Bob Cornelius is completely unfazed as he counts down -- after all, he sees this unnerving spectacle almost every single day.
"Five," he says softly into a grocery store style microphone. "Four."
Onlookers fall silent as Bob's "three" shoot across the public address system.
"Two," he says, with positively no verbal hint that disaster is imminent. "One."
A makeshift wagon then shoots from a tunnel and smashes directly into a brand new 2013 Dodge Dart, destroying the four door. A loud pop leads to tires squealing, plus the crackle of shattered glass.
"That's it," Bob says, dryly.
And so it goes at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety test track, the place where showroom perfect vehicles come to die so you can live to tell about an accident. The IIHS recently granted FOX 13 three days of behind the scenes access to documents its lifesaving operation.
The institute conducts violent crash tests weekly. Its bursts of mechanical rage are so quick, the time period engineers study spans just one tenth of a second.
"There's a lot of work for the 1/10 of a second," said IIHS test coordinator Sean O'Malley. O'Malley said it can take months to plan a particular test, start to finish.
O'Malley said the institute's goal is objectivity. For example, it buys vehicles at dealers -- just as consumers would -- to ensure Detroit's not stacking the deck. And prior to every test, each victim vehicle is measured to ensure it meets the manufacturer's specifications.
"100 percent for consumers," he said.
When a car races down the long, sterile track, it's outfitted with dozens of gauges and instruments. In fact, on the side opposite the institute's many high-speed cameras, engineers mount shelving for some of the gear. We watched as they drilled and welded into the frame. Another large instrument panel was housed in the trunk.
As a car is rolled into position, the painstaking business of positioning it takes place. Three or four technicians bump the sedan, in this case a lime green Dodge Dart, into perfect, aplomb alignment.
Next, a tiny black and yellow sticker is placed on the door.
"Our goal is to hit that target within about a quarter of an inch, or right on the money," Cornelius said confidently.
Inside the cars, life-like dummies are slid in. Technician Tyler Ayres is one of their keepers.
"It's nice they don't talk back," he jokes.
Ayres reveals that the IIHS dummies are smeared with clown paint for each test to mark the places their head makes contact. He also explains that their bright yellow shoes are not a fashion statement; they are yellow to provide contrast on camera.
What is most important are the dummy's computer sensors, which are tucked beneath its spongy terracotta skin. Each dummy contains dozens of impact gauges that help determine whether human bones would break in a crash.
"They're everywhere," he said. "Literally from head to toe."
Ayres said the gauges make the dummies far more expensive than the car being crashed.
"Just skin and bones, 40 to 50 thousand dollars," he said. "Now once you're fully instrumented it's more like quarter of a million."
The impact is the obvious part. Two things colliding at 40 miles an hour are sure to shatter, and that's certainly the case here. What is not so obvious is how the car comes to meet its demise: the Dart's engine was off. Instead of driving, it was dragged down its 600 ft. death march by a steel cable buried in the ground.
O'Malley escorts us into "the pit," an off-limits underground bunker.
"Nobody's allowed down here," he said.
"The pit" is home to a gargantuan nitrogen-powered hydraulics system that gives the crash its oomph. The subterranean propulsion system looks like it's out of a Soviet era submarine – drab colors, large tanks and all.
Interestingly, the original drive system included the heart of a classic Chevrolet.
"It's a Corvette five-speed transmission," O'Malley said, pointed to a makeshift shifter. "This would shift through the gears."
Regardless of which system is running, this is sealed during a test.
Cornelius and crew observe the crash from a small platform about ten feet above the strike zone. It's all business. There are procedures to follow, readings to take, and forms to fill out for every step along the way.
And just then it's over – in one tenth of a second.
There's a moderate dash down the stairs.
"We are on the floor with it thirty seconds after it stops," O'Malley says.
IIHS Engineers come out of the woodwork. Soon, Dodge representatives join them. They marvel a bit, but remained focused on the science of it all. Measurements are taken, reports are written, and it's clear that in this kind of collaboration tomorrow's safety features are conceived.
O'Malley estimates the team hit the target with stunning accuracy, just three millimeters off the center.
But there's no time for applause.
The car has a story to tell. And O'Malley is determined to read it ASAP.
After the dummies are removed by small crane, O'Malley grabs a flashlight and contorts himself inside the twisted Dart.
He calls out his observations.
"The seat doesn't look like it moved," he says.
Then he turns his attention to some pink splotches on a piece of white canvas hanging limp from the steering wheel. It's the clown paint – the dummy's impression.
O'Malley noted it: "The side of his head hit the airbag."
This is a mechanical post mortem, for sure. But these laboratory casualties are not dead.
When we asked what happens to all those crumbled IIHS cars, we received a surprise answer: someone buys them. But who?
We followed a smashed up Scion a few miles to M&M salvage – the institute graveyard. It's a sprawling place, where the hoods of car stick up out of the ground like head stones. There are rows and rows of them.
Kenny Wyant says M&M pays 10 to 15 percent of sticker price to buy IIHS cars, to chop them.
"We tear them apart, and recycle the parts back into parts for you and me and whoever else," he said. "You start breaking them all down, they start adding up quick."
The operation can be crude—a "Saws All," for example, is used to clear away debris. Sparks fly and metal tears, but Wyant says mechanics can peel away as many as 100 working parts.
"It's pretty much a constant stream of cars," he said.
And that's the way it is back at the lab: a constant stream of cars. The tests are eye popping for consumers, even a bit gut wrenching. But the carefully choreographed crashes are routine here.
In a soft moment, Cornelius says it feels good to do what he does.
"It saves lives," he said.
O'Malley agrees. And as he looks at the mangled Dart, swirling with engineers and Dodge representatives, he exudes a sense of humble pride.
"We did this on purpose," he said.
WTTG FOX 5 & myfoxdc
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