Mike Blundell

Expert Interview: Mike Blundell

Mike Blundell is Associate Dean within the Engineering and Computing faculty and has worked at Coventry University for over 20 years. Prior to joining the University Mike worked for the ship and submarine design department of the Ministry of Defence and for Boeing (Europe).  Since joining Coventry University in 1991, Mike has led the research in the vehicle dynamics area, with a particular focus on tyre modelling and the efficient use of MBS software.

Can you tell us how your work in vehicle dynamics started at Coventry University?

I joined the university in 1991 and prior to this I had been working in industry where for about 10 years I had increasingly focussed on the use of computer aided engineering in my work. This started with an analysis method called finite element analysis which I used for stress analysis but later I focused on the use on multibody dynamics simulation, mostly using an industry standard software package called ADAMS. This approach was best suited for modelling automotive suspension systems and the simulation of vehicle ride and handling performance. Pretty quickly I realised a major challenge was understanding how the tyre generated forces when in contact with the road and I became interested in developing efficient methods to represent the tyre in simulation models. Over my first few years at the university I began to pick up teaching and project supervision in the vehicle dynamics subject area and at the same time carried out my own research to complete a part-time PhD.

Eventually I had amassed enough material in my teaching notes and papers to write a book “The multibody systems approach to vehicle dynamics”. While writing this I began to collaborate more and more with a practising vehicle dynamicist, Damian Harty, who was working for the motorsport company Prodrive at the time. I realised that Damian’s day to day experience working in the field could give the book a cutting edge so I invited him to co-author. That was a good decision. The book has been out for about 10 years and has been very successful. It is not only used by students around the world but is also used extensively in industry by practicing engineers at companies such as JLR. We are just finishing the second edition which should come to print in the autumn.

So how did your work on safety start?

I had a colleague who asked me if I would like to join him on a PhD project he was setting up with MIRA looking into pedestrian impact protection. I thought I would be supporting him but it turned out he was leaving the University and suddenly I found myself leading a new area of research. When I met with MIRA I found the scope was still quite open and working with the subject leader there we scoped a project to look at developing fidelic models of vehicles striking pedestrians to develop tools to help engineers design more pedestrian friendly vehicles. At the time new European legislation was coming out that demanded automotive manufacturers design vehicles that would pass new tests that represented an impact with a pedestrian. Suddenly I was working on a hot topic and I was getting visits from JLR, who were starting to develop analysis to pass the tests, and a European Member of Parliament who was voting on the subject and wanted briefing.

From that start the safety work took off and overtook my vehicle dynamics activities. I carried on working on pedestrian impact but with even more PhDs and research projects working also on occupant protection and airbag simulation. When I was invited to join a European consortium developing a project to improve helicopter safety, the Helisafe project,  using transferable automotive methodology I jumped at the chance and probably had the most enjoyable three years of my career working on that project.

The work on safety continues and has been picked up by my colleagues Christophe Bastien who is interested in human body modelling for vehicle occupants during a crash and Jesper Christensen who is developing structural optimisation algorithms to assist the design of safe light weight vehicles.

Can you say who your major clients are?

Over the years we have worked with major companies in both the automotive and aerospace sectors including JLR, Dunlop, Siemens, Airbus, Eurocopter and Agusta Westland.  On the safety side a consistent and major partner has been the Dutch company TNO Automotive Safety Solutions (TASS). We have collaborated with them now on PhD projects looking at pedestrian and occupant safety, airbag simulation and human body modelling.  My work with TASS formed the basis for a Case Study that was included in our recent REF submission for General Engineering. They were also one of our main partners on the Helisafe project. We are always developing new partners and at the moment are scoping a range of PhDs with MIRA around concepts such as a Virtual Proving Ground. Continental in Germany are also a company we are building links with and scoping a first PhD collaboration. They are a big player in the area of Active safety and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and are well known for the Conti-Guard System.

Do you just work with larger companies?

Not really. About 5 years ago I led the University as a partner in the Niche Vehicle Programme and had the chance to work with a range of small local vehicle manufacturers such as Westfield Sports Cars. I have also had collaborations in the past, mainly supporting through student projects, with companies of less than 5 employees. This can be quite rewarding when they are working on an innovative or breakthrough technology but don’t have the expertise or access to use the mainstream engineering design and analysis methodologies we have within the University. Problems can be quite diverse. An example is a PhD I supervised working with a small company that developed harnesses and safety systems for high rise construction workers. Following on from 9:11 they wanted to develop their products to develop systems that would allow occupants to escape from high buildings.

Where do you see the next challenges in Vehicle Dynamics and Safety?

I think that vehicle dynamics and electronic control will become inseparable as more and more use is made of automated systems to assist the driving task and intervene at a point where the driver may lose control or an accident is imminent. Full autonomous driving will be a goal over the next decade using a process of incrementally introducing partial autonomy to support the driving task. The work we are scoping with Continental is an example of this where we would like a PhD student to look at the development of systems for Road Departure Prevention (RDP). It is interesting that in Europe and in the US we have two different problems in this area. In Europe we have the problem that about 80% of road fatalities occur on country roads. These can typically be narrow with bends and poor conditions or poor driving can lead to loss of control. The US has a different problem with very long straight roads and drivers often undertaking much longer journeys than we do in the Europe. The lack of challenge or workload in the driving task can affect attention and drivers falling asleep is leads to an accident. The problem then is as the vehicle is about to depart the road the driver may wake, possibly alerted by a lane departure warning system, and on waking make such a violent steering correction that they invoke the evolution of a rollover event which is one of the worst ways to have an accident when departing the road. Our planned research with Continental will look at this area and the possibility for the vehicle to temporarily take over the authority of the steering system in these situations.

This week I have been running a NATO Advanced Study Institute in our Engineering and Computing Building where one of the topics has been to look at vehicle dynamics from a perspective of agility. There are a number of mathematical forms we might want to use to measure or predict this but nothing yet is definite. If I were to put it in words it would be the capability of a vehicle to manoeuvre advantageously or change its position in the shortest time and space. Some of the OEMS in the automotive industry are now looking at this in terms of active safety and the autonomous intervention a vehicle might make through steering, brake and throttle to avoid an accident or using a phrase I am now using make a “last ditch” intervention to try and prevent a fatality or mitigate injuries. As soon as you start discussing this in a wider group you realise that this problem is not just one for the engineers to solve. The whole thing sits within a much broader multi-disciplinary and even social landscape. Consider first who are you trying to protect is it the driver, the driver of other vehicles, passengers or vulnerable bystanders such as pedestrians and cyclists. At some time in the future all that information may be available for the algorithms in an on-board processor but there will be a range of associated legislative and ethical problems tied in. I don’t listen any more when people say the problem is so difficult to address that it will never happen. I heard that more than 15 years ago when I started working on pedestrian impact protection and it is now part of the mainstream vehicle design process covered by legislative and NCAP safety tests.

The main thing to note is that in the future these automotive transport related challenges will be truly multi-disciplinary and a vehicle dynamicist is likely to be working closely with other research specialist in areas including design, human factors, control and cyber security.

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