Thor is a '90s kind of guy.
He has a tough exterior, but he's sensitive on the inside. And unlike some of the other dummies out there, he doesn't mind sharing details about his innermost feelings - like how he feels after getting smacked in the gut with a 51-pound weight at 15 mph.
Thor, a.k.a. Test Device for Human Occupancy Restraint, is the latest in high-tech crash-test dummies.
Designed to be the next generation of dummies for use in frontal crashes, Thor is the result of a multimillion-dollar effort sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The project was launched in 1994 and is scheduled to end this year.
The goal: Design a lifelike dummy that would provide more meaningful data about how a human body reacts in a crash. The current Hybrid III dummy was introduced in the 1970s.
Hybrid III is the standard frontal-impact dummy for government tests, but it is relatively crude compared with Thor, which was designed with the complex safety systems of today's vehicles in mind.
'It's not a revolutionary product. It's simply keeping pace with the technology that's currently being built into vehicles,' said Mark Haffner, Thor project manager for NHTSA. 'We don't see it as knocking off our old friend, the Hybrid III ... we see it as natural evolution.
'It really is a new dummy from top to bottom. And it isn't just that it carries more sensors. We think these sensors are more meaningful.'
With an array of new sensors not available in Hybrid III dummies, Thor might be the smartest dummy yet. For example, it features an abdomen sensor to measure penetration of the midsection. For the first time, its facial sensors will let scientists assess the risk of facial injuries.
Thor also has a more lifelike chest, with sensors that measure crash impacts in four zones. Hybrid III has a barrel-shaped chest with only one sensor measuring chest compression.
Thor's flexible neck and spine allow him to sit up or slouch in the seat and react more like a human would during a crash. Hybrid III dummies have more rigid spines and necks than their human counterparts.
Thor's leg and foot sensors also are new. They measure the position of the feet at all times. Thor's feet and legs can be retrofitted to other dummies.
Moreover, the femur is made of a compressive element, like a hard block of rubber instead of a steel shaft. That allows it to behave more like a real bone, allowing researchers to measure the potential for breakage.
The contract to develop Thor was awarded to General Engineering Systems & Analysis Company Inc. of Boonsboro, Md. A consortium of manufacturers and independent labs tested the dummy.
Nagarajan Rangarajan, president of General Engineering Systems & Analysis, said his company's role was to 'think about integrating some of the work that had been done before, and put it all together and come up with a new dummy.'
AT LEAST 30 CRASHES
The dummy is tough enough to survive at least 30 crashes, he said. The added instrumentation on Thor will drive its cost beyond Hybrid III dummies by at least 10 percent to 20 percent.
Haffner said Thor's documentation and drawings would be available on NHTSA's Web site. Thor's future depends on whether the industry accepts him as a valuable and accurate safety tool.
'Once consensus builds in terms of its acceptance worldwide, we feel Thor will be the next-generation frontal dummy,' Haffner said.
Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said worldwide acceptance is the key. In an industry where national borders mean less every day, the next frontal dummy must be globally acceptable, he said.
'This global peer review process really will need to take place before it could be implemented into a crash standard,' he said.
For the next few years at least, Hybrid III dummies are scheduled to remain the standard dummy for NHTSA's federal crash tests. After that, there are no guarantees.
For side-impact test crashes, the industry uses at least three dummies: SID, an old American model; EuroSID, a more recent European model; and BioSID, a joint project of GM and the Society of Automotive Engineers. Another dummy, a globally developed unit called WorldSID, is still in the works.
Dummies such as Thor and WorldSID represent a new global approach to dummy development, Wilber said. By adopting one model, manufacturers hope to save money and standardize testing.
Even if Thor never makes it to regulatory use, Wilber said it likely would be useful for other types of safety research.
Jeff Crandall, director of the University of Virginia Automobile Safety Laboratory, helped test prototypes of Thor. He said Thor would provide useful data.
'In some areas there have been some definite improvements,' he said. 'Certainly it's giving you much more information that you can interpret.'
The next steps in development for Thor, Haffner said, will be to add a small female version.
'We're by no means content to freeze the design,' Haffner said. 'We have the freedom to continue to improve the product as people use it, and that would be my goal.'