Public Release: 

ORNL, Supercomputer Working To Make Tomorrow's Cars Safer

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- A spanking new Ford Explorer delivered to the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has come apart, but it's going to help assure that tomorrow's automobiles meet or exceed the established s afety standards.

Thomas Zacharia heads an Oak Ridge National Laboratory research team that dismantled, measured and weighed each component of a new Ford Explorer so it could create a computer model and run simulated crash tests. Results from these simulations will be used to assure that future, lighter vehicles meet safety requirements. (Photo by Tom Cerniglio).

Actually, researchers at the laboratory dismantled the nation's top-selling sport utility vehicle and weighed and measured each piece. Then, as part of the project, they have plugged that information into an ORNL program and built a computer model the Department of Transportation (DOT) can provide to United States automakers to make improvements to vehicles of the future.

"Our role isn't to confirm or deny the safety of the Ford Explorer," said Thomas Zacharia of ORNL's Metals and Ceramics Division. "What we've done is built a computer model of the Ford Explorer and run simulated 35 mile per hour crash tests. Results from these simulations will be used to assure that future, lighter vehicles meet safety requirements."

ORNL, which performed similar tests on a Ford Taurus a few years ago, has gained expertise in the area of automobile crash simulations using ORNL's powerful Intel Paragon XP/S 150 Model Supercomputer.

"It's a lot less expensive to crunch numbers on a computer than it is to crunch metal in a crash test," Zacharia said. Once ORNL researchers validate their simulated offset, head-on crash with an actual controlled crash in Buffalo, they will be able to perform a number of crashes and generate a variety of data. Simulated crashes will provide information identical to what researchers could gain from actual crashes that cost up to $75,000 per crash.

While ORNL is developing a vehicle model for the Explorer, other institutions are doing the same with other top-selling vehicles -- the Chevrolet Lumina, Chrysler Concorde, Honda Accord and the Dodge Neon.

ORNL's work is related to a national effort to develop a vehicle that gets 80 miles per gallon without sacrificing performance, utility, cost of ownership or the safety that consumers today demand.

"To achieve this goal, we're talking about a weight reduction of 40 percent," Zacharia said. "That dramatic reduction requires the use of lightweight metals, plastics and composites that offer new challenges for automobile engineers."

Results of ORNL's work are to be presented to a Congressional committee this month. Funding for the ORNL project is provided by DOT.


ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.

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