Traditional crash-test dummies were designed to resemble humans so that automakers could learn about the effects of car accidents on the body in a lab setting. But traditional dummies are made of plastic and steel, which are quite different from tissue and bone, let alone the complex cardiovascular and neurological systems that keep us alive. Engineers at UVA’s Center for Applied Biomechanics are working on a new “virtual” dummy, existing entirely on computer and better simulating the intricacies of the body than a traditional dummy ever could. Richard Kent and his six-member team are designing a model of the human thorax and upper extremities, including the rib cage, muscles, ligaments, lungs and heart. Jeff Crandall is leading another team to develop the pelvis and lower extremities.

An international group of automakers and suppliers created the Global Human Body Models Consortium to bring together engineers from different institutions who will eventually build a complete dummy—other universities are modeling the head, neck and abdomen. “Eventually all of these models will be joined together to create the most sophisticated and lifelike simulation of the entire human body ever assembled for safety testing,” says Damien Subit, a UVA research scientist working on the thorax.

The benefits of a virtual dummy are multifaceted. It can be subjected to countless crash scenarios without needing to be repaired, whereas traditional dummies have limited life spans and cost upward of $100,000 each. Crash tests that occur entirely inside a computer cost nearly nothing. A virtual dummy can be easily modified to represent a range of body types, while traditional dummies come in only three standard varieties: man, woman and child.

Uses for a virtual dummy extend beyond crash tests. Kent suggests that it might also be used to design safer sporting goods or by medical students learning about trauma injuries.