Podcast - S1E4

The Complete Engineering® Podcast

Midwest Roadside Safety Facility

When Kenny hit it, he waited for a big ouch, and it was a non-event. I mean, it was unbelievable if you could see the angle that he hit. He walked away. If there was just concrete there, it would not have been good. That SAFER wall is really, really working.

Mario Andretti
Auto Racing Legend

For this episode of the Complete Engineering podcast, we're talking to Cody Stolle and Bob Bielenberg with the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, which is working to save lives on our nation's highways.

About the MwRSF: The Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, focuses on all aspects of highway design and safety. MwRSF conducts performance evaluations and develops innovative designs and technologies for better roadway safety.

MwRSF car damaged after a test crash, with people looking on and taking photos.
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Intro: Welcome to the Complete Engineering Podcast, brought to you by the College of Engineering. We are Nebraska, where we develop complete engineers with the technical and non-technical skills to do big things. Visit us at engineering.unl.edu.

(celebratory music)

Matt Honke: Hello, we're with Bob Bielenberg and Cody Stolle with the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility. I'm Matt Honke with the College of Engineering.

Karl Vogel: And I'm Karl Vogel, also with the College of Engineering.

Matt Honke: And we're here today to talk about the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, and just some of the great things that they've done over the course of their history. This is an anniversary year for them, the 20th year I believe of the safer barrier.

Karl Vogel: From the instillation of the safer barrier in Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1998, it has been one of the biggest innovations in Auto racing, including saving numerous lives and preventing major injuries to drivers. But that's not all the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility does their work is seen all over the world and in basically every roadway in the country. We would like to talk to Cody and Bob and get more information about what it is that they do and where we can see their work.

Matt Honke: So welcome Cody, welcome Bob, we'll start with asking what work is being done right now at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility to improve the lives of all people around the world?

Bob Bielenberg: Sure, so our main focus really is highway safety, and that's been our focus since the facility started back in the 80s. What we're really looking to do is, if a vehicle goes off the road, how we keep that driver safe. So we try to design the roadside to be safer, weather that's making, getting rid of hazards or obstacles that are on the side of the road, so if you go off the road you don't impact them or designing barriers to keep you safe, to keep you away from hazards on the side of the roads. So we've been doing that for a lot of years and that's been our main focus, when it comes to the safety aspect and then there's other things that we've looked at over time. You mentioned the safer barrier, that's a pretty neat thing that we got an opportunity to do over time. And Dr. Stolle's done a lot of work looking at department of defense applications.

Cody Stolle: Yeah we have, using the background in vehicle dynamics and crash relevance we were able to design some very innovative features for the Department of Transportation and Department of Defense, protecting military insulation from people who might be of nefarious intent trying to cause some havoc, maybe destroy some buildings or harm some people. We can safely guide them to the side of the road where their vehicle is disabled and where they can be captured, while at the same time safely protecting those people who use the facilities every day.

Karl Vogel: So your work is not just here in the state of Nebraska we're having an impact, not nationally but worldwide as well it's not just Nebraska doing the work, you mentioned earlier when we were talking about another anniversary that's Midwest Pooled Fund program, can you kind of explain what that is and why Midwest is central in that?

Bob Bielenberg: Yeah the Midwest Pooled Fund Program started back in the late 80's and the idea was at the time that a lot of states had roadside safety needs trying to get any one state to fund the crash testing development of some of these roadside safety applications is fairly expensive. So the idea was to get a group of states and originally it was in the Midwest so it started with Kansas and Iowa and Nebraska and those states and Missouri and trying to get them all together so it started with a group of four to five states and it's grown now it's 19 states and our states range from California to New Jersey. You know a lot of states in the middle of the country as well and so those states, for the last 30 years have been funding, they get together, they bring all their safety problems to us and we talk to them about them, propose solutions to them. And then they prioritize which ones each year they want to do to try and address what's their highest priority needs and right now that's about a $1.2 million per year program of research fundings. So it's probably the largest pooled fund program of it's kind in the country, and it really is addressing the safety needs for the entire country, not just Nebraska specifically.

Karl Vogel: And you have a very unique facility, and we're not talking about the offices at Whittier Hall, you're talking about the testing facility you have out at the Lincoln Airport. What kind of work can you do out there to innovate in the field of highway safety?

