Safety for Dummies - Honda Braces for an Impact You Hope Never Comes

safety for dummies honda braces for an impact you hope never comes

Overwhelming geek that I am, I’m often reminded of The Simpsons in odd situations, mostly as the show’s been on so long, it can’t help but have covered a circumstance ad nauseum. In the car-centric season four episode “Mr. Plow,” the family heads to an auto show, where a suspiciously named automaker shows a slow-motion video of a crash test while Lisa watches. Disconcertingly, one of the dummies starts to crawl away from the scene of the crash, at which point the OEM rep shuts down the exhibit.

I did recently get the chance to watch a controlled car crash at Honda’s research facility. Just as important as seeing how the car handles the stresses of the impact is measuring how a human occupant reacts. Honda has a massive family of dummies, all ready to sacrifice themselves for the real people of the world.

Disclaimer: Honda brought journalists to the Columbus area and fed us two meals. As your author lives in Columbus, no hotel stay was needed.

No matter what The Simpsons would like you to think, automakers don’t use live humans in crash testing. How, then, can we be certain that the dummies indeed react like bags of flesh and bone? Honda turns to a climate-controlled lab deep within the bowels of the Research and Development center to constantly test the dummies for biofidelity, ensuring each of the scores of sensors strategically placed within each will accurately record impact.

It’s not just the average-sized male, either. While the typical dummy used for frontal impact testing is the AM50 – adult male, fiftieth percentile size – there are options scaling up or down from there to ensure all possible occupants are protected. From infant and child dummies of 12 months, three years, six years, and ten years, to adult dummies AF5 (adult female, fifth percentile) and AM95 (male, 95th – basically your author with less facial hair), these dummies have seen it all. Further, specialized dummies for side impact or rear whiplash are available in the lab.

This dummy looks a bit different than the rest, and it has a name – THOR. Sadly not named after the god of thunder, THOR is short for Test Human of Occupant Restraint. And rather than wielding a hammer, THOR is equipped with more than double the number of data channels (130 to 64) found on the customary Hybrid III dummy typically used. More data channels equate to more data and greater biofidelity. THOR, unsurprisingly, isn’t cheap – somewhere around $750,000 US. Thus far, however, THOR isn’t the industry or regulatory standard for crash testing, so the well-known Hybrid III remains the dominant dummy in the lab.

Brian Bautsch, manager and principal engineer for crash safety at Honda R&D, has a degree in biomedical engineering – in other words, the ideal education to become a dummy doctor. Here, Bautsch and his team sling a massive weight into the chest of a dummy to ensure that it is calibrated to react accurately to an impact.

Adam Mihm, senior engineer for pedestrian protection, notes that 18 percent of all deaths on American roadways ( 6760 tota l) in 2017 occurred outside the vehicle – either pedestrians or cyclist. No matter the reason for the crash, automakers are working to minimize the damage caused to those not surrounded by two tons of steel. Here, by firing a model of a leg at the bumper of a Passport at 40 km/h (25 mph), engineers can measure the bending of the tibia and the elongation of four ligaments in the knee. Apologies for the reflection – Honda didn’t trust us barely-sentient dummies to not get hurt, so all of the tests were behind glass.

More weird reflections here, where a 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) ball sized like a child’s head is fired at the hood. Ever notice how most modern cars have a much taller hood than in decades past? Pedestrian impact protection is the reason, as space is needed between the hood and anything hard beneath – like the engine – to dissipate the energy of impact.

At the end of our day at Honda R&D, the masochists in the crowd were treated to a display that has to pain the hard-working engineers.

Two hundred and twenty-five times a year – roughly once each working day – a car is flung toward a 90 metric ton impact barrier that can rotate 360 degrees to measure any possible collision. Today, a 2019 Civic coupe (in the best color, Tonic Yellow) is hurtled down a long tunnel at 64 km/h (40 mph) to test small overlap, front driver-side crash performance.

The impact area is lined with cameras – including underneath – and 13.6 million lumens of light to make sure the high-speed cameras capture everything.

No engineers or overfed journalists were harmed. Again, we were behind glass.

In this 64 km/h impact, that 90 ton barrier moves less than a millimeter.

After the crash, engineers swept the area of any shards of metal or glass, and we were permitted to come closer to see how the energy of the frontal overlap impact was spread throughout the car. The side-impact airbags were cut and tucked away so we could see the dummy – visibly shaken, but apparently unharmed.

That’s how we all were, really – visibly shaken by the violence of the impact. It’s a daily occurrence for engineers at Honda and across the industry, of course, working to keep us dummies alive.

[Images: © 2019 Chris Tonn, crash video courtesy Honda]

Join the conversation
3 of 9 comments
  • Kyree Kyree on Sep 03, 2019

    I can't see myself getting a Civic Coupe. It just doesn't communicate the right things, for me. But if I *were* to get a Civic Coupe, I would totally choose Tonic Yellow. It looks like it held up impressively in the small overlap, too. Meanwhile... Volvo, for the past ten years or so, has been engineering its cars so that in a small-overlap collision, they sheer off the wheel on that side, allowing the rest of car to slide past the barrier while the sacrificed wheel dissipates crash energy. Other cars push the wheel rearward, toward the cabin, which "hooks" the car on the object of impact and causes that sudden deceleration that's so injurious. Why is no one else able or willing to replicate Volvo's strategy?

  • SilverCoupe SilverCoupe on Sep 03, 2019

    Slightly off topic, but I saw a show on TV this weekend where a group was trying to design air bags for skiers (sort of a vest). The problem was that they would have to inflate before the fall, and how could the airbag tell if the skier was just doing a flip in the air or really falling?

  • Islander800 That is the best 20-year-on update of the Honda Element that I've ever seen. Strip out the extraneous modern electronic crap that adds tens of thousands to the price and the completely unnecessary 400 pd/ft torque and horse power, and you have a 2022 Honda Element - right down to the neoprene interior "elements" of the Element - minus the very useful rear-hinged rear doors. The proportions and dimensions are identical.Call me biased, but I still drive my west coast 2004 Element, at 65K miles. Properly maintained, it will last another 20 years....Great job, Range Rover!
  • Dennis Howerton Nice article, Corey. Makes me wish I had bought Festivas when they were being produced. Kia made them until the line was discontinued, but Kia evidently used some of the technology to make the Rio. Pictures of the interior look a lot like my Rio's interior, and the 1.5 liter engine is from Mazda while Ford made the automatic transmission in the used 2002 Rio I've been driving since 2006. I might add the Rio is also an excellent subcompact people mover.
  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.