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How Technology Has Improved Child Passenger Safety

In honor of National Child Passenger Safety Week, we’re taking a closer look at the technological advancements that have helped save countless lives - and how they came to be - with guest blogger Rob Hurlston of Fidelis Engineering Associates (FEA).

According to CDC statistics, motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death among children in the United States, based on 2017 data. During that year, almost 700 children under the age of 15 died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes and almost 120,000 were injured. While this statistic is startling, it has actually improved between 10% and 30% (per capita) since the 1970s, while the number of miles travelled by car has obviously skyrocketed.

This is due, in no small part, to the advances that we’ve seen, not only in car safety, but also in child restraint technology.  Here we’ll take a look through the history of the car seat and at the type of work that is necessary to keep us and our children safe, even if the unthinkable happens.

The Evolution of the Child Car Seat

The child car seat has been around since the early 1930s, but it was a far cry from the safety-driven designs we know today. One of the ‘original’ seats was made by Bunny Bear and consisted of a cloth seat attached to a steel frame. If anything, it was designed for the convenience of the parent rather than the safety of the child – nevertheless, the child car seat was born.

Between the 1940s and the 1960s, many different designs were proposed and manufactured, such as the ‘Tot-Guard’ by Ford and, not to be outdone, the ‘Love Seat’ by GM, which looks a lot closer to the mark. Safety, however, was still not a primary concern to product manufactures nor the government; exemplified below in the ‘Steel Travel Platform,' a horrifying product that allowed children to ‘sleep or play’ in the back of the car without any restraint at all.

How Did We Get Here?

As you might have gathered from the examples shown above, there probably wasn’t much development invested in these products prior to the 1990s, at which point the increasing regulations really started placing a firmer focus on safety.

Even then, design and analysis of products was done in a strictly build-break-repeat fashion - where testing was carried out at all. The first crash test dummies were becoming important to auto manufacturers and safety regulators in the 1970s, since these allowed us a glimpse into the terrible consequences of high-speed auto collisions within a laboratory environment. Surprisingly, however, it was not until the late 90s that we finally saw children introduced to the ‘family’ of crash test dummies in the form of the Hybrid IIIs (below). This represented a big jump forward in child restraint design efforts, but it was still a costly and time-consuming process.

Enter the 21st century and we now have access to powerful computers that can quickly do millions of calculations. This might not be particularly interesting – until, that is, you unleash that power for the purpose of product testing and analysis. Companies like Fidelis Engineering Associates (FEA) use sophisticated simulation software to perform virtual ‘experiments’ very quickly -- without smashing up millions of dollars worth of cars -- to develop safer products. In the simulated product test below, finite element analysis was used to develop and test child restraints virtually and then physical crash testing was utilized to validate the computational models in order to ensure the seat performs as expected in a real accident situation. This “get-it-right-the-first-time” approach helps FEA to iterate on design extremely quickly and come out with products that are optimized for crash performance before a prototype.

Final Thoughts

Child passenger safety has come a long way since the Bunny Bear thanks to a combination of retroactive design changes, physical product testing, and virtual product development. As we move further into the age of the digital twin (a virtual model of a physical thing), product development processes will rely more and more upon simulation with physical testing taking a back seat. Maybe in the future, autonomous vehicles will all but eradicate the car crash, but until then, its comforting to know that our small passengers are safer than ever when they’re riding along with us.

To learn more about how virtual product testing and simulation can be utilized in all sorts of ways, visit www.FidelisFEA.com.