Sierra Sam and Sierra Susie have seen some things.
For the past 70 years, their crash test dummy family has been subjected to carefully calculated abuse in the hopes of making cars safer for humans. 4 Axis Force Torque Sensor
Car safety has improved by leaps and bounds, but U.S. roads are the deadliest they have been in nearly two decades, government data shows. As more electric vehicles hit the streets, weighing upward of 25 percent more than their gas-powered equivalents, crashes could become more catastrophic, industry experts worry.
And for reasons not based just on biology, Sam is far better protected than Susie. Women are nearly 30 percent more likely to die in car crashes than men and up to 70 percent more likely to be seriously injured, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Still, federal crash safety tests do not require use of a dummy representing the average female.
All this weighs on the minds of engineers and executives at Farmington Hills-based Humanetics Group, where crash test dummies of all shapes and sizes come to life in Frankenstein-like fashion.
"Initially, the dummies were designed to prevent death, so you're just looking at, 'OK, does the head stay on?'" Barney Loehnis, president and chief marketing officer of Humanetics, said during a recent tour of its headquarters and testing facility.
The science has changed dramatically. Crash test dummies have grown from crude plastic models to million-dollar, biofidelic dummies made up of dozens of load cells and sensors measuring impact with precise detail. The testing and manufacturing environment has become far more sophisticated, too.
Humanetics moved five years ago from its medieval torture chamber in Plymouth as it were, to a more technologically refined torture chamber in Farmington Hills. Most of the raw materials that make up the dummies are made in the company's manufacturing plant in Huron, Ohio, before it heads north.
"We do the instrumentation and integration here — the brain and nervous system of the dummy," Loehnis said, strolling the 100,000-square-foot plant. Within its global headquarters, 210 employees work to turn the dummy shell into a final product that is shipped primarily to OEMs and aerospace companies. First, engineers design the gauge load cells, which are then manufactured on site by precision machinists and passed along for instrumentation, which takes 70 hours under a microscope per cell, operations manager Dave Danes said. Along the back of the facility, engineers put the cells through tests that measure force and impact in a variety of ways such as dropping anvils onto various plastic limbs strewn about the plant. Upstairs, a separate team of computer engineers skip the spectacle as they create digital twins of the dummies — a steadily growing aspect of the business. Like the mad scientists piecing together dummies, the private equity owners of Humanetics have grown it into a juggernaut by bolting on different types of businesses and acquiring smaller competitors. In the past 10 years, the company has tripled in size to more than $300 million in revenue and 850 employees worldwide. The company traces its origin back to the late 1940s when Sam Alderson made a safety test dummy for the U.S. Air Force in Connecticut. Around 30 years later, Robert Denton launched a sensor manufacturing shop in Detroit. Iterations of the two companies eventually met in a merger between Denton and First Technology Safety Systems in 2011, when the company became Humanetics.
Owned by Bridgepoint EU, the company is composed of three main business units — physical dummies, digital dummies and fiber optic sensors — each of which generate a roughly equal share of its revenue.
Loehnis said the company has maintained a double-digit growth percentage for the past several years and that more acquisitions are in sight this year. It faces some competition — Switzerland-based Kistler Group, which has a base in Novi, is a challenger — but Humanetics has automotive market dominance, Loehnis said.
"We continue to buy companies we think are going to add value to the business," he said, declining to elaborate on future deals.
The company's latest generation of crash test dummies look nothing like Sam and Susie, the original, sensor-less dummy prototypes.
Launched in 2015, the THOR (test device for human occupant restraint) models are equipped with 80 censors and 150 channels of data for crash responses of body parts ranging from the neck and thorax to pelvis and femur.
THOR is the update to Humanetics' previous model, Hybrid III, a comparatively unsophisticated dummy with a fraction of the sensors and far less biofidelity, Loehnis said. The Hybrid dummy became the industry standard when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration formed in 1970.
It is still the standard, despite it being decades old and the availability of superior testing technologies. Loehnis said the THOR model had been set to be the new federal standard around seven years ago but was shelved by the Trump administration, which favored less regulation.
THOR has already been adopted by Europe, China and Japan. NHTSA has said it plans to update the dummies but has not specified when.
"NHTSA is working to improve the reliability of a new set of more human-like dummies for use in crash tests," a spokesperson said in an email. "NHTSA is working as expeditiously as possible and looking for ways to speed up these important efforts."
Although THOR is not in the driver's seat for federal crash tests, there is a high demand from automakers for the most advanced technology. Humanetics supplies every automaker across the globe, Loehnis said, and most of them use THOR.
"A lot of automakers in the U.S. want to test with it because it's a better device, and it gives them more data," Loehnis said.
THOR's female counterpart, THOR-5F, is a vast improvement over female dummies of the past because it resembles the average female build. Previous female dummies were basically just scaled down versions of the males, Loehnis said.
Sierra Susie was the first female crash test dummy prototype by Humanetics.
"Women have different physiology, less muscle structure, a different bone structure and different fat distribution," he said. "It is important to test for difference sizes of occupants and also to understand how they respond differently to different injuries."
The female dummy is designed with sensors where women are most vulnerable to injury in a car crash, such as the neck, legs and abdomen. It also has a lower pelvis than the male dummy, which is important in measuring how a seat belt engages differently with a female in a car crash.
Despite the differences, automakers only need to pass federal crash safety tests with a standard male dummy at 5 feet 9 inches and weighing 171 pounds. That standard was set in the 1970s, when the average man weighed less.
NHTSA did not introduce female dummies, which are just scaled-down versions of the male, into crash tests until 2003. And at 4 feet 11 inches and weighing 108 pounds, they are also significantly smaller than today's average female.
There has been a recent push to address the inequality in crash safety tests. U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and 65 other House members sent a letter last year to the Department of Transportation, urging it to update crash-test standards.
"We write to call your attention to an often-overlooked inequity in the area of vehicle safety: the gender-based discrepancies in traffic injuries and fatalities that are in part attributable to the absence of female crash test dummies in the current crash test system," the letter said. "Ultimately, omitting crash test dummies that reflect women inhibits complete information gathering and produces inaccurate vehicle safety performance evaluations."
NHTSA said it plans to issue new proposed regulations with specifications for a new female crash test dummy in the next year.
"Gender disparities in outcomes of traffic crashes are unacceptable, and NHTSA is dedicated to solving this problem using all the tools it has — including ensuring stronger safety standards and an updated and more effective set of NCAP standards, as well as using high-quality computer simulations and crash dummies," the administration said.
Even as regulation lags the technology available, Humanetics is working on newer generations of dummies that it predicts will become the standard years down the road. It has poured millions of dollars into prototyping THOR AV, a dummy designed with a flexible pelvis to accommodate multiple body positions within an autonomous vehicle.
"The industry knows that they need a solution for autonomous vehicles where you've got people reclining or sitting backwards," Loehnis said.
On the computer side, the technology is evolving beyond digital dummies used in simulated crash tests. Engineers are now starting to model the actual human body. While the process is complicated and time consuming, it is expected to eventually be done at scale, Loehnis said.
"I think we see the digital and physical as growing together," he said. "You'll always need a physical validation of your simulation."
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