Next generation of crash-test dummy takes shape

He is more sensitive, more worldly, and has a cooler name than the guy he is destined to replace. He is Thor, the next-generation crash-test dummy.

He lacks the barrel chest of Hybrid III, his 1970s-era predecessor. But Thor's supple form, designed for international abuse, packs more than twice the sensors.

Bits and pieces of Thor are scattered about the cavernous laboratory of Gesac Inc., a small company in rural western Maryland that won a $5 million federal contract to design and build this dummy for the new millennium.

"In general, Thor has more extensive instrumentation in almost every body area," says Mark Haffner, manager of the Thor Advanced Frontal Crash Dummy development program for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

He said the challenge is to produce a dummy sensitive not only to today's seat belts and air bags but also to restraint systems that might exist in the future, both in this country and around the world. The global nature of the automobile industry demands crash-test dummies that fit the needs of international manufacturers.

Gesac president Nagarajan Rangarajan was an Indian naval officer and worked for a Washington-area engineering company before founding Gesac in his basement in 1986. An Air Force contract in 1989 gave the company a chance to study the effects of pilot ejections, and helped sustain Gesac until it landed the Thor contract in 1994.

Mr. Rangarajan says his work is about "what happens to linked objects as they travel through space." And, in the case of the crash-test dummy, what happens when something stops that motion.

The Hybrid III dummy, developed by General Motors researchers, reflects the design philosophy and automotive technology of its time, according to Rangarajan. Shoulder belts were fairly new and the dummy's shoulder was crude: a single piece of cast metal. Thor's shoulder, a linkage of 10 pieces, twists and rolls more like a real joint.

The dummy - in three versions - has been tested in eight countries during its development. The Department of Transportation will continue to test it, possibly for five years or more, before it becomes part of the federal vehicle-testing regulations, Mr. Haffner says.

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