As Volvo crash-test engineer Laura Thackray knows, dummies—even virtual ones—can teach us a thing or two about safety.
If you asked us to describe an iconic image of Swedish design, you might not expect to hear about crash-test dummies. Those metal-and-rubber, sensor-wired fake people who are experimentally mangled in chassis were really in vogue in the 1980s, when images of their slow-motion swaying looked futuristic. Though still in use, today they seem alternately silly or sinister, low-tech drudges in the grim business of automotive safety. The avant-garde ones live in the world of bitstreams.
But at Volvo Car Corporation, crash-test dummies are revered symbols of the company’s highest priority, preserving human life. And now, Volvo’s newest virtual ones are reproducing. Meet Linda: the world’s first-ever virtual pregnant crash-test dummy. With Linda’s advent, we see crash-test dummies getting not only better-looking but smarter. Linda is three-dimensional, with color-coded anatomy and a gracefully curved belly that has a definitively super-human capacity to change its phase of pregnancy in a flash, growing or shrinking to anywhere between zero and nine months.
Linda owes her existence to Laura Thackray, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer for Volvo who might be the existential opposite of Dr. Frankenstein (all they have in common is the smarts). Thackray’s maternal, benevolent character helps research a pioneering topic: auto safety for pregnant women. Linda, who came to be in 2002, generates meticulous data about the effects of high-speed impact on the womb, the placenta, and the fetus.
The male-dominated auto industry has been remiss to study risk factors for pregnant drivers. “I had solicited car companies all over the U.S.,” Thackray remembers. “They all thought my proposal was interesting but wished me luck elsewhere.” But at Volvo, almost 50 percent of the Safety Centre employees are women and they were more willing to take on the issue.
Thackray is convinced that her employer’s values are intrinsically Swedish. “Here there’s no race for prosperity,” she says, “but a motivation for attaining a high quality of life for everyone. Our goal at the Volvo Safety Centre is that no special situation be overlooked.”