Cody Stolle: The kinds of work that we like to do is really anything that's dynamic, if it impacts, if it crashes together, we can generally perform that. We've everything from real vehicles that we've purchased on fleets to surrogate vehicles that we create, fabricate in house so we can use them over and over and over again. Doing some very challenging things. We can do speeds as low as 30 miles per hour, or upwards is as much as 180 for safer tests. We test vehicles from small cars all the way to semi tractor trailers, so it's a very fully functional type of environment. And even beyond the crash testing we do other types of tests that evaluate components where we don't even need a vehicle at all, we can measure the properties of those components and see how they react under a dynamic environment and the types of materials that are used in those components, and evaluating and compare those.

Matt Honke: Yeah I've had the pleasure of seeing three of the tests and I've seen everything from a semi going into a safer barrier wall to a pick up truck hitting a guard rail and then the most recent one was knocking over some signs and just seeing how you guys measure it and everything, it's so fascinating to watch, the high speed cameras that you have, the drones, everything it's just an amazing event to watch even. So I'm sure you guys get out of each of those tests that you're doing.

Bob Bielenberg: Yeah, yeah it certainly never gets boring for us, I've been doing it for 20 years and I still get pretty excited on test day. Yeah we can do, you know the stuff, the information we collect in those tests is very high-tech research that we're doing out there, we're able to measure how the barrier reacts, how the vehicle reacts, weather or not the occupant would be safe. And like Cody said that can span a pretty broad spectrum of types of impacts, and we intend to extend that in the future, right now, you know we wrote the crash testing standard, that document is what all the lab's are using to test roadside hardware and that will expand if we keep pushing the boundaries of what that document's gonna include so one of the things that we, Cody and I looked at is looking at non tracking impact right now we do all our impacts as impacts of the vehicle tracking into a barrier in a straight line essentially, different angles and speeds. One of the things we've found through accident investigation is that's not necessarily true, up to 40% of our impacts are actually vehicles that are spinning or non tracking, not going straight into a barrier. That's something we want to expand on in the future and I think with our test facility, again as Cody mentioned, we run tests that no where else has in the world, the stuff that we did for the safer barrier, those are, as far as I know, no one's ever tested over 70 miles an hour, we get 150 plus miles an hour. So we also think we can throw things into barriers, vehicles into barriers in non tracking impacts, where they'll be spinning and yawing as they impact the barrier, so that's kinda the next step. So we keep trying to, every year, every time we get new research, try to kind and push the envelope of what we can test and how we test it and trying to collect better data.

Karl Vogel: It sounds like it'd be kinda fun, you get to think up ways to destroy cars and trucks right? It's like every little kids dream is crashing your tonka trucks or your hot wheels right? You guys are actually doing it and saving lives and it benefits, is that what got you into this field is your love for cars or is it your wanting to solve problems?

Cody Stolle: Absolutely I mean I can say that when I first started my research in Midwest one of the first projects I did was to evaluate real crashes, federal databases and real crashes and the types of impacts in the conditions that we saw. And from that I was deeply effected, to see the devastation it can cause when a car hit's something that it wasn't supposed to hit something near the side of the road. Trees are the number one killer of drivers who are on the side of the road, if they impact a tree or utility pole, 3500 deaths every year for trees and 1000 more for utility poles, it's a substantial problem and it hasn't gone away in 40 years. And it's the types of very heart breaking crashes that really motivated me to go deeper. To work with all the staff in Midwest and to expand that research, covering everything from barrier design, to safer road features and slopes and bridge spans and features that are resilient to impact from trucks that are occurring underneath the bridge. And to really push the envelope like Bob said go where people haven't gone before. And really make the entire transportation grid safer.

Bob Bielenberg: Yeah I think, one of the aspects at least for me that's kept me interested in the facility, there's obviously the safety aspect and the aspect that you are helping keep people safe and that you know, it's very satisfying on that level. Another aspect is, it's very technical, it's very difficult and the problem's always changing, so one of the things when I was in school, you know when I was a mechanical engineering student and I told myself, I really like mechanical engineering, I don't want to design car door handles for the next 30 years. And you can do that and it's a great thing, somebody has to design door handles, I didn't want to do that for my long term job. So one of the benefits of working in a research place like this is that problem always changes, you can move the problems to what is most important and what's the highest priority in our field and keep kind of pushing the boundaries and that keeps the job very interesting and it is very technical. One of the things that got me interested is that we're one of the, the main centers in the country that does computer simulation work for roadside crashes. So we use a program called LS-DYNA, which is, the auto industry uses, sports industries use, it's the cutting edge on computer simulations. So we can model the crashes before and after we run them to learn more about them, that's stuff that you don't get at every university in the country, and so that was another thing, you know we, it's very technical, it has a satisfying goal and outcome and the problem's always changing so that, that makes it a great place to work everyday.

