GM engineer: Today’s crash test dummies cost up to $500K, saving more lives

The U.S. Department of Transportation aired a series of "Vince and Larry" public service announcements on seatbelt use from 1985-1999.

Today’s undergraduates were in preschool during the “You Could Learn a Lot from a Dummy” series of PSAs encouraging seatbelt use, but the ads were memorable for their parents. Crash test dummies Vince and Larry comically flew out windows, collected traffic citations and found themselves in pieces – all the while spouting quips and puns about safety.

On Monday, Vanderbilt University School of Engineering students got a much more serious look at crash test dummies and the safety issues they’re used to address, thanks to a pair of lectures by Jack Jensen, technical fellow and engineering group manager for General Motors.

He works in the Milford Proving Ground, a 4,000-acre testing site located 20 minutes north of Ann Arbor, Mich., using Anthropomorphic Test Devices or crash test dummies to ensure that customers who drive GM vehicles are protected in a broad range of crashes.

The tests are done to meet government regulations in countries where GM vehicles are sold, provide information for consumer metric tests and ensure GM is meeting its own requirements. Many computer simulations may supplement each actual crash test, Jensen said.


Testing methods across the industry began with seeing the effects of crashes on human cadavers and then building crash test dummies that can mimic those effects. Unlike Vince and Larry, today’s dummies are sophisticated and expensive, ranging from $100,000 to $500,000 and containing cell-phone-sized data recorders – all well worth it, Jensen told students.

“Our goal here isn’t to have a population of dummies that represents every single human, it’s to have dummies that help us design robust safety into vehicles. We need the right ATDs and modeling tools to do that,” he said.

Jensen wrote out the basics of the equation behind a vital aspect of his job – making sure airbags deploy early in a crash and are the right size and placement to protect any driver. GM engineers also have to be sure airbags deploy for actual crashes and not for other, more minor jolts to the car.

One of the most engaging parts of his engineering job is getting to work closely with competitors in this one aspect of the fiercely competitive auto industry, Jensen said. GM also works with universities and government to improve crash test dummies.

The statistic that keeps Jensen coming back to work is 1 traffic fatality per 100 million miles driven in the United States – a 2013 measurement of vehicle safety that represents a dramatic drop from 5.5 fatalities per 100 million miles in 1966. Yes, some of that is better roadway design and law enforcement, he said, but much of it is improved vehicle safety made possible by the high-tech crash test dummies he helps develop and use.

Jack Jensen's afternoon lecture in Stevenson Center.

Students who attended Jensen’s afternoon lecture in Stevenson Center said they found it valuable. Kevin Cyr (ES’17) asked what car Jensen himself drives. It changes based on the company cars GM provides, Jensen answered, but he purchased a Chevrolet Equinox for his wife.

“It was a cool presentation,” Cyr said. “I’m personally interested in medicine and trauma, so it addressed a lot of that. I’m also interested to see a car engineer talk about all the details that go into reliability, testing and design.”

Vicky Morgan, associate professor of biomedical engineering, used to work in GM’s crash testing section before entering academia. The process has come a long way, she said after Jensen’s presentation.

“His work is so relatable, because everyone can understand side and front impact,” Morgan said. “It’s useful just to see how all this physics, modeling and engineering goes into vehicle safety.”

Jensen’s visit was a result of connections made at the GM Ride & Drive event hosted by the School of Engineering in September.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering