Researchers at the George Washington University’s National Crash Analysis Center don’t spend all day crashing cars into stuff.
No, crash testing, a costly and time-consuming operation, is saved for last. By the time researchers get to it, you can bet they know exactly how a three-ton truck—at this specific angle and traveling that many miles per hour—will respond when it slams into a roadside barrier. They’ll know whether the barrier will succeed or fail. And they’ll know what will happen to its occupants.
That’s because by crash day (which happens at the Federal Outdoor Impact Laboratory in McLean, Va.), researchers will have spent countless hours in a virtual world where highly accurate models of vehicles and humans crash into other vehicles, highway cable barriers and guardrails. With reams of information informing incredibly advanced mathematical equations, it all plays out on a computer screen, over and over again, until researchers are satisfied with the outcome.
Chartered in 1992, the NCAC, housed on GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus, started with half a dozen staffers, a few projects and support from the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This year, as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, NCAC staff has tripled; it has received more than $30 million in grants; it has modeled and crash-tested dozens of cars and roadside barriers; and it counts as its partners dozens of government agencies like the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense; industry companies like Ford, Toyota, Hyundai-Kia and Honda; and universities.
But unarguably the center’s biggest claim to fame is the countless lives it has saved through its work.
“The National Crash Analysis Center is a place where government and industry both come to work together, improve safety and save lives,” said Steve Kan, who has been with the center for 18 years and director since 2005. “We’ve fulfilled our mission when we know the work we’ve done has reduced the number of injuries and traffic fatalities on the nation’s roads.”
NCAC researches within four main areas: vehicle safety; occupant safety with airbags and seatbelts; highway system design, like that of barriers and signs; and real-world crash data. Its findings stretch around the world. The automotive industry, government agencies and universities use its models, all of which are available to the public. NCAC-designed anti-ram barriers protect embassies, the Federal Reserve and other landmark buildings in D.C. And its research on highway safety devices informs state regulations.
Consider a recent three-year project on the use of cable barriers in highway medians that separate opposite-traveling traffic. The barriers are effective—but only when placed correctly. Because road conditions vary greatly, and different types of vehicles will hit the barrier at different angles and speeds, NCAC was able to model various situations and make recommendations for the best place to put them depending on a geographic area’s specific circumstances. The center released a report this summer that Dr. Kan expects state officials will use when implementing the barriers.
“This was a challenging project that took a lot of time and patience to complete,” said Assistant Research Professor of Engineering Dhafer Marzougui, D.Sc. ’99, who has been with the center since 1996. “But its potential to save lives makes all the extra weekend hours worth it.”
The center is also researching the safety consequences related to the influx of light-weight, fuel-efficient vehicles expected to hit the nation’s highways in the next few years. Researchers are exploring how they’ll respond if, say, much heavier vehicles collide with them. Dr. Kan said he expects two studies for the U.S. Department of Transportation to be published soon.
Meanwhile, the center is also one of Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center’s new research partners, leading computer-simulated testing for an advanced crash-test dummy.
And in a joint collaboration with the University of Miami School of Medicine, NCAC is also working on a project for BMW to develop an “urgency algorithm” that predicts the likelihood of serious injury after a crash and communicates it to a rescue team.
NCAC’s work extends to the skies, too. In a project for the Federal Aviation Administration, the center is researching the consequences of an airplane’s fan blades failure.
Training is another important component of NCAC. At any given time, a dozen master’s and doctoral students studying transportation safety might be working at the center, and it has a student-exchange program with the University of Stuttgart in Germany.
The center uses resources that are “unique to the George Washington University to do projects of interest,” said Research Professor of Engineering Kennerly Digges. “Whatever you do as a student will be a contribution to automobile safety.”
NCAC staff and students are a passionate group, dedicated to their goal of improving safety and saving lives.
“My happiest moment is right after the test when the vehicle has hit the barrier and the barrier does exactly what I saw in the simulation,” said Dr. Marzougui. “That’s the most rewarding moment after months upon months of computer testing.”
The center’s work is never done. As technology improves, researchers can model better and quicker. They’re currently modeling a 2013 Toyota Camry. On a recent Friday, researchers had the car stripped down to its skeleton and, bit by bit, were using an advanced scanner that will recreate it digitally after about six months of work.
In the coming years, Dr. Kan said he expects the center to continue to research lighter-weight vehicles, look at airbags and restraint systems and study pre-crash electronics like automatic braking.
No other center conducts research with the breadth that NCAC does, said Dr. Kan. The NCAC will continue to be unique to the world, and it will undoubtedly continue to save lives.
“It’s hard to imagine a greater impact that academic research can have than saving lives,” George Washington President Steven Knapp said in a video featuring the center. “And if we can do that in a way that brings together industry, government and the expertise of our faculty, then I think we’re doing something that really fulfills our mission as a premiere research university.”