Kettering University students help design device aimed at preventing rear-impact crashes

The students set out to create and series of lights to go on the back of a vehicle to signal when it’s accelerating, stopping gradually or stopping abruptly and how quickly.

For a group of engineering students at Kettering University, their senior capstone project ended up being much more than just a project for a grade.

The project taught teamwork, multidisciplinary collaboration and professional skills not just for the University or their professor but for an entrepreneur who seeking help for a project he hopes to launch. It took the students from the creative stage, through the design process to a finished product in an environment just like they would find in an engineering career.

“They’ve managed a complete program from beginning to end. That’s huge. This is incredible,” said Dr. Mark Thompson, Electrical Engineering faculty member, who led the capstone class. “They’re learning everything they need to know to become productive engineers and move on in their careers.”

The project is called Speedlight. It was the vision laid out by Dr. Edward Sekol, a chiropractor and entrepreneur from Traverse City looking to reduce the number and severity of rear-end automobile collisions.

The Speedlight is a speedometer and accelerometer gauge that mounts on the rear of a vehicle. Sekol envisioned an easy to “read” horizontal display of red and amber LED lights that could provide more information to following traffic than merely brake lights flashing on and off. The illumination pattern of the LEDs would be natural and intuitive and could be interpreted instantaneously by a driver behind.

After speaking with Thompson, they enlisted the Kettering seniors to create a prototype of Sekol’s vision as part of their Senior Electrical Engineering Design Project.

“One definition of an engineer is someone who solves problems that you didn’t know you had in ways you don’t understand,” Thompson said. “This project defines that.”

The Speedlight speedometer is much more complex and complicated than the students may have originally thought, Thompson said. The 23 students in the capstone class were split into three groups, each with specialties: Vehicle Data Network Communications, Microelectronic Control Unit Group and Power Electronic, LED and Packaging.

The students set out to create and series of lights to go on the back of a vehicle to signal when it’s accelerating, stopping gradually or stopping abruptly and how quickly. This would allow drivers traveling behind the vehicle to be more prepared on how they should react. That called for a lot of data collection and a way for the data to be communicated in a way that would send the correct signals to the Speedlight.

The device has 49 high-intensity LED lights. And it’s much more complex than just turning the light on and off, Thompson said. Each one needs its own constant power supply.

The three groups collaborated back and forth to create the electronic chip to run the system, the build the board and make it aesthetically pleasing to look at and to create the written aspects, including the operator’s manual, among other things. On Friday, Decemb 18, 2015, the team presented their prototype to Sekol.  

“None of them are standing alone,” Thompson said. “They solved their problems and stayed in communication with each other. The learning objectives are broad. They take away from the project that they can integrate their core knowledge that they’ve learned over the years and apply that core knowledge to the design process to create a complete system.”

The students really had to learn to work together. If one part of the project wasn’t working, the overall product could not be complete.

Brendan West ‘16 said the project was an interesting concept and it was a great learning experience for him and the team.

“The possibility that one day this could be seen in the real world is definitely exciting,” said West, a Computer Engineering and Electrical Engineering major. “It really reflected the work experience we get at Kettering. It was a lot of the same dynamics as the real world.”

West, who was the lead programmer, helped with coding for the prototype. While working in the group setting, West said he learned some valuable skills.

“You learn to break up the work load. With seven or eight people in each group, who would work on what and how would we get it done in an efficient manner? We also learned that as in everything in life you don’t get it right on the first try,” West said. “My favorite part was tweaking and figuring out what’s most efficient way to make it work.”

Students also got leadership experience in this capstone project. Brad Grabow ‘16 was in charge of managing the LED and Packaging group.

“I like that the project is very realistic. It’s very similar to what you would have in a normal engineering environment,” said Grabow, an Electrical Engineering major. “The leadership experience is the biggest thing I learned. I’m used to being on the engineer’s side; listening to instructions and customer requests without issuing them myself. It’s more different when leading a group of individuals. You want to handle things yourself but must learn to delegate because there’s too much for one person to do.”

It wasn’t just the leadership, the students learned the whole package, Thompson said, including how to properly communicate with each other and others about the product and why it’s important.

“It was cool to see the full process. We started with a patent and a meeting with Dr. Sekol to see what his vision was. It went from that to the full product,” said Rachel deJong ‘16, adding that having a diverse group really was key. “Even if you needed expertise you didn’t have, you had someone else that could lead the way.”