- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Automotive technology of the future will have sophisticated camera systems instead of mirrors so drivers can monitor road conditions ahead of their own car, according to Nabih Bedewi, a George Washington University professor of engineering and applied science whose job as director of the National Crash Analysis Center involves him in questions of safety and security on roadways and elsewhere.

The center — a partnership between the university and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration as well as DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — relies heavily on high-performance computers and cameras in its research, much of which is about making highways safer with the ever-evolving vehicle designs produced by the motor industry.

“We focus on how to improve cars, systems and highways; we address the total safety problems of highways and cars,” Mr. Bedewi says.

One of the center’s goals is ultimately to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on U.S. highways. Some 42,000 people die in traffic accidents each year, according to Mr. Bedewi.

Among other projects, NCAC research led to the phasing out of a previous style of safety belt associated with abnormally high amounts of liver laceration in automobile accidents.

Mr. Bedewi — who drives a sporty, high-powered Jaguar — is adamant on the importance of seat belts. Only half-jokingly, he says he would like to see automobiles use a harness-style belt similar to those worn by race-car drivers.

“Seat-belt usage can reduce the chance of a fatality by 70 percent,” he says.

One of the hot subjects in his field at the moment is called compatibility — how different-size vehicles — mainly sport utility vehicles and small cars — interact with one another on a highway. The term also could apply to the behavior of vehicles in relation to roadside hardware, such as guardrails and even mailboxes. Specifications for both guardrails and mailboxes have been the focus of recent center studies.

In addition, the center, which is headquartered in Ashburn, Va., and has an outdoor laboratory in McLean, has been working of late on behalf of the Department of State, the Secret Service and the National Capital Planning Commission to test security barriers protecting U.S. embassies and other high-profile government buildings against vehicle bomb attacks. Years of experience have given the center’s staff the ability to tackle safety factors involved in installing infrastructure for homeland security.

The challenges with these and other projects often come from the nature of the materials involved. In designing bollards, the knob-topped security posts increasingly used in front of federal buildings, Mr. Bedewi says, the problem is how to keep a bollard from bending on its concrete foundation. Barriers constructed in front of embassies need to be positioned so the building would remain functional in the event of a truck explosion.

The mailbox matter came up at the request of the Federal Highway Administration, which was concerned about possible injuries when vehicles hit the extra-large metal boxes on wood posts that have become popular in suburban areas.

“Kids can’t break them with baseball bats, but they are a big weight sitting by the side of the road,” Mr. Bedewi says. “You solve one problem by making [mailboxes] bigger, and you get another problem.”

An NCAC computer simulation of a worst-case scenario shows the metal box flying into the windshield after being hit by a car. “It’s OK to break the wood but not to penetrate the shield,” he notes. “We’re still doing more studies on this, but what we came back with is a recommendation the boxes should not be mounted on wood posts.”

NCAC’s outdoor facility, known as FOIL (for Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory), headed by senior research scientist Abdullatif “Bud” Zaouk, is used one or two times a month for full-scale tests to compare physical and computer models. In this way, data developed weeks and even months earlier in computer simulations can be validated and corrected if necessary. Such tests cost as much as $70,000 to run — far more than what it costs to produce some 90 computer simulations.

“Simulation is a very powerful tool, but it requires years of knowledge and sophistication in computers and software to solve real problems,” says Mr. Bedewi, noting that one advantage of simulation is the ability to adjust the speed of vehicles when testing how various designs work under different conditions.

The scene at FOIL one cold, cloudy afternoon last week had some of the adrenaline excitement found at the Daytona 500 or Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At FOIL, though, high-speed cameras recording 500 frames a second were king, rather than race-car drivers. No ambulance stood by. The audience was made up of DOT employees and their guests. No prizes were awarded. The only winners down the line, indirectly, will be American drivers benefiting from the oversight of highway-safety measures.

As part of a project to check regulations governing guardrail heights, a driverless pickup painted bright blue for visibility and weighing 4,358 pounds — the same as the average SUV — was to be propelled from a garagelike structure at 60 mph on a specially constructed cable-fed track to crash into a guardrail more than 100 feet away at a 25-degree angle.

Highway officials needed to know if the current standards for railing heights are sufficient to deflect the truck and prevent a rollover. They expected the test would fail. As motor vehicles sold to American consumers become larger and heavier, federal standards — passed along as recommendations to states — must be reviewed periodically. The previous standards were set in 1993.

At a signal, the truck, as planned, rammed into the rail, causing wood posts on the guardrail to bend and the horizontal bands of galvanized steel to unfurl like a ribbon, just as they were designed to do. The truck careened to the left and came to a stop far down on the staging area, battered and bruised but upright. A blown-out tire was the main casualty. Contrary to expectations, the rail held.

By May 2005, NCAC’s 10th anniversary, the crash-test facility will be moved indoors to become part of a new 80,000-square-foot building at the GW Transportation Research Institute on the university’s Virginia campus in Ashburn. Among other things, the move means FOIL won’t be dependent on weather when deciding the timing for tests, and the sun no longer can play peekaboo with those high-tech cameras.

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