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Ford Aiming to Engineer a Digital Child

Virtual “dummy” could help save real kids.

by on Mar.31, 2011

Ford's Dr. Steve Rouhana with child crash dummies.

Can a virtual child help save the 1,300 or so real kids killed each year in motor vehicle accidents?

That’s what Ford Motor Co. is hoping.  The maker has launched a high-tech project to recreate the very complicated anatomy of a young child in digital form to make it easier to develop more advanced seatbelts and other safety systems.

“The virtual child will allow us to better understand how a youngster interacts with a restraint system,” explained Ford’s senior technical researcher Dr. Steve Rouhana, “so they can be made more effective.”

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The new project is the latest effort in safety research that, at Ford, goes back a half century.  Like its competitors, the maker routinely crashes prototypes of its future products to see how well they will perform in the real world.  But, in recent years, Ford has been steadily migrating from physical crash testing to digital simulations.

That has a number of advantages.  For one thing, it costs a lot less than producing dozens of hand-assembled prototypes, and it takes a lot less time.  And as the software gets better, the virtual crashes have become as accurate – sometimes even better – at reproducing a real world collision.

That’s especially true when it comes to measuring impact forces on the body.  A few years back, Ford was part of a broad coalition that helped develop “World-SID,” the latest in crash dummies, which uses 220 different sensors to measure impact forces during a test.  Even then, cautions Rouhana, the dummies don’t do a perfect job of translating results into what really happens when a human is involved in a collision.

To do a better job of recreating those forces Ford spent more than a decade pulling together a digital model of an adult human – which it can tweak with the click of a mouse to simulate a 35-year-old, or someone 55 or even 75.  Rouhana says Ford expects to have the digital child ready much quicker.

There are plenty of challenges, for one thing deciding on the age, as well as the sex of the virtual dummy.  Other makers have discovered this.  Toyota has developed a digital child simulation that has the basic body geometry right but not the material properties of bone, muscle and organs.

To help pull off the project, Ford is partnering with Tianjin University and its Children’s Hospital, near Beijing.

“The way the world is working,” suggested Rouhana, “eventually we won’t need real dummies.”

But there will certainly be the need to simulate crashes.  Even after years of safety improvements, there were 33,808 traffic fatalities in the U.S. in 2009, the last year for which data are available.  Of that number, more than 1,300 fatalities involved children and teens.

In fact, said the Ford researcher, “Auto crashes are the leading cause of death among children from the age of one through their teen years.”

Children, whose heads are larger than adults, are particularly vulnerable to certain types of crashes, but with the availability of a digital dummy, Ford is betting it – and other automakers – will be able to develop improved seats, restraints and other safety systems to lower that death toll.

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