Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Executive Director Zac Doerzaph mentored students enrolled in the Advanced Vehicle Research and Development course who created a technology that alerts drivers when they are in the blind spot of a tractor-trailer. That project has been named as a North American regional finalist in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles Student Safety Technology Design Competition.

The project — Lighting Interface for Effective Signaling of Adjacent Vehicles in Occupant Risk Scenarios (LIFE SAVIORS) — was awarded $3,000 to help with the continuation of research and to prepare for its upcoming evaluation at the end of this year.

The team designed and prototyped a system that employs an external human-machine interface as an advanced driver assistance system to reduce the tendency of drivers to dwell beside trucks on roadways. The technology consists of a radar and continuous dynamic "pacing" lighting display installed along the side of a 53-foot trailer. The display detects and visually alerts drivers who dwell in the truck's blind spot. The goal is to motivate drivers to pass the truck, a behavior modification that should reduce a common and fatal type of crash.

“I think that this project has incredible potential to save the lives of vulnerable road users,” said Haden Bragg, team member and third year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering. “Since the start of our class, the goal has been to create an advanced driver assistance system that will make a difference on our roadways. I think this one has a chance to make a large-scale, positive impact on heavy vehicles."

In the course on advanced vehicle safety systems, taught by Doerzaph, also an associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics, students are challenged to invent a novel advanced driver assistance system.

“These students went well above and beyond the expectations of the course,” said Doerzaph. “I am impressed with the passion they exhibit on this project. They were in the driver seat for the research and development.”

The team successfully conducted a pilot study on 12 drivers using different dwelling positions for the vehicle (relative to the trailer) as well as different interface configurations to evaluate the design's effectiveness. The results provided insights regarding the drivers’ ability to recognize and interpret the trailer's display.

The next step involves refining the prototype with robust sensing and revised lighting patterns while testing at full speed.

The team's initial research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality and Injury Reporting System Tool revealed that even though large trucks account for only a fraction of all registered vehicles, their crash involvement along with their vehicle miles traveled has increased significantly over the past decade.

“We are all taught not to linger in a truck’s blind spot while driving. Yet light vehicle drivers often underestimate how large the blind spot is and continue to dwell in that zone,” said Sparsh Jain, team member and fifth year Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering and mechanics. “Our prototype detects this unsafe situation and activates an external warning system.”

LIFE SAVIORS team members will hear back in early 2023 if their project has been accepted to move forward as international finalist. If chosen, they will travel to Yokohama, Japan, in April to present their research and to fight for a spot as the international champions.

This team isn’t the first from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to reach this stage of competition. In 2019, under the direction of Doerzaph, a team of students and their PREPARES project were recognized as North American regional finalists and went on to win the entire competition as international champions.

LIFE SAVIORS team members are:

  • Zac Doerzaph, faculty advisor
  • Andrew Galloway, second year master’s student in biomedical engineering and mechanics
  • Haden Bragg, third year Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering and mechanics
  • Jackie Chavez Orellana, second year Ph.D. candidate in industrial and systems engineering
  • Mary Metrey, first year master’s student in biomedical engineering and mechanics
  • Sparsh Jain, fifth year Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering and mechanics


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