How Buttigieg Might Start The #MeToo Movement In Automotive Safety Design

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

#Functional Safety    #Quality

In  2017, the #metoo movement sprung into life and upended Hollywood by shining a light on clandestine sexual abuse. In 2020, the #metoo movement subsequently played out at the election polls when suburban women politically revolted and, per The Associate Press created “... the largest gender gap in recent [U.S.] political history.”

Will 2021 be the year when the #metoo movement revolutionizes automotive design?

Before questioning the need for such a revolt within functional safety design practices, it is worth examining NHTSA’s crash data: women are 73% more likely to suffer injury in a car crash, and 17% more likely to die than the average man. The critical naysayer will quickly point out The University of Michigan’s data that 41% of drivers on the road at any given time are female — which has increased nearly every year since 1963 when it was only 24% — however 71% of those aforementioned female injuries happened while in the driver’s seat. What makes the death disparity even more astounding: 75.4% of “risky drivers” are male, i.e. exhibiting behaviors such as Driving Under the Influence (DUI), speeding excessively, reckless driving, etc. 

Certainly the next, obvious question is “Why the difference?” Unfortunately, as put best by a 2019 Bloomberg article, that “… after nearly a decade of research highlighting this safety disparity, no one has yet found the definitive answer to ‘why’ … [despite] the variables having been identified….” As Jason Forman, a principal scientist at The University of Virgina’s Center of Applied Biomechanics, stated the research to identify which critical variables will save women’s lives “… simply has not been done yet.”

 And then further down the rabbit hole: “Why not?” Likely the answer is the age-old, Black Belt cliché of “You get what you measure.” Those familiar with robust functional safety and proper systems engineering know that upfront specifications set the foundation upon which the design is executed. The design team scripts the desired outcome and defines the exact test parameters via which the design will eventually be qualified. So a critical validation like a crash test should be based upon stakeholder requirements and safety goals from many months beforehand. So here is maybe the most puzzling part of this mystery which is begging for the #metoo uprising: system requirements and certification criteria do not require female crash dummies be tested in the driver’s seat. That’s right. 51% of licensed drivers are seemingly ignored by crash certifications. “There is a gender inequity there that probably should be addressed,” states Barney Loehnis, the Chief Marketing Officer at Humanetics Group. “It’s not just a marginal difference in safety. It’s statistically significant.”

 There should be some slack cut here: female crash dummies didn’t always exist. In 1976, the first Hybrid III test dummy was created, which was a male and continues to be the mandated dummy in North America. It wasn’t until 2011 that there was a female Hybrid III and, even then, the legitimacy of the design was inadequate since it was simply a scaled-down male, i.e. not accounting for different muscle mass distribution, vulnerable areas, etc. Since 2015, however, the fidelity has improved (e.g. THOR 5thadvanced female dummy) and is used in both front seats by some regulatory agencies, e.g. the EuroNCAP uses the non-pregnant version. “The new generation is much more bio-fidelic with up to 150 sensors instrumented into the parts of the body most vulnerable to injury specifically to address the female physiology,” states Loehnis. “The newest generation would likely provide adequate data to design for the subtle difference between genders.”

The last and final question is likely what it will take for the situation to change. First and foremost, the certification requirements must adapt in all markets. As stated by Consumer Reports’ automotive safety engineer Ph.D, Emily Thomas, “The reality of progress in automotive safety is that it heavily relies on regulation. Unless the federal motor vehicle safety standards require dynamic crash testing with average-sized, female crash dummies in multiple seating positions … [the] automakers won’t make that leap themselves.” Enter Pete Buttigieg: former mayor and now U.S. Transportation Secretary. After four years of an administration that targeting repealing or suspending 880 regulations, there will be a renewed opportunity to address the lag of appropriate testing. 

Secondly, the public must vote with its wallet. Women either decide or strongly influence 70% of all automotive purchases. If the majority of the market creates the demand, the manufacturers will listen. Not to mention, there are multiple female automotive executives ranging from Elena Ford (the Vice President of Customer Experience at Ford) to Trudy Hardy (the Vice President of Marketing at BMW) to Mary Barra (the Chief Executive Officer of General Motors); the latter who famously stated to the Senatethat GM believes in “safety at any cost”. OEMs have worked cooperatively within the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership for decades and have done other recent, historic commitments with federal agencies for the sake of safety. They all would surely respond to an outcry.

A #metoo outcry.


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