Matt Honke: Well this is the Complete Engineering Podcast, and that's in reference to the Complete Engineer initiative we have here at the University of Nebraska. It's made up of six main competencies, Intercultural Appreciation, Leadership, Self-Management, Service and Civic Responsibility, Teamwork and Understanding of Engineering Ethics. I guess going over those six, I'm sure that every one of them are touched on within the Midwest Roadside Facility, but how would you say, how does it help develop complete engineers?

Cody Stolle: Definitely an aspect of our complete engineers is we try to take new young engineers, expose them not only to the research world, but also to their professional responsibilities to that world that we live in. We feel it's a very important aspect of our lives to train students into leaders, to be the next managers, to be the next decision makers of the future. And so our students are trained to handle decisions, to complete their own projects from start to end, to conduct their own planning and to look out for who they're around and how they can enrich the lives of those who are near to them. And to look out for safety reasons and the underlying causes for the real problems.

Karl Vogel: If I'm a student and I'm interested in working at Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, how do I go about making contact with he people that can help me get that goal achieved?

Bob Bielenberg: Sure we've got a website and that's probably the easiest way to generally get a hold of us and get a role in the University directory's and things so that's fairly straightforward but we take engineers, Cody is a good example, Cody started working for us when you were what, 18?

Cody Stolle: Yeah

Bob Bielenberg: So I mean you can, we've had, one of the thing's we do is we kind of develop a lot of our engineers in house. And so we have undergrad students do a line share of our work and analyzing test data and as a matter of fact we can't do it without our student workers. Our full time staff is fairly small, the students make up the majority of our staff. So our students are the ones who put our CAD drawings together for our systems, they're the ones that help us analyze the test data, they're out there on test days documenting tests, that's mostly the undergrad students and then our graduate students are actually working on projects, so, you know, undergraduate students that have worked for me, we essentially, they come in and the projects we're talking about that come through the pool fund or through NASCAR or whatever these different groups are, that find work with us. They basically run those projects with our mentorship for lack of a better term so we've had students that essentially they're doing everything from researching the background of the problem, trying to talk with the sponsor and deal with them they also update the sponsor on the progress, they do the design work, they're out there on test day very nervously watching to see if their system works. You know and then they actually on the back end have to write it up and report it and summarize it for the sponsors. So, that, for us that's a big part of being a complete engineer is hopefully, especially for the grad students they get to see all the phases of an engineering problem not just doing some research and giving it to a professor ours is a little broader than that in the sense that we work more like a specific engineer for our research is more applied so, a lot of things we do, they do a lot more direct, probably interaction with clients then your average graduate student at university so I think we give them a pretty good rep and our students work all over the country.

Matt Honke: I was just gonna ask that, where have some of your students gone on to?

Bob Bielenberg: It's pretty amazing, they'll go all over we have, just in the last few years, we've had guys that are working at Sandia National Labs, at Caterpillar, we've had guys go work for professional golf companies, so it's kind of all over the map really in engineering consultants.

Cody Stolle: Volkswagen, Volvo, John Deere, UP.

Bob Bielenberg: And large civil firms as well, because a lot of the civil structural stuff ties very closely with what we do, so yeah it's a pretty broad range where those guys get to go and so it's, we think it's a good opportunity form for sure.

Karl Vogel: Now you've mentioned solving problems is one of the reason's you're in this, and the world keeps changing all the time and technologies in every industry change so it creates new problems and new opportunities. What sorts of problems would you both like to see solved or be a part of solving?

