Crash-Test Dummies Are Getting Fatter Because We Are, Too

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- At first glance, Humanetics Innovative Solutions Inc. looks like it has a pretty sweet business model. The suburban Detroit company is the world’s largest maker of crash-test dummies, the steel-and-vinyl humanoids stuffed with electronics that gauge how a car crash could injure a human body. The company enjoys a global market share exceeding 70 percent, and its dummies can cost as much as $1 million apiece. Regulators in the U.S. and other countries effectively require Humanetics customers to buy at least some of its products.

With a setup like that, you might say, even a dummy could make a fortune. This makes Humanetics Chief Executive Officer Christopher O’Connor laugh, though for a different reason than you might think. He’d much rather discuss the implications of 3D printers and driverless cars than how Humanetics, or any dummy maker, turns a profit. “I’ve said to myself, if I had $10 million, I wouldn’t invest in this business,” O’Connor says. “I love it, but the reality is, you’re not going to make a ton of money. The margins are always going to be tight.”

The business of making and selling crash dummies is odd, and not only because it involves faceless mannequins acting as proxies for the mangled and the dead. Dummy makers spend years and millions of dollars developing products that customers profess to admire but decline to buy. Vehicles and drivers have changed dramatically, but the model of dummy used in many government-required crash tests has been around for four decades. The industry sells a mere 200 to 250 dummies in a decent year and generated $111 million in revenue globally in 2016, according to market-research company Technavio.

At the Humanetics headquarters in Farmington Hills, Mich., and its factory in Huron, Ohio, cubicles and worktables are littered with flesh-colored dummy heads, feet, and hands, and parts carts hold shiny aluminum elbows, knees, and clavicles. They’ll be assembled by some of Humanetics’ 750 employees into anthropomorphic devices of various genders and ages. Information gleaned from dummies has helped automakers develop air bags, advanced seat belts, penetration-resistant glass, and energy-absorbing frames. Dummy performance in crash tests is central to the popular vehicle safety rating, which influences sales. Given all this, it seems like Humanetics’ continual improvement of its product ought to produce robust growth. The problem is that dummies, unlike humans, don’t die, though a decade ago the industry almost did.

Crash-Test Dummies Are Getting Fatter Because We Are, Too

In Volvo Car Group’s cavernous crash facility in Gothenburg, Sweden, eight banks of 4,000-watt lamps shine on a V60 station wagon as technicians scurry about making final preparations for a side-impact crash test. A bank of electronic measuring equipment rests on the hood. Two dummies wait, one in the front seat, the other directly behind.

The techs disperse. The garage is silent but for a voice on an intercom counting down from 10. At zero, a flat barrier accelerates toward the car at 31 mph and T-bones it. The scene is placid one second and then suddenly, jarringly violent—as in a real collision.

Then the serious work begins, much of it involving the collection and analysis of data from the sensors inside the dummies: Did a rib deflect far enough that it could have fractured? Might the intrusion of the driver’s door have punctured an internal organ? Volvo runs as many as 10 full-scale crash tests a week, including head-on collisions, lateral and angular impacts, and outdoor tests in which vehicles are run into a roadside ditch to see how the bodies—that is, the dummies’ bodies—are tossed around inside.

The company owns about 100 dummies, some brand-new, some as old as 40. A number of Volvo’s Humanetics dummies represent a 5-foot-9-inch, 172-pound male, which at one point was a statistically average man. (Said man is now pushing 200.) Volvo also has dummies that stand in for larger men, small women, and children of various ages. Then there’s a replica moose—collisions with Bullwinkle are common in Sweden—that resembles an oil drum tipped sideways and propped on four stilts.

Some of the early crash dummies, in the mid-20th century, were human cadavers flung down elevator shafts and hogs impaled on steering columns. There were live humans, too. In 1954, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Stapp, a physician studying how deceleration affected military pilots in crashes, rode a rocket sled at 632 mph on a New Mexico test track. He didn’t hit anything, but blood filled his eyes as vessels burst under the pressure. His research caught the attention of automakers; later he founded the annual Stapp Car Crash Conference, which still contributes to crash-test development.

The U.S. highway fatality rate in the 1950s ranged from 5 to 7 deaths per 1 million miles traveled. Autos were built with stiff exteriors that transferred the deadly energy of a collision to their occupants. Interiors were loaded with sharp doorknobs, radio buttons, rearview mirrors, and other dangerous protrusions. Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965, changed that, becoming a best-seller and cultural force. In 1966, Congress enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, establishing vehicle safety standards. In response, General Motors Co. developed the first widely accepted crash dummy by combining parts from models made by two other companies. That was the Hybrid I. By the late 1970s, the Hybrid III was established as the standard for a front-end crash test.

Crash-Test Dummies Are Getting Fatter Because We Are, Too

In the mid-1980s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started using costumed dummies dubbed Vince and Larry in a goofy ad campaign that encouraged Americans to buckle up. “You could learn a lot from a dummy,” went the tag line. One TV commercial starred the pair in a fictional game show called You Lost Your Life, in which they warned that if you don’t secure your seat belt, “You could end up in places you never dreamed—like traction!”

O’Connor, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former General Electric Co. executive with a background in electrical and mechanical engineering, became CEO of dummy manufacturer First Technology Safety Systems on the cusp of the 2008 financial crisis. “Our customers essentially stopped spending money,” he says. A few smaller dummy makers went out of business. First Technology merged with a rival, Robert A. Denton Inc., and the combined company was named Humanetics. (It’s now owned by the private equity firm Bridgepoint.) As CEO of the new company, O’Connor laid off about 50 employees and ordered a push into emerging markets and nonauto businesses such as aerospace, where dummies are used to test military parachutes and ejection seats, among other things. He also cranked up the development of new products. In December 2015, NHTSA (pronounced “nitsa”) announced it would seek input on incorporating new dummy models into crash tests that underlie the agency’s vehicle crashworthiness ratings. It looked like a nice break for Humanetics.

