Harnessing vehicle safety, saving lives

Throughout his life, Carl Yost, ’62, has joyfully tinkered with cars and other vehicles, including the old, used 1929 Ford Model A his father bought for him to fix up while he was in high school. After he started his prolific career with Ford Motor Co., Carl bought his very first new car – a 1966 Ford Mustang he wishes he still owned.

None of his vehicles before the Mustang had any type of restraint systems, although Ford did offer optional lap belts in cars in the mid-’50s, and by 1966, front-seat lap belts were standard. Yost’s passion for cars set  him on a lifelong path as a vehicle safety research engineer with Ford for 32 years. Today he sits behind the wheel of a beautiful 2018 cobalt blue Ford Taurus, secure in the knowledge that his ride is as safe as it can be.

There’s an ironic story behind that new Taurus. Recently, Yost’s unoccupied, parked 2016 Taurus was rear-ended. Though both vehicles were totaled, the belted driver and front-seat occupant of the striking car driver walked away with no significant injuries. If not for the seat belts and air bags Yost had a hand in designing and developing while at Ford, the outcome likely would have been much worse.

American Junior Year changed the plan

Initially, Yost planned to spend two or three years at Heidelberg and then transfer to a university that offered an engineering degree. “My career goal throughout high school was to become an automotive engineer, but I initially wanted a broader college experience than I thought I would receive by attending an engineering school,” he said. But an interest in his German heritage, a natural talent for learning the German language and an opportunity to study abroad through Heidelberg’s American Junior Year program changed everything.

“It was a life-changing experience to become embedded in the German culture, and to have the added opportunity to travel throughout Europe during the break between semesters,” he recalled. The experience changed not only Yost’s world view but his original plans. “After that, I decided to stay with my classmates and get a math degree at Heidelberg.”

After graduation, he was able to transfer enough credits to the University of Michigan School of Engineering to finish a second bachelor’s degree, in mechanical engineering, in three years. It was during his time at U of M that ‘Berg classmate Katherine Dearborn introduced Carl and wife, Mary Ida, who celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary in June.

An amazing mentor

An incredible opportunity would set the stage for Yost’s career. University of Michigan School of Medicine professor and research scientist Dr. Donald Huelke needed a vehicle accident investigator and hired Yost. Huelke was internationally known for his expertise in determining the specific causes of occupant injuries in vehicle accidents. It was the inroad he needed into the auto industry.

“At the time, the government was very interested in reducing the death toll on highways. They were anxious to hire engineers with experience in accident investigations and biomechanics,” Yost recalled.

Based on the training he received as Huelke’s student assistant, Yost received job offers from each of the big-three auto manufacturers. He opted for Ford, joining the company in May 1965 as a vehicle safety  research engineer with accident reconstruction as one of his responsibilities.

Designing safety components

Using real-world accident data analysis, Yost and his colleagues worked to propose and test new designs of many different interior safety components. They used crash test dummies in both lab and crash tests to evaluate their potential improvement in reducing occupant injuries.

Throughout his career, Yost traveled the country to investigate accident cases of special interest to Ford, including the first realworld accident case with an air-bag deployment. That accident occurred in Los Angeles in 1972 when a garbage truck struck a Mercury test-fleet vehicle having only the right front passenger airbag installed.

“The belted driver was the only occupant in the car and the deploying air bag neither prevented nor caused any injury to him,” he explained.

Yost supervised the projects of new safety engineers. In his day, he has seen new ideas and designs come and go, some more effective than others. He has watched as new technologies revolutionized vehicle safety engineering. And he met some fascinating people along the way.

Yost remembers an encounter with a famous member of Ford’s management. “I had the opportunity as a young engineer to privately show Ford President Lee Iacocca a safety test vehicle with an experimental  inverted-Y’ shoulder harness, similar to those worn by military pilots,” he said. “It was a short demonstration. I drove the car into the Executive Garage and he came in smoking a big cigar. He got into the driver’s seat,  put the harness on, and moved back and forth to see how it worked. I was mainly concerned about what might happen to his cigar, but it was a neat experience.”

Early in his career, he was involved in developing and testing an inflatable shoulder belt, which was recently refined and introduced as a rear seat occupant restraint system in two Ford SUVs. He’s seen the onset of lots of new technologies – “curtain” airbags above the doors and beside the front seats to protect occupants’ head and torso in side impacts, systems to alert drowsy drivers, exterior airbags to protect pedestrians. Really, the list goes on and on.

A satisfying career

When all’s said and done, Yost can be very proud of his work. Whether by upgrading crash test dummies or pioneering the lap-shoulder belt restraint combination with air bags, Yost’s role and that of his colleagues in vehicle safety has been so effective at reducing injuries that the auto industry can now focus more on accident prevention. That’s immensely rewarding, even if he is humble about it.\

“To get up every day and know the work that you did contributed to saving hundreds of people from serious injuries or death that day … that’s such a wonderful thing to know about your career,” said Mary Ida.

By Angie Giles
Published in Fall 18

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