April 22, 2003
They refer to themselves simply as the “UFOs”. But this bizarre nickname has a very down-to-earth explanation: “UFO” is simply an abbreviated form of the German for “accident researcher”. Since 1998, the members of this discreet team of experts have been gathering evidence in cases where Audi models have been involved in an accident. The research project launched and fully financed by the Ingolstadt-based car manufacturer goes by the name of Audi Accident Research Unit (AARU). In addition to analysing accidents from a technical and medical viewpoint and collecting general data about the people involved in an accident, the researchers have recently begun to incorporate aspects of psychology into their work.
The objectives are to enhance road safety in general, improve still further on the safety equipment of current and future Audi models, and support the process of developing efficient driver assistance systems that go some way towards creating cars which positively “avoid” accidents. The AARU’s partners are the Trauma Surgery Department of Regensburg University Hospital and the Bavarian police.
Eckart Donner, Head of Product Analysis/Accident Research at Audi, recalls: “At the start of 1998, the Volkswagen Group resolved that Audi was to set up its own team of accident researchers. The motive was to obtain findings on the way new Audi models behave in real-life accidents as rapidly as possible. We then established the AARU at the end of 1998.” In this connection, it is interesting to note that cross-brand accident research has been going on for a great many years within the Volkswagen Group, with the purpose of analysing the consequences of accidents. The AARU experts naturally likewise use these findings. Conversely, the other group brands benefit from the results of the work being carried out in Ingolstadt and Regensburg. Part of the project’s success is due to the existence of a shared database.
From the very outset, it was clear that Audi’s accident analysis work needed to cover medical aspects as well as technical ones. Donner elaborates: “Aspects of road safety are treated as a very high priority in the development of Audi vehicles. By refining existing systems for active and passive safety and adopting new techniques, Audi is helping to bring about a permanent improvement in road traffic safety. Our aim is in particular to help avoid accidents and reduce the consequences of those accidents.”
The AARU is supervised by Team Coordinator Birgit Graab. Her accident research work is supported by the medics in Regensburg, and also by three engineers in Ingolstadt. Their aim is to analyse around 120 road accidents a year, involving Audi models that were no older than two years at the time. Other criteria behind the choice of incidents to be incorporated in Audi’s accident data are whether injuries were sustained, whether the airbag was activated and/or whether the vehicles involved incurred considerable deformation. The injuries sustained are always regarded as relevant, irrespective of whether the victim was inside the Audi or was another road user, such as a cyclist or pedestrian. The accidents monitored are almost without exception in Bavaria, with the focus on Ingolstadt and Regensburg. In isolated instances, accidents outside Bavaria have also been analysed.
Birgit Graab explains just how much work conducting such an accident analysis involves: “The vehicles involved in the accident are examined, measured and recorded in great depth, in a process taking three to four hours. Roughly the same amount of time is spent assessing and surveying the scene of the accident.” Up to 400 photographs are taken by way of documentary evidence. It then takes one more day’s work to reconstruct and simulate the accident on the computer, with the aid of special software. To conduct a full analysis of an accident, including the medical aspects, takes around one week. However, it can take months to conclude such a procedure, for example if the injured persons take a long time to recover.
By the time the process is complete, up to 3,000 items of technical and medical data have been entered in the AARU database. The spectrum of these data extends from measuring the range over which debris is scattered, any braking and impact marks on the road, the road surface and line of the road, the temperature, light and precipitation conditions at the time of the accident and the nature and severity of vehicle damage, to assessing seat positions and the effect of any loads on board the vehicles. Data relating to the persons (in anonymous form) and details not directly associated with the accident, such as vehicle equipment, colour, engine performance and the exact model designation, are also recorded at this stage.
The AARU works in close cooperation with the police. If an Audi model is involved in a road accident and one of the criteria mentioned above is met, the police notify the medical AARU team in Regensburg.
