What began as a class project on vehicle safety has led to international recognition for a group of Virginia Tech engineering students.

Last October, graduate students in the Advanced Vehicle Safety Systems and Development course invented a safety feature as part of a class assignment. Six months later, they won the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Student Safety Technology Design Competition. The team is now heading to the Netherlands for the global round, held during the 26th International Technical Conference on The Enhanced Safety of Vehicles on June 10-13.

“This is a great honor to be able to compete against other regions of the world. We hope to make our university and country proud,” said Alexandria Rossi-Alvarez, graduate student in the industrial and systems engineering (ISE) department.

“Their presentation to NHTSA was extremely impressive. The students clearly demonstrated their technical competency, going way above and beyond the requirements of their project. I cannot tell you how proud I am of them. They are very deserving of this award and will represent Virginia Tech well during the competition,” said Zachary Doerzaph, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics (BEAM). Doerzaph was the course instructor and is also the director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Research at VTTI.

The students developed and tested a prototype safety system aimed at reducing injuries for occupants during a rear-end collision. Their technology, called a Pre Rear-End Positioning and Risk Extenuation System (or PREPARES for short) uses visual and auditory alerts to elicit an involuntary response from drivers and passengers, which optimizes their seating positions prior to impact. When an imminent collision is detected, the system emits a loud series of beeps and a bright light flashes at the top of the windshield. Subconsciously, this alert causes vehicle occupants to face forward (if they weren’t already) and lean back against the headrest. 

BEAM graduate student Alexis Basantis demonstrates optimal seating position in the event of a rear-end collision. The light she is looking at is designed to flash in the milliseconds leading up to an imminent crash.

Female student sits in the driver's seat of a car. She is sitting upright and looking up at a bright light flashing across the windshield.
Alexis Basantis, a BEAM graduate student, demonstrates the optimal seating position to brace a rear-end collision. When an imminent collision is detected, the PREPARES alert beeps and flashes a bright light across the top of the windshield, prompting vehicle occupants to look up and face forward.

Sitting upright in an optimal seating position reduces the severity of whiplash and other soft tissue injuries, according to Rossi-Alvarez.

“Let’s say you are in an Uber with a bunch of friends. You might be turning around a lot and talking to your friends in the backseat and not paying attention to what is happening on the road. So, if you get into a car accident, you are more likely to retain soft tissue injuries because you were out of placement at the time of the crash. We wanted to create something that would have a high impact on safety for vehicle occupants and that would also be easy for manufacturers to implement at low cost and have a high return on investment for them,” said Rossi-Alvarez.

In the initial stages of the project, the students examined video data from VTTI’s Second Strategic Highway Research Program naturalistic driving study to analyze real cases of stationary rear-end collisions.

“We were able to find real-world instances where drivers were out of position at the time of a crash and ended up sustaining high Gs of rear-end impact. Something like the PREPARES system probably could have mitigated some of the injuries that these drivers may have had,” said Alexis Basants, BEAM graduate student.

PREPARES relies on sensors to measure the position and velocity of vehicles approaching from behind. If an approaching vehicle is determined to be a collision threat, the system will engage the warning sequence only in the milliseconds leading up to the crash. This allows the vehicle occupants enough time to instinctively readjust their seating positions … but not enough time to panic.

“Studies suggest that if your neck muscles are tense during a rear-end collision, the risk of sustaining an injury, such as whiplash, increases. So, we don’t want the occupants to have time to process what the system is trying to convey and tense up. We timed our system so that when a crash is detected, the system will trigger with just enough time for the occupants to face forward and get into a safe position right before impact,” explained Eric Bloomquist, ISE graduate student.

After the prototype was developed, the team decided to submit their design to the Student Enhanced Safety of Vehicles competition sponsored by NHTSA. In December, the team was notified that they had won the initial competitive round and were granted $2,000 to continue their research into the next semester and prepare for the national competition. 

This spring, the students investigated a proof-of-concept study at VTTI’s Automation Hub facility. During the static test, volunteers sat in the driver’s seat and separated Starbursts into piles at different locations within the vehicle. This task allowed the team to study the occupant’s physical reaction to the visual and auditory alerts, with a focus on the first (i.e. surprise) trial. Then, the team recorded the responses of the volunteers and asked for feedback on the technology. Most participants automatically adjusted their seating positions and also indicated that they would be interested in having a similar alert system installed in their cars. The students presented these promising findings to NHTSA in April for the domestic round of the competition and won the North American title - after which the team was invited to compete internationally.

The team hopes that one day car manufacturers might adopt their technology. A system like PREPARES could also prove useful for automated vehicles in the future, when traditional car seating arrangements might become a thing of the past. In the meantime, the students are excited to continue developing their concept, according to Basantis.  

“The fact that every single person in the class decided to stay on and volunteer their time to PREPARES just shows how passionate we are about this project. The potential impact that we are able to have as 20-year-old students is so cool,” she said.

The project was funded in part by the Safety through Disruption National UTC, a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s University Transportation Centers Program.

PREPARES Team Members:

·       Zachary Doerzaph, faculty advisor

·       Alexis Basantis: (BEAM)

·       Eric Bloomquist: ISE

·       Phillip Grambo: Mechanical Engineering

·       Richard Greatbatch: ISE

·       Samantha Haus: BEAM

·       Adam Novotny: BEAM

·       Luke Riexinger: BEAM

·       Alexandria Rossi-Alvarez: ISE