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Safety Sweep

Driving next to an 18-wheeler during a rainstorm last year, Kathryn Asad found herself in a dangerous situation. The rainwater sprayed up by the truck’s tires created a thick fog around her car, obscuring the road. She made it home safely but decided to figure out a way to minimize the risk.

Fortunately, Asad was in the perfect place to turn a challenging problem into an elegant solution. As a graduate student in industrial design at NC State, she’s immersed in a culture of “design thinking” – a process of taking simple ideas and moving them step-by-step to finished products.

Her innovative solution uses a vehicle’s compressor to feed a series of nozzles inside each wheel well. The nozzles blast jets of air onto the tires, creating an invisible curtain that dampens the spray of rainwater.

Her idea was smart enough to earn Asad first place in a student traffic safety contest at the New York International Auto Show this month.

“But when I went on stage to accept the award, they asked me not to mention the name of my school,” she said.

It turns out that the contest organizers were embarrassed that one university – NC State – had swept nearly every award in the competition, taking first, second, third and fifth place. Since the judging had been done “blind,” without the judges knowing the names or schools of the entrants, there was nothing sinister involved. Just skill.

Third place winner Lance Cassidy leveraged his undergraduate work in aerospace engineering to come up with a design for an external airbag. During an internship at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 2008, he got a firsthand look at the innovative airbags developed to protect the Mars Rover.

“I realized you could use the same technology on a car,” he said, especially by adding collision detection sensors.

“The point of contest is to push technology in ways engineers aren’t going to think of,” he added.

Fifth place winner Ali Sutton-Settemi also relied on a background in engineering to design a solar-powered mat that could be installed on bridges and roads to melt ice and snow.

“Engineers are very convergent thinkers. They have to bring all their ideas down to one equation or one solution,” she said. “Designers are divergent thinkers. We think of as many possibilities as possible, even if they’re crazy, to come up with something new. I still have my engineering hat, it’s just a smaller one than my design hat.”

The students’ professor in the College of Design, Bong il Jin, was delighted with the strong showing. Jin worked with the students as they developed their ideas for the contest, driving them in the direction he believed would impress the judges. This was the seventh time NC State had entered the contest.

“We’re always looking for something that nobody’s thought of before, something that will give us a chance,” he said. “Even though we won most of the awards this year, it’s still challenging.”

View the students’ designs:

  • First Place: Kathryn Asad – Curtair, a system to control the spray of rainwater from vehicle tires.
  • Second Place: Alex Bodnarchuk – Slipvision, a system that illuminates black ice so drivers can avoid the slippery patches.
  • Third Place: Lance Cassidy – External airbags, mounted on the front and sides of cars and activated by collision detection sensors.
  • Fifth Place: Ali Sutton-Settemi – Flexheat, a road surface system that uses solar energy to melt ice and snow.