Bob Bielenberg: Sure, so I've got a couple ideas I'm sure Cody has plenty too, like I said there's a lot of problems always in this field, it constantly evolves. One of the things in the general sense that we're always trying to do is improve the barriers that are on the side's of the roads so that's obviously been one of our main focuses for years. That problem doesn't go away because as the vehicle fleet changes, and the needs of the state DOT's and the highway oversight folks, change over time so does the needs of the barriers. So things that we're looking at over time is, how do we design those barriers to better match up with the vehicle fleet as it changes over time you know right now vehicle's are heavier and have higher center of gravities then they ever have. We keep adapting our barriers to deal with those and then we also have to keep dealing with small cars and older vehicles in the fleet. So we're trying to do that, we're also trying to always make the barriers more functional, more cost effective, and better applied to whatever their specific needs are at the state level, and then make them safer on top of that, we always want the safety performance to improve too so we're always looking at that and then like you mentioned we're looking at new technologies as well that go with that. So as new materials come out, different ways to construct those barriers, we're looking at things like advanced precast bridge rails that we can assemble more quickly then we can, like cast in place construction that's typically been used. We think there's new materials for guard rails and other types of barriers that we can apply. We're also looking at the future of barrier design as vehicles and infrastructures start to communicate more with network technologies. There's vehicle structure communications that we can use to potentially do things like smart barriers. So instead of the first line off defense when you run off the road being a physical barrier there may be a smart barrier that actually communicates with your vehicle, detects an impact and actually tries to stear your vehicle away or change how the vehicle responses before you actually hit something off the side of the road. And that's kind of the next generation of safety devices and that's not two or three years away that's long-term looking down the road, but those are the kind of things that we're looking at in the future because we all see that the cars are becoming more connected and they're interacting with each other and they're detecting collisions with each other. Can we do the same kind of things with our infrastructure and our safety barriers? I think we can and that's probably a pretty big step towards the future.

Karl Vogel: One of the things about he complete engineer initiative that the university is stressing with the students is life outside of being an engineer, you gotta have a work life balance, so when you guys are not at the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, how do you unwind? What kind of hobbies do you guys have?

Bob Bielenberg: Yeah for me, I have two children, one's thirteen and one's nine so that's a pretty busy hobby, most of the students that are listening won't have children but you'll find out. It's a real thing, so they keep me very busy, between all their activities and things that we do with them and then when you work, one thing about engineering is it's somewhat of a desk job, so I like to get out and run and bike whenever I get a chance to do that kind of thing to keep me from getting too old too fast.

Cody Stolle: And I know several of us do a lot of community service, I'm active with my church and with different children's groups around the area to help some underprivileged youth. And that's where I spend an awful lot of my evenings, helping out with these kids.

(bell rings)

Matt Honke: Alright so what we like to do at the very end here a lightning round series of question's, there's 60 seconds, it's not an official time but.

Karl Vogel: Just have a little fun.

Matt Honke: Just have a little bit of fun with it here, since we have Bob and Cody here, we're just gonna go from one to the next, so we're gonna start with Cody, car or truck?

Cody Stolle: Truck.

Matt Honke: Have you ever used a slide rule?

Bob Bielenberg: No.

Matt Honke: First video game you owned?

Cody Stolle: Mario Brothers.

Matt Honke: Favorite musical genre?

Bob Bielenberg: Punk rock.

Matt Honke: How fast can you change a flat tire?

Cody Stolle: Ten minutes.

Matt Honke: What was your favorite toy growing up?

Bob Bielenberg: Transformers.

Matt Honke: If you could time travel, to when would you go?

Cody Stolle: Dawn of the United States.

Matt Honke: On a scale of one to ten, how strict were your parents?

Bob Bielenberg: Six.

Matt Honke: Do you know how to run a VCR?

Cody Stolle: (laughs) yes.

Matt Honke: Favorite NASCAR driver?

Bob Bielenberg: Harvick 'cause I met him.

Matt Honke: Chocolate or vanilla?

Cody Stolle: Oh, chocolate.

Matt Honke: Saturday or Sunday?

Bob Bielenberg: Saturday for sure.

Matt Honke: What's your pet peeve?

Cody Stolle: Drivers.

Matt Honke: Pancakes or waffles?

Bob Bielenberg: Waffles.

Matt Honke: Herbie Husker or Lil Red?

Cody Stolle: Herbie all the way.

Matt Honke: Alright.

Karl Vogel: We again want to thank Bob Bielenberg and Cody Stolle for joining us from the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, you can learn more about the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at mwrsf.unl.edu guy's thanks for coming.

Cody Stolle and Bob Bielenberg: Thank you guys. Thank you for having us.

(cheerful piano music)

Voiceover: Thank you for listening to the Complete Engineering Podcast, for more information visit us at engineering.unl.edu.