Franconia firm hopes to SAVE military lives

A Franconia start-up has been awarded a two-year Department of Defense contract to tackle the military’s leading cause of accidental death: motor vehicle accidents.

“Too many people are dying in cars,” said Greg McKinney, managing member and senior vice president of Vehicle Control Training LLC, or VCT. Between 1980 and 2005, the military lost 6,550 people to motor vehicle accidents; 2,070 died in combat.

McKinney said he believes that in many accidents driver skills couldn’t meet the challenge of travel on Iraq or Afghanistan’s poorly constructed, rocky, muddy and icy roads. In response, the company plans to develop a loose-surface, high-speed driving simulator under the Synthetic Automotive Virtual Environments, or SAVE, program. According to McKinney, current live training capacity for these conditions isn’t adequate and would be cost-prohibitive to implement. Simulated training advantages include lower per-student cost and the ability to focus on and correct driver-specific errors.

Over 90 percent of the world’s roads are dirt, McKinney said, and existing simulators use paved road scenarios. “We realized that science and technology hadn’t described the loose surface environment yet.”

The Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, or CRREL, in Hanover is the project’s prime contractor and lead research partner. “Their staff has the depth of experience we need,” McKinney said. “They’ve been studying the interaction of soil and vehicles at slow speeds. We’re increasing their knowledge base, too.”

As a first step, vehicles at the Team O’Neil Rally and Car Control Center in nearby Dalton will be wired to gather data for the simulator modeling. A variety of makes and models will navigate the center’s six miles of narrow, winding gravel roads under different weather conditions. The data will be used to create algorithms expressing the interaction of vehicle and surface.

Founded by five-time North American rally champion Tim O’Neil, Team O’Neil trains government personnel and civilians in rally driving skills, such as left-foot braking, pendulum turns and skid control. Hills, dips and curves, boulders and trees, make the world-class course a challenge at any speed. Rallying, a timed, high-speed, point-to-point competition, uses techniques that can help non-racers deal with poor road conditions and emergency situations.

One popular class is Winter Safe, which teaches students how to handle ice and skids. O’Neil also is an owner of VCT.

“Tim had the original idea,” McKinney said. “He asked my brother, a civilian employee of the Air Force and a Ph.D. in accelerated reliability testing, to come to the school to discuss the concept. I went along to beat on cars.”

McKinney said he was greatly impressed by the idea and felt “we had to get this thing funded.”

Other applications

A recent recipient of a master’s degree from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., McKinney is committed to using technology to save lives. He said his background in business development for a government lab gave him the perfect background to find a funding mechanism.

Over the next couple of years, McKinney created a compelling proposal and approached legislators and government agencies. Fortuitously, he discovered CRREL’s interest in vehicle dynamics and they joined the project. Other partners include Ford Motor Company, MIT, Georgia Tech and Simcraft, developer of a full-motion simulator chassis. In May 2007, U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes included $1.6 million for SAVE under the Defense Reauthorization Bill.

“There are a lot of potential applications for this technology,” McKinney said, who added he hopes that it can be used to prevent civilian vehicle accident deaths as well.

According to the World Health Organization, by 2020, motor vehicle accidents will be the third leading cause of death worldwide. In response, McKinney and O’Neil are founding Vehicle Control Education, a nonprofit that will provide driver training and education for public benefit.

Through developing the simulator, McKinney said he hopes to build understanding of how drivers learn and interact with their environments.

“There is a perception that driver skills training raises accident rates among young drivers,” he said, “but our research doesn’t bear this out.”

Most attempts to reduce accidents focus on improving vehicle design. The beauty of SAVE’s research data is that it can also be used to build better and safer vehicles, McKinney noted. “By the end of the first year, we should have formulas able to improve autonomous vehicle design and active safety systems.”

Mechanical engineer Travis Hanson is McKinney’s first employee. Besides holding a degree from Kettering University, the Michigan native also is a rally racer.

“I’ve been racing since 2005,” said Hanson, who was a student at Team O’Neil in 2006.

He also instructed at the center before joining VCT. In August 2008, he competed in the X Games in Los Angeles. Called in as an alternate, he placed seventh. “Not bad for someone not planning to race,” he said.

Hanson is excited at the chance to meld his career and his passion. “This is not your typical engineering job,” he said. “It’s not about parts and pieces. There’s a lot more human element to it.”