Gaming tech helps create amazing 3-D worlds. But what does a $220 scanning device used by video game designers have to do with saving priceless human lives?

In the hands of the Biosciences Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), a lot, actually.

The problem with current crash testing

At present, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) uses only 2 dummy models with one variation to model the effects of a crash on the human body.

But think about all the variations of the human body out there: the 5-year-old boy, the 75-year-old grandmother, and, further afield, the armor-clad soldiers manning our military bases. The 3 models currently in use (one female variation and 2 male) can’t possibly hope to accurately reproduce how the titanic stresses and volatile forces of a wreck would affect the countless variations of the human body.

Of course, no one expects the NHTSA to build faithful models of every single body out there. Beyond being impossible, the cost of such a project would be astronomical, considering that each base model costs $45,000, and jumps in value to over $100,000 when you add all the high tech monitors that make the tests truly worthwhile.

So how to overcome these seemingly insurmountable problems? The team at Biosciences Group turned to the gaming world for answers.

Gaming tech could revolutionize crash testing

If you’ve played a modern video game lately, you know that virtual worlds have become incredibly vivid, with detailed characters moving through realistic 3-dimensional environments. To create these intricate representations, game developers employ scanning devices that record depth information.

Using this same technology, bioscientists can create virtual replicas of human beings. These replicas can reproduce unique postures, such as the curving back of an older driver, or the forward lean of the nearsighted motorist, making them much more flexible than their dummy model counterparts.

The final benefit is cost. When you add the $100,000+ price tag on each fully wired dummy to the cost of all the totaled cars, testing with real dummies is extremely expensive. And while virtual testing is by no means cheap, it could save millions over the long haul. Even when you add the $50,000 handheld scanner (which measures 60 locations on a test crash model) and the $120,000 laser scanner (which records data from 500,000 points in 12 seconds), virtual testing is much more cost-effective than testing with dummies.

How virtual crash test results are used

Of course, just because you can virtually test every body type in the world doesn’t mean the problem of variety goes away. After all, car manufacturers aren’t likely to embrace the notion of developing dozens of different interior designs to accommodate the varying types of drivers.

Instead, engineers can use virtual testing results to make the individual interior designs work better for all types of people, not just the few generalized models the NHTSA uses now.

Virtual crash testing doesn’t mean the end of the real thing

Of course, the value of virtual testing can never fully supplant the real deal. But scientists have high hopes that it will serve as a supplement, helping testers widen their field of data and helping vehicle designers better account for the wide array of people who get behind the wheel each day.

And that, hopefully, means safer cars and fewer crash-related injuries and fatalities. Sounds good to us!

Related links
See which luxury cars underperform in crash testing.
Find out which seat is safest in your car.
Learn how a more venerable safety technology is still doing its job over 100 years after its invention.

Safe and smart | Smart technology

about John

John Moore Williams has spent his writing career providing advice on everything from proper septic system care to where to eat in Nice (and, during his tenure at Esurance, how to find the right insurance coverages). An avid descriptive grammarian, he encourages you to end sentences with prepositions and to split infinitives whenever possible.