The police in addition give them access to all the accident reports and photos taken. The need to protect the data in question is of course taken very seriously – this is moreover one of the basic conditions of the research partnership. All police stations in Bavaria are participating in the AARU scheme, and the standard of cooperation is proving excellent. Coordination of the project from the police authorities’ viewpoint has been entrusted to the police headquarters for Lower Bavaria/Upper Palatinate by the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior.
Police commissioner Hubert Abbenhaus, Head of the “Police Transport Duties” task area, comments: “All stations and most officers are familiar with the work of AARU and are required to support the project. After all, it is ultimately also in the interests of the police to see the number of road accidents cut through this research, and general road safety improved.”
The task of the accident research team at Audi is to analyse an accident from a technical viewpoint and reconstruct it, in order to pinpoint scope for improving Audi models and highlight how effective the safety systems and vehicle’s behaviour are in a real-life accident. The results are channelled directly into Audi’s vehicle development activities.
One example of how swiftly the efficiency of safety systems can be checked by Audi’s accident researchers was an accident involving a new Audi A4 Cabriolet at the end of April 2002, immediately after its market launch. The car rolled over, but the driver was uninjured thanks to the perfect response of the protective system, with the extending roll-over protection hoops. Birgit Graab explains: “After only a few days on the market, we were able to document and demonstrate that the system functions just as effectively in real life as it had done previously in countless tests.”
The medical analysis of injury patterns and the investigation of accident mechanisms are among the tasks that fall to the Department for Trauma Surgery at Regensburg University Clinic. It records the nature and extent of injuries, and investigates the scope for preventing them. Under the leadership of Prof. Michael Nerlich, Head of Trauma Surgery at Regensburg University Clinic, a team of two doctors from the department analyses AARU accidents from a medical viewpoint.
“In medical terms, we benefit from the all-encompassing approach of the research project, and we can rapidly obtain specific data on certain injury patterns sustained in road accidents and on what caused them. That helps us to improve our methods of treatment,” adds Prof. Nerlich.
There are five students of medicine organised on a rota to provide 24-hour cover for acquiring the necessary medical data. If a road accident that meets the AARU criteria occurs, the trainee medics travel from Regensburg to the relevant hospital or accident scene to “interview” the victims and consult the medical records – subject, of course, to the agreement of those affected.
“But that’s rarely a problem. We achieve a very high acceptance rate. Only ten to twelve percent of persons involved in an accident refuse to give permission for their accident data to be included in the AARU database in an anonymous form,” assures Birgit Graab.
Once the project had been running successfully for two years, it was elevated to the status of a permanent service by AUDI AG at the end of 2000. And on July 1, 2002 the psychological component was added. Birgit Graab continues: “Thanks to this interdisciplinary analysis of road accidents – from a technical, medical and psychological viewpoint – and the resulting scope for probing every accident and its background comprehensively, the AARU has acquired a high standard in the sphere of road accident research.”
After all, human error is the main cause of all road accidents. What happens immediately before an accident? How did the crash occur in the first place? Was the driver distracted by something? Was he or she suffering from stress, whether personal or work-related? Was the risk actually perceived? Or was it consciously accepted? All these aspects are now likewise investigated by an additional AARU team at Regensburg University Clinic, led by a psychologist. Birgit Graab: “The interviews are conducted as soon after the event as possible, so that the impressions of those involved are still fresh and are not distorted by their own or others’ attempts to explain what happened.”
Using genuine examples of road accidents, it is now possible to obtain pertinent, verified findings on the behaviour and subjective responses and impressions of drivers in the pre-crash phase, in other words immediately before the accident. These findings can then be used without delay in the product development process for driver assistance systems. Because appropriate adjustments to these technical systems, such as voice-activated vehicle operation, night vision technologies, communications technologies, distance and track control systems or an automated emergency-braking function, can only be achieved if the driver’s typical response in critical situations is known and taken into account in the design.