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Crash Test Geniuses: Researchers Are Paving the Way for Transportation Safety

July 28, 2014

Spend some time with Cing-Dao (Steve) Kan, director of George Mason University’s new Center for Collision Safety and Analysis, and you’ll never look at a car, road or car crash the same way again.

Kan and his staff of 10 vehicle research experts and two students run computer simulations to crash cars and trucks into each other, and into all kinds of stationary objects like walls, guardrails and trees. Kan admits it is fun but serious work done to improve transportation safety.

Mason researchers Cing-Dao (Steve) Kan (left) and Dhafer Marzougui at the Center for Collision Safety and Analysis facility. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason researchers Cing-Dao (Steve) Kan (left) and Dhafer Marzougui at the Center for Collision Safety and Analysis facility. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The center partners with the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a nonprofit member-based group that for more than 30 years has helped small manufacturers safety test and perfect their products before releasing them to the market. Kan explains that automobile companies such as General Motors and Ford require their suppliers to test and certify that the parts they sell pass safety and quality standards. Since many of these companies are small, without in-house testing expertise or resources, they turn to the center for help.

The center also works directly with car and parts manufacturers, research universities around the globe and government agencies, including the Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Defense.

After 9/11, the center worked with the U.S. State Department to design protective anti-ram bollards, those ubiquitous posts that surround government buildings and gate systems for U.S. buildings and embassies overseas.

Highway and road safety is an international concern, and the center has research collaborations with schools across the country and from as far away as Australia, Japan and China. The center also works directly with car manufacturers such as Ford, Toyota, Hyundai and Honda, as well as parts manufacturers such as Johnson Controls.

In May 2014 the center was awarded an $8.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Transportation to analyze highway and barrier crashes. For this research, the team will be applying computer simulation techniques to analyze barrier crashes, evaluating vehicle safety including the effectiveness of airbags and occupant restraints, supporting crash simulation and modeling, undertaking efforts to enhance infrastructure security and operating a crash test facility.

The center’s simulation data are eerily accurate when compared with actual collision images and videos. One of the most important tools the group has developed is a series of computer simulations of more than 20 standard cars, vans, crossovers and light and heavy trucks, all now in the database. These virtual vehicles represent standard models found in most car inventories. The vehicles can run on any road surface and in any weather, contain virtual people of different sizes and weights, run at different speeds, and carry different loads.

Kan explains that the government wants to see trucks with increased fuel efficiency by March 2016. Currently, cars and trucks have different safety and fuel efficiency standards. Yet, one of the only ways to increase fuel efficiency is to decrease a vehicle’s weight. Trucks are designed to carry materials, so it is difficult to assess whether a lighter truck with a heavy load actually meets fuel standards. Also, a lighter truck may not be as safe on the road. These are all issues that can be investigated by changing the weight and running hundreds of simulations in almost unlimited scenarios.

Understanding and interpreting data is at the heart of the center’s work. While it may be interesting to see virtual cars navigate icy roads or what happens in a side impact collision from the safety of a computer screen, this is just the beginning. For instance, Kan explains that 10 percent of car crashes involve a car rolling over. And while that indicates that 90 percent of crashes are from other types of collisions, the fatality rate for rollovers is 30 percent. Rollovers are an inherent problem in the United States “because we have more open roads,” says Kan. He explains that analyzing car crashes and driving trends also involves a bit of psychology.

“Americans are casual drivers,” says Kan. “An American-made car is full of cup holders, entertainment systems and gadgets. Drivers in Europe are more serious about their cars, and driving in parts of Asia is like driving in Disneyland with few rules or regulations.”

Kan’s personal knowledge of collisions is encyclopedic. By training, Kan is a mechanical engineer. He says that in the beginning, the center’s research was more computer science-based because there was a need to build the simulations. But now that technology is readily available, the focus is interdisciplinary. He jokes that because crash testing involves physics, geography, biology and psychology, its home in the College of Science is a good fit and a great resource for students and researchers.

The article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the College of Science’s Periodic Elements.