When people go to buy a new car, one of the most important factors they look at is how safe the vehicle is going to be for them and their families. And automotive safety has come a long way since the earliest motor cars used to crawl along at 5mph, preceded by a pedestrian waving a warning flag!
The industry has made more than its fair share of mistakes when it comes to vehicle safety, but the fact remains that cars are much safer than they were fifty years ago – and innovative technologies should mean that driving becomes even safer in years to come.
The invention of crash test dummies was an integral part of improving the effectiveness of automotive testing and therefore improving vehicular safety overall.
Of course, safety trials started long before the invention of crash test dummies. Prior to the 1950s, car manufacturers had to use the next best thing; human cadavers. It may not have been a pleasant job, but early cars still had to be tested to see what the effect a crash would have on drivers and passengers.
There might not always have been enough human cadavers available for rigorous testing, so some car manufacturers also turned to the animal world to find their early crash test dummies. Pigs were a common choice, as they could be sat upright in the front seat, and because their physiology quite closely matches our own.
Many of the animals used in car safety tests were still alive, and protesters from groups like PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, campaigned to have these trials brought to a halt. It is thought that 19,000 animals died in such tests in the 1980s alone, including pigs, rabbits, and dogs.
Modern crash test dummies are a lot less controversial, though they are hi-tech creations, designed to mimic the human body as closely as possible. The dummies have skeletons which are made from aluminum and steel, which are built to respond like a real skeleton when it is involved in a car crash.
The designers of these modern crash test dummies have even made sure that specific tests are carried out to establish how collisions would affect older passengers, by using a softer synthetic plastic to make body parts like the ribcage, in order to reflect how older bones become more fragile over time.
Everyone who has seen an image of a crash test dummy will know that the creators have made an effort to try and make them look as human as possible to ensure the accuracy of safety tests. This includes stretching vinyl over the aluminum and steel skeleton to replicate human skin.
When it comes to the anatomy of a crash test dummy, the fake joints are perhaps one of the most important aspects. After all, human bodies bend and stretch, especially when they are put under strain, and car manufacturers need to accurately know how a collision might affect their future drivers.
The first crash test dummy ever made was built in 1949 by the Sierra Engineering Co. as part of a contract with United States Air Force. He was nicknamed Sierra Sam, and although there were similarities with today’s crash test dummies, he was a pretty basic model, later surpassed by Sierra Stan in the 1960s.
However, while Sierra Sam may have become the model for all future crash test dummies, he himself was not designed to test the safety of cars. He was actually designed by the United States Air Force for use in a rocket sled, ahead of Colonel John Stapp’s record-breaking 632 mph run.
The testing process for car safety is not only an essential part of designing a new vehicle, but it can also be pretty expensive. As well as smashing up a brand new car in the name of science, the crash test dummies themselves don’t come cheap, with the best models costing upwards of $200,000 each.
Car manufacturers have to adapt to changes in the population, and that means that vehicular safety testing has to change too. As the population in the US is growing more obese, so new bigger crash test dummies have been built which reflect the fact that drivers and passengers are becoming heavier.
While the automotive industry started their safety tests using human cadavers, there have also been safety tests involving live human volunteers. A video emerged from German trials in the 1970s which saw live volunteers taking part in trials to test the safety of vehicles and what happened when people are involved in a car crash.
Crash test dummies are not cheap, so it is hardly surprising that companies which provide safety testing services for the automotive industry are keen to try and use them more than once – even though the dummies can end up in quite a bad way after collision testing, requiring some major repairs.
Anyone who has ever driven or ridden in a car owes a great debt to the inventor of the crash test dummy, and those who have developed safety testing over the years. Studies have shown that thanks to crash test dummies drivers and passengers are now 15 times less likely to be involved in a fatal car accident.
The industry has even developed crash test dummies to represent children of all ages, from babies to young teens. Their different sized bodies react differently in the event of a collision, and it is vital that car manufacturers test what would happen if young passengers were going to be in the vehicle.
Early crash test dummies were pretty simple machines, but the 21st-century versions are hi-tech devices which are loaded with sensors which communicate a massive amount of information about what happens to a driver or passenger in the event of a crash. Technology is improving road safety from the very start of the design and manufacturing process.
It is only thanks to the advances made in computing that car manufacturers can even process the amount of data which are communicated by the sensors on a crash test dummy – the most advanced models can transmit as much as 10,000 bits of data every second, giving automotive designers all the information they need to make the vehicle safer.
Technology is even going beyond the most advanced crash test dummies. It is likely that in the next few years car manufacturers won’t rely only on the data from actual crash test dummies, but also from the data provided by virtual humans which are put through the hardship of being involved in a virtual crash.
These virtual crash test dummies have several advantages over the old standard models. Not only can the computer-generated passengers be used again and again without need any repairs they also have virtual organs, as well as joints and bones, to see what internal injuries someone might suffer if they are involved in a collision.
It is now a legal requirement for car manufacturers to use crash test dummies in their safety trials as part of their preparations for outing a new model on the road. However, it was only recently that car manufacturers had to include specially-designed female crash test dummies alongside their male counterparts.
Sources: The Atlantic, Auto Revolution, Tech Briefs, NY Times