A University of Nebraska–Lincoln engineer has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors.
Ronald Faller, Willa Cather Research Professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, was selected as an NAI fellow, an honor that highlights inventors with a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have tangibly impacted quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.
There are more than 1,000 NAI fellows overall, representing research universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutions.
For more than 35 years, Faller has played a key role in developing numerous roadside safety technologies and innovative safety features that have been deployed nationally and globally, saving the lives of motorists around the world. His work has been widely published in prestigious journals, and he holds eight U.S. patents and three foreign patents.
“I love what I get to do, solving problems and creating solutions to real-world problems that we get to see implemented on local, regional, national and even international roadways and highways,” Faller said. “This is a prestigious honor, and for me to sit in the company of people like Nebraska’s Prem Paul, John Woollam, Shane Farritor, Bob Wilhelm and many others is pretty amazing.”
One of Faller’s major accomplishments, and one of which he is most proud, is the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility team’s development of the Midwest Guardrail System, a type of W-beam guardrail — the major type of beam barrier used on U.S. highways. The system has redefined the industry by increasing the guardrail height to 31 inches, which is better suited for newer, higher center-of-mass vehicles. Recommended by the Federal Highway Administration, the system is recognized as the standard W-beam guardrail in almost all 50 states, with roughly 40,000 miles installed nationwide. It is estimated to save more than 100 lives annually.
Faller also played a significant role in developing the Steel and Foam Energy Reduction, or SAFER, Barrier, which reduces impact severity on high-speed racetracks. More than 30 miles of SAFER Barrier has been installed on oval NASCAR and IndyCar tracks and at international locations. Since installation, there have been no driver fatalities at NASCAR or IndyCar events resulting from racecars hitting a retaining wall, and injuries have been less severe.
Faller is a leader in forging product collaborations between the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility, industry and government — a key driver of job creation and economic development. In partnership with TrafFix Devices LLC, his team developed the Delta crash cushion, a next-generation steel barrier featuring innovative side panels that absorb a vehicle’s impact energy.
Faller also licensed technology to Acrylite/Roehm-America for the Soundstop system, a technology for elevated roadways and bridges that offers motorists impact resistance, reduced traffic noise and unobstructed views of the road. The system has been installed in more than 100 locations in North America. More recently, Faller has refocused on an area he first started exploring in 1988: developing timber-related aesthetic solutions for bridges and bridge rails in national parks and forests across the U.S. He’s re-examining his early work to help sponsors meet new crashworthiness standards in a visually appealing manner.
Faller has served as a dedicated mentor, training hundreds of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers. Many of his mentees have accepted prestigious positions around the country, and a significant number have also stayed at the university, helping Faller’s team continue its momentum.
For Faller, the NAI honor is yet another accolade in his long career at Nebraska, which started in 1982 when he arrived as an undergraduate engineering student. While working toward his graduate degrees at the university, he joined the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility in 1987 and has been there since.
He’s received 18 Best Paper Awards from the Transportation Research Board and received its Kenneth A. Stonex Roadside Safety Award in 2020, honoring his lifetime contributions to roadside safety. In 2021, Faller received the Prem S. Paul Innovator of the Year Award and the Delta crash cushion received the Breakthrough Innovation of the Year Award, both from NUtech Ventures. And Faller said he still has more to give to his field.
“We’re not done yet,” Faller said. “Awards are nice for the recognition of the team, but I’m driven by the process of creativity and developing solutions that get implemented. That’s what’s on my mind — continuing to push forward on bigger and better things.”
Faller is among 169 fellows named by the NAI this year, who will be inducted on June 27, 2023, during a ceremony at the NAI annual meeting in Washington, D.C.