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"UFOs" in Ingolstadt - Audi Accident Research Unit

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INGOLSTADT/MUNICH/REGENSBURG – November 3, 2008: 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 word “Unfallforscher” which means “accident researcher”. Since 1998, the members of this 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 carrying out technical and medical analyses of accidents, and collecting general data about an accident's sequence of events and the people involved, the researchers also incorporate aspects of psychology into their work.

Team Coordinator Birgit Graab explains: “This interdisciplinary analysis – technical, medical and psychological – of road traffic accidents, in which we also thoroughly analyse the context of each accident, means that the standard of traffic accident research carried out by the AARU is very high indeed, even in international terms.”

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 with, ultimately, the development of the “accident-avoiding car”. 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 should 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 in late 1998.” It should be pointed out that cross-brand accident research analysing the implications of accidents has been going on for many years within the Volkswagen Group. The AARU experts naturally use these findings, too. Conversely, the other group brands benefit from the results of the work being carried out in Ingolstadt and Regensburg: a joint database is maintained to facilitate the exchange of information.

“Knowledge on the safety characteristics of our vehicles in real-life accident situations is indispensable. The results of the AARU support us in making targeted improvements to integral vehicle safety. The findings of accident research from the pre-crash phase are crucial in the development of active safety systems,” continued Dr. Ulrich Widmann, Head of Vehicle Safety Development at Audi.

Human error is the main cause of all road accidents. What happened immediately before an accident? Why did the crash occur in the first place? Was the driver distracted by something? Was he or she suffering from stress, either personal or work-related? Did the driver fail to perceive the danger, or consciously take a risk?

All these issues are likewise investigated by an additional AARU team at Regensburg University Hospital, led by a qualified psychologist. Drivers are interviewed about their subjective impressions immediately before the accident. Graab explains: “The psychological interviews are conducted as soon as possible after the event, so that the impressions in the minds of those involved are still fresh and are not distorted by their own or others’ attempts to explain what happened.”

By researching real-life road accidents, it is possible to obtain meaningful and reliable findings on the behaviour and subjective feelings 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.

Appropriate adjustments to these technical systems, such as voice-activated vehicle operation, night vision technologies, adaptive cruise control and lane-change assistance systems or automated emergency braking, only make sense if the driver’s typical response in critical situations is known and taken into account in the system design.

One concrete example of the application of findings is in the radar-based driver assistance system “Audi side assist”, which was first introduced in the Audi Q7. It assists the driver in changing lanes. Lane-changes are seen as simple manoeuvres, but AARU research has shown that accidents when changing lanes are caused not only by the presence of another road-user in the blind spot. In fact, the driver often simply fails to see a vehicle approaching from behind or underestimates its speed.

For this reason, Audi side assist is designed to detect both vehicles in the blind spot and vehicles rapidly approaching from behind. When the sensors identify either of these critical situations, the driver is alerted to the danger by a yellow flashing LED in the exterior mirror.

For her accident research work, team coordinator Birgit Graab can call on the services of the doctors and psychologists in Regensburg and of three engineers in Ingolstadt. Their aim is to analyse around 100 road accidents a year involving Audi models that were no more than two years old at the time. Other criteria behind the choice of incidents to be included in Audi's accident file 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. Almost all of the accidents analysed occurred 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 an accident analysis entails: “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 again is spent assessing and surveying the scene of the accident.” Up to 400 photographs are taken to build up a record of the accident. It then takes around another day’s work to reconstruct and simulate the accident on a computer, with the aid of special software. To conduct a full analysis of an accident, including the medical and psychological aspects, takes around one week in total. 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, some 3,000 items of technical, psychological and medical data have been entered into the AARU database. The collection of 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 specification, colour, engine power and the exact model designation, are also recorded at this stage.

To do this, the AARU works in close cooperation with the Bavarian police. If an Audi model is involved in a road accident and one of the criteria listed above is satisfied, the police notify the medical AARU team in Regensburg. They also give the team access to all the accident reports and photos taken. The need to protect data privacy is, of course, taken very seriously – it is moreover one of the basic conditions of the research partnership.

All police stations in Bavaria participate in the AARU scheme, and the standard of cooperation is proving excellent. Coordination of the project for the police authorities 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 the AARU and are required to support the AARU. After all, it is ultimately also in the interests of the police to see the number of road accidents cut and general road safety improved through this research.”

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 assess how effective the vehicle’s safety systems and behaviour are in a real-life accident. The results are channelled directly into Audi’s vehicle development activities. “Our research always focuses on the human being,” says Birgit Graab.

One example of how Audi Accident Research delivers verification of the efficiency of vehicle safety systems is an accident that occurred in April 2008 involving an Audi A6 Avant. A vehicle transporter pulled across into the left-hand lane of the motorway to overtake a lorry, overlooking an A6 Avant approaching from behind. The car hit the transporter at a speed of around 140 km/h. Such collisions with a heavy goods vehicle represent a great safety challenge for a passenger car. In the accident under investigation, the AARU showed that even though the accident was severe, the design of the A6 Avant meant that the occupants suffered only minor injuries.

