More than six million motor vehicle crashes occur each year in the United States, causing about five million injuries and 40,000 deaths. Many of these are the result of vehicles running off the road and either rolling over or colliding with a roadside object. One way the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is working to make highways safer is by improving the design of structures such as guardrails, bridge supports and light poles to either break away from or cushion a vehicle on impact. The agency has designated ARA's Silicon Valley Office (SVO) as one of five Centers of Excellence in Finite Element Crash Analysis to provide the technology to help reach that goal.Advances in numerical simulation techniques and computer capabilities have made crash simulations an important tool for investigating crash safety.
The traditional method of testing new designs for roadside structures by crashing vehicles into them is very expensive -- thousands of dollars per crash -- and does not always provide definitive information. Finite element analysis (FEA) replaces the trial and error process of crash testing with computer crash analysis, which reduces both the cost and time involved. "EA is not a replacement for actual crash testing, but it streamlines the process," said SVO's Dr. Steven Kirkpatrick. "We use FEA to provide analysis and evaluation of candidate safety products prior to full-scale testing, which allows the customer to perform only the minimum number of full-scale tests for product qualification. This significantly reduces the time and cost involved in design and testing, which helps get products to the marketplace faster."
As an FHWA Center of Excellence, SVO provides this resource to state and local transportation agencies, vendors and manufacturers of roadside safety hardware. SVO staff can use FEA to simulate vehicles, occupants and roadside hardware for a variety of crash applications. "Our experience in studying the crash response of vehicles, occupant safety and right-of-way structures dates back to 1987," said Dr. Robert Bocchieri, a principal engineer at SVO, "and includes crash testing, analytical crash modeling and detailed finite element simulations. Our personnel have a high degree of knowledge and experience in applying FEA to the prediction of motor vehicle crash results, as well as the supercomputing facilities necessary to quickly and efficiently run complex roadside structure models in conjunction with complex motor vehicle models." In addition to analyzing crash safety, the SVO staff solves problems for a wide range of transportation safety issues. These include developing lightweight fragment barriers for protection from catastrophic aircraft engine failures and studies of train collisions and derailments. SVO also analyzed aircraft impacts into the World Trade Center Towers as part of a National Institute of Standards and Technology investigation into factors contributing to the probable cause (or causes) of their post-impact collapse. Their research will provide the technical basis for improved building and fire codes, standards and practices.