The crash-test dummy sits in a wheelchair, dressed in a dull yellow jacket with its hands folded in its lap. No, it didn’t survive an especially nasty crash. “A wheelchair is just the easiest way to move it around,” says Mike Beebe, chief technology officer of Humanetics and an engineer who’s been working with crash dummies for 38 years.

Beebe is showing off the prototype at a safety conference in downtown Detroit. It’s designed to represent a 70-year-old woman who’s 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 161 pounds. Those measurements were derived from population data, cadaver testing, and body scans of people injured in car crashes.

The dummy has a black plastic 3D-printed rib cage that looks like something Ben Affleck might have worn as Batman. Beebe peels the yellow jacket down to the waist to reveal a fabricated paunch meant to approximate an elderly person’s girth and plastic replicas of a liver and a spleen.

There are good reasons to use dummies like this. Millions more elderly drivers are on the road now that the baby-boom generation has entered its 70s. They tend to have bigger waists and additional thigh fat, which can allow a seat belt to slide above the pelvis to the soft tissue covering organs. To create a dummy that addresses those issues, Humanetics has spent six years and more than $2 million. “This is our halo dummy, our Corvette,” Beebe says, gesturing to the grandma stand-in. But the company has yet to sell a single one. “We’ve seen some car companies say, ‘We like it,’ but nobody has said, ‘We want to buy one,’ ” O’Connor says.

The measurements required for government safety certifications effectively demand that all companies use matching dummies for the same tests so that results are consistent. NHTSA and the industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also issue periodic safety ratings for individual vehicle models. The grades are based on tests conducted by NHTSA and IIHS, so automakers would be foolish not to use the same dummies. Car companies sometimes order customized models for particular tests they devise on their own, but regulators and the institute have outsize influence on dummy-buying decisions.

European regulators have indicated interest in the elderly Humanetics dummy, which could eventually spur sales. Becky Mueller, a senior research engineer for the insurance institute, says, “I could definitely see a need for an elderly dummy in the future. But we don’t yet have the data to make that decision. We’re still pretty far away.”

Crash-Test Dummies Are Getting Fatter Because We Are, Too

Sitting side by side in a high-ceilinged lab at the Humanetics headquarters are two other dummies that represent the past and potential future of the business. One is a modern Hybrid III, priced at $250,000 to $500,000, the other a male THOR—a “test device for human occupant restraint”—that sells for $500,000 to $1 million, depending on the number and sophistication of the sensors installed.

If the elderly dummy is Humanetics’ Corvette, the THOR is its Tesla. It can be fitted with sensors that offer as many as 150 “channels,” or repositories of data, up to four times as many as in the other dummy. These sensors supply minute details on such things as the distance a single rib travels on impact and how a glancing blow to the side of the head might contribute to a concussion.

The THOR is also Humanetics’ most biofidelic dummy, meaning it more accurately imitates human responses. For instance, the spine and neck are more flexible than those in older models. Jim Davis, vice president for engineering, shows why this could matter in a head-on collision. The older dummy “is very rigid and tends to move forward,” he says, “whereas a human being tends to turn toward the A pillar,” the stanchion between the windshield and the driver’s side window. “And look at the complexity of the shoulder joints,” he says. “It’s important that it can capture this motion,” he says, leaning one way and rolling his shoulders forward.

Humanetics has spent $10 million creating THOR. The company has developed a distinct female version, partly because of a 2011 University of Virginia study showing that women were 47 percent more likely than men to suffer severe injuries in a crash. NHTSA has bought three female THORs, and automakers have ordered five more, but it’s not yet clear how widely they’ll be used. After NHTSA said in December 2015 that it wanted to revamp its car safety ratings for the 2019 model year, sales of male THORs jumped. Humanetics sold 58 in 2016, up from 19 the previous year. Then, shortly before Donald Trump took office in January 2017, NHTSA restarted the process, pushing back changes for at least a year.

Auto companies and the insurance institute have also urged NHTSA to exercise caution. Manufacturers told the agency that the use of new tests and THOR dummies could pose a “significant cost burden” that “would increase the price of new vehicles.” The insurance institute told the agency it isn’t clear yet that the new dummies, though technologically better, would enhance information about crashworthiness.

Crash-Test Dummies Are Getting Fatter Because We Are, Too

Still, there are potential opportunities for Humanetics, including driverless vehicles. Prospective car designs envision passengers facing backward, sitting around tables, and reclining. There are no crash-test specifications and no specific rules that apply to these configurations. Manufacturers have just begun to grapple with what an autonomous car’s test dummy might look like.

All of this should be good for Humanetics, despite O’Connor’s recent frustrations. At the same time, other companies that make sensors and related gear have been jumping into dummy-making. The capital investment required to enter the business can be substantial, but NHTSA shares specifications widely so regulators, auto companies, dummy makers, and suppliers are all in sync.

Humanetics expects to sell about 50 THORs this year, fueled mostly by European regulators pushing ahead with new crash-test programs. Meanwhile, the U.S. fatality rate, which dipped to a record low of 1.08 per million miles traveled in 2014 (32,744 deaths), was 1.16 last year (37,133). “The administration has been dragging their feet on this,” O’Connor says. “Europe and other countries have really been more proactive than the United States. There’s a significant opportunity to save more lives.” And sell more dummies.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.