable arms and legs in the line of duty, 50H-1 is now wholly intact and part of the Smithsonian's display dedicated to automotive safety artifacts.