From the very outset, it was clear that Audi's accident analysis work needed to cover medical aspects as well as technical ones. Donner explains: “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 accidents.”

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 Hospital. 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 Hospital, a team of two doctors from the department analyses AARU accidents from a medical viewpoint.

“In medical terms, we benefit from the comprehensive 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,” says Prof. Nerlich. There are five students of medicine organised on a rota to provide 24-hour cover for acquiring the necessary medical data.

When a road accident that meets the AARU criteria occurs, the medical students travel from Regensburg to the hospital concerned or even to the accident scene, to “interview” the victims and persons involved in the accident and consult the medical reports – subject, of course, to the agreement of those affected.

“But that’s rarely a problem. We achieve a very high acceptance rate. Only around 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.

What the partners say:

The Bavarian police:
“The Bavarian police wholly supports the Audi Accident Research Unit, as prevention is far preferable to criminal proceedings from our point of view.

Professional research into traffic accidents and its results open up new approaches to accident prevention. It produces scientifically backed findings about exactly what is dangerous and why, which we can then use to take effective countermeasures. Inexplicable turning manoeuvres performed when road users lose their way are a good example of this. Thanks to the increase in the number of navigation systems and their ongoing advancement, such causes of accidents should hopefully soon be a thing of the past.

The three pillars of the Audi Accident Research Unit are of particular importance, namely technical analysis together with the medical and psychological aspects of accidents. The psychological component especially was a real eye-opener for us as far as the pre-crash phase is concerned.

The police was only able to make an educated guess as to the factors which ultimately resulted in the traffic accident. The psychological interviews delivered unequivocal results, however. The process of identifying the causes has been greatly improved as a result.

The age of road users is another topic which is increasingly coming to the fore. The forecasted demographic development means that age is set to become more and more of an issue in future. Road users of increasingly advanced years are actively involved in the traffic process. Psychological aspects as well as new technologies in the field of vehicle safety are important parameters here for furthering the traffic safety work carried out by the police.”

Police Superintendent Hubert Abbenhaus, Head of “Police Traffic Duties” at the police headquarters for Lower Bavaria/Upper Palatinate

Regensburg University Hospital:
“The Trauma Surgery Department at Regensburg University Hospital has been a partner of the Audi Accident Research Unit for 10 years now. The medical and psychological investigative teams have worked here since 2002.

The medical team documents the injuries of all accident victims and conducts standardised interviews. The aim of the medical investigation is to ascertain what caused which injury. This can only be accomplished by working closely together with the technical team from AUDI AG. By reconstructing the accidents, the engineers are able to correlate the injuries to speeds, impact angles and accident energies.

The trauma surgeon’s fundamental objective is not just to treat and heal injuries, but to assume a preventative role too. Preventing injuries from occurring in the first place is a central component of the philosophy of trauma surgery.

For this reason, the psychological team concerns itself with the question of why an accident happened in the first place. Over 90 percent of all traffic accidents can be traced back to human error.

To allow them to reconstruct the pre-crash phase, a standardised interview is conducted by the psychological team with all of the vehicle drivers implicated in the accident, and the accident site is analysed for any peculiarities. The aim of the psychological team is to determine the causes of accidents based on the accident investigation findings, in order to then cross-reference these with specific driver assistance systems and discuss their effectiveness in avoiding accidents.

The Audi Accident Research Unit gives the Regensburg University Hospital the opportunity to play a decisive role on a preventative level. The findings of the medical and technical teams make it possible to reduce injuries or prevent them completely, while the findings of the psychological team enable targeted advancement of driver assistance systems with a view to avoiding accidents altogether.

An understanding of injury mechanisms is taught as part of medical training. Static X-ray or CT diagnosis cannot replicate the dynamic processes which a body is subject to in the course of a collision. It is therefore necessary to demonstrate the kinematics of accidents to students in order to be able to explain what particular forces caused the injuries and what additional associated injuries can be expected. Without this knowledge, it is not possible to fully assess the extent of a person’s injuries and make a correct diagnosis. This is precisely what the work of the Audi Accident Research Unit conveys to the students.

The contact with patients furthermore gives the prospective medics and psychologists involved in the AARU the chance to hone their sense of medical or psychological intuition at an early stage. They assume responsibility for their patients and have to obtain findings independently, something which is of great benefit for their subsequent career.

Scientific study forms another area of the Audi Accident Research Unit’s work. There are currently five medical dissertations and one psychology dissertation dealing with accident research topics. Alongside this scientific study, investigative research is being carried out into the fundamentals of injury mechanics in cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences in Regensburg.

The Audi Accident Research Unit is of tremendous value for the University Hospital of Regensburg and particularly so for the Trauma Surgery Department, whether it is from the point of view of educating students, conducting fundamental research or helping to prevent injuries.“

Prof. Michael Nerlich, Head of Trauma Surgery at Regensburg University Hospital