SOE Faculty and Alumni Use Engineering Expertise to Put the Pieces Back Together

fall2013vearTo the vast majority of motorists, highway crashes are anything but orderly. High-speed accidents typically produce a few seconds of chaos—and then an aftermath that can befuddle even the most experienced highway patrolmen.

But to a highly skilled team of engineers at VEAR Inc., there is a definite order in the mayhem. VEAR manager and SOE alumnus Gary Johnson recently answered questions about how the company uses basic engineering and physics principles—along with a healthy dose of technology—to reconstruct highway and industrial accidents down to the finest detail.

VEAR Inc., is located at UAB's Innovation Depot. Does the company have any official connection to UAB?

There is a strong connection but not an official one. We have a total of eight employees, and seven of us have degrees from UAB or are current or former faculty members. I received my master's degree in mechanical engineering from the School of Engineering in 2008, and now I'm working on my Ph.D. in interdisciplinary engineering, which is a good fit for what we do.

Gary M. Johnson, MSME, ACTAR, EIT
Manager, accident reconstruction, event data retrieval and preservation

Raymond G. Thompson, Ph.D., PE, FAWS, FASM
Engineering design, failure analysis and manufacturing methods

Thomas F. Talbot, Ph.D., PE
Vehicular and industrial accident reconstruction, engineering design, manufacturing processes and failure analysis

Preston Scarber Jr., Ph.D.
Accident reconstruction, simulation

Michael Loop, Ph.D.
Visual psychophysical Analysis and Human Factors

Dale S. Feldman, Ph.D.
Injury biomechanics

Dustin Nolen, BMtlE, EIT
Accident reconstruction, simulation, animation, event data retrieval and preservation

Cameron Robinson

How did the company get started?

Retired UAB physicist Dr. Ed Robinson, who passed away in 2012, founded Robinson and Associates, an
accident reconstruction company in the '70s, when he assisted Ford with the Pinto wrecks. In 2008, his company merged with Vista Engineering and created VEAR (Vista Engineering Accident Reconstruction). The partners in VEAR are retired UAB faculty Dr. Thomas Talbot, Dr. Raymond Thompson and myself. Today, VEAR concentrates on vehicular accidents, and Vista Engineering concentrates on metallurgy and mechanical failures and manufacturing consulting.

What is a typical procedure for recreating an accident?

By nature, there aren't a lot of "typical" accidents, so in forensic engineering, we gather all the evidence we can and we apply the laws of physics to determine the causes. There are typically three parts: Gather the available data, analyze that data, and reach an opinion concerning the events. We go out and gather the physical evidence, photograph the scene, retrieve the black boxes from passenger cars and big trucks, and study witness testimony about the events. Then we enter the information into one or more crash simulation programs, which typically involves building a 3-D model of the roadway and the two vehicles, and then we crash them into each other according to the data collected and see how they behave. We also do visibility studies that allow us to evaluate how visibility changes, such as a car of a certain height going over a hill, affect the operator's reaction to the events.

How much has technology changed since you started?

When I ran computer simulations for Dr. Robinson in the late 1990s, it took us 10 minutes to simulate a fivesecond event. Back then, the 3-D simulation program we like to use (HVE, which stands for Human Vehicle Environment) used to come with its own specialized computer due to its complexity relative to the abilities of that generation of computer. Now we have high-end laptops that run the HVE program. We scan the accident site and vehicles at the scene using lasers—we just wave the laser scanner like we're painting—and
the laptop acquires all the information it needs to create a 3-D model of the vehicle. Technology allows us to preserve evidence without destroying the cars.