The body-scanning tech used in videogames is helping to fill in the gaps of crash tests.
When a gamer hears the words "in-game model" and "physics engine" together, they usually imagine the ragdolls of enemies being thrown aside by a dramatic explosion. Matt Reed, Head of the Biosciences Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, has a very different purpose in mind for ragdolls: He runs them through virtual car crashes to improve vehicle safety. Such tests are not only more cost effective than their physical counterparts, they may even be more comprehensive research tools, thanks to their ability to account for variables like obesity, physical disabilities, and even bulky clothing.
"With 33,000 people in the U.S. dying last year in collisions, there's a disconnect between crash test results and what underserved people are experiencing in accidents," Reed said. "For decades, car companies have been able to test engines and [inanimate] objects. Our work is making body shape and posture of vehicle occupants more realistic."
Reed's team uses digital scanning devices, similar to those from traditional videogame model capturing, to scan various human subjects into detailed virtual figures. This information is used to generate electronic test dummies that can be sent harmlessly into virtual car accidents to determine which body parts will undergo injury and stress. The flexible system can even be adapted for researching crash impacts on soldiers equipped with body armor, a demographic rarely accounted for in standardized safety tests.
While actual vehicle crash tests are still necessary (and let's be honest, kinda fun,) virtual crash technology can fill many gaps that are impractical at a physical level. The cost of constructing a single physical test dummy can range anywhere from $45,000 to $100,000, and will not always account for variables such as age, weight, gender, or even posture. "The cost of a full body scan is a tiny fraction, [relative] to developing a car," Reed adds.
The team is currently hard at work creating virtual models of children to account for the unique injuries they can suffer in car accidents. "The last large-scale study of children in vehicles was in 1977," Reed says. "We [now] know about childhood obesity and how the population is changing body size. We hope to redo that 1977 study with modern technology."