For a company that deals with dummies, Humanetics Innovative Solutions is actually pretty smart.

The Farmington Hills-based company has been at the forefront of crash test dummy technology since the ’50s, creating dummies for aircraft and spacecraft ejection seats. Humanetics began creating dummies for automobile tests in the early ’60s.

Since then, Humanetics has continued to innovate in the crash safety industry. The dummies have become more and more sophisticated over the years, and modern models are outfitted with an array of sensors so as to better monitor simulated vital signs.

Humanetics has crash test dummies in the automotive, aerospace, and military sectors, and it even had a dummy aboard a SpaceX capsule.

A car (right) approaches Humanetics' UFO dummy car.
The car crashes into the UFO dummy car, which crumples easily and can be rebuilt in minutes.

“There is a lot of work that goes into manufacturing dummies, certifying them, and doing service work. They’re actually pretty complicated devices,” says Dennis Berryman, technical sales specialist at Humanetics. “With crashes, you’re constantly servicing them and recalibrating all of the different sensors, doing repairs, keeping them up to date.”

The next great leap in Humanetics’ crash test offerings is the Ultra Flat Overrunable, or UFO for short. The remote-controlled robot is an approximately six-foot-by-six-foot flat device with a collapsible life-size car dummy on top. The robot is used in test situations with actual vehicles, which then respond to the UFO in real time.

It’s ideal for testing automotive safety features like blind spot protection and anti-lock braking systems, exposing the dummy to actual accidents without the risk of damaging another car or the UFO. Should a car hit the UFO, the dummy vehicle easily collapses and breaks apart. It only takes 15 minutes or so to reassemble it on the UFO platform for another round of tests.

“Everything is automated with these tests,” Berryman says. “It’s a lot harder than you’d think to keep a vehicle going at 20 miles per hour. It’s easier with a robot to keep a steady speed.”

Berryman characterizes the crash test dummy field as being the passive component of the crash safety industry. Engineers simulate crashes and then use the dummies to test safety features like seatbelts and airbags. Despite all of the hard work that goes into making each generation of automobiles safer than the last, crashes happen. Humanetics works to help mitigate the damage.

In addition to Humanetics’ decades of experience in the passive side of crash safety, the company is also involved in the active sphere – working to prevent crashes altogether. For instance, in 2018, Humanetics acquired DSD Testing GmbH, an Austrian safety technology firm.

“Acquiring DSD was driven by what’s going on in the market. Cars are going through a lot of changes, and especially with autonomous vehicles,” Berryman says. “It made sense to expand on our expertise and keep up with the new phase going on with vehicles.”

As mobility technology changes, the crash safety industry changes right along with it. The driverless UFO allows for a safer, more efficient analysis of automobile collisions. But with autonomous vehicles themselves, even traditional crash test dummies have to adapt. The way people travel in cars is changing, presenting a new set of challenges for the field.

“We’re working on dummies to test in autonomous vehicles. In cars with drivers, people are sitting upright and facing the front. But with autonomous vehicles, people might be reclined or laying down or even facing backwards,” Berryman says. “There are a lot of new challenges that come with self-driving cars.”