- Alaina Gassler, a 14-year-old from Pennsylvania, engineered a new fix for car blind spots during a science competition in the eighth grade.
- After beating out 80,000 other competitors in a nationwide science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competition, Gassler took home a grand prize of $25,000.
- Gassler's invention more or less makes the front pillars in a vehicle "invisible" so that drivers can see what's in their blind spots.
Over 840,000 of the car crashes that occur on U.S. roadways each year can be traced back to a problem area all drivers can relate to: the blind spots caused by the A-pillars of the vehicle's structure.
Despite more than a century of the constantly improving automobile, there's still no perfect fix for blind spots that the auto industry has uniformly accepted. But that might be about to change thanks to a solution from an unlikely engineering hero who can't even drive.
Alaina Gassler, 14, of West Grove, Pennsylvania, has designed a technology that makes the A-pillars of a car "see-through" by using projectors that cast images of what's really behind them onto their surfaces.
It's not just a fix for the rear blind spots, but also a solution for the front. If a pedestrian is crossing the street in front of your vehicle, for example, Gassler's invention makes it so that you can see live footage of the person crossing the street through the A-pillar with cameras, making them sort of "ghost pillars," she tells Popular Mechanics.
Gassler, who engineered the projector-based technology as part of the Society for Science and the Public’s Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars) science and engineering competition, took home a grand prize of $25,000 for her invention, which she completed while in eighth grade.
Gassler says it usually takes her a while to find an inspiration for science fair projects each year, but this idea came to her organically when her grandmother scraped the paint from the side of her car after hitting a pole that was in her blind spot.
“I wanted to find a way to get rid of them," Gassler says. "And my older brother, Carter, just started to drive, so it was a big safety concern."
Newer vehicles do have blind-spot monitors that show a yellow or orange blip in the side mirrors when a car enters that no-man's-land, but drivers can still miss objects in their blind spots up front if the A-pillars that support the windshield are especially thick.
Since Gassler couldn't just get rid of those pillars, as they're key to the structural integrity of the vehicle and provide protection in the event of a rollover accident, she decided to make them "invisible," in a sense, by using an internal roof-mounted projector that can show live images of what's being blocked by the pillars.
"The camera is mounted on the outside of the A-pillar, records what’s behind it, sends that video feed to a projector that's over the driver’s head, and projects it onto the pillar," Gassler explains.
The projector is just part of her initial prototype to prove out her concept, says Gassler. The next iteration of her blind spot invention will utilize liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors that are the same quality used in some televisions. Gassler says this will allow the brightness to change according to the weather and time of day.
Gassler says she couldn't use those right away because it's costly to create LCD screens that are bent to fit the curved A-pillars in cars. Now, with her winnings, she can make that improvement.
To protect her idea, Gassler and her father did an initial patent search and found a few other inventions similar to hers that mention in-car displays. However, they're all nearly a decade old, she says, and have never been used. She hopes to acquire those patents or find a unique enough angle for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to issue her a patent.
The Broadcom MASTERS competition that Gassler won is a middle school competition put on by the Society for Science & the Public. Maya Ajmera, that organization's president and CEO, tells Popular Mechanics 80,000 middle schoolers across the U.S. start out in the competition across 300 affiliated science fairs. Just 10 percent of the participants are nominated by judges to compete in Washington, D.C., and 2500 end up participating, on average.
This year, all major awards in the competition went to girls, including Gassler.
"I’m really happy I got to be a part of that," she says. "I saw that a bunch of little kids from my school came up to me and said congratulations and a bunch were little girls that looked happy about it."
Gassler hopes to eventually sell her idea rather than start her own company.
“Tesla is always looking for the future in their cars and I feel like my project would be something they’d be interested in," she says.
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