Why "Smash Lab" Sucks and Should Be Cancelled

I'm just sitting here watching the last episode of "Smash Lab" I'll ever watch, seeing a group of four actors who pretend to be experts trying to duct tape a freaking air bag on the front of a train in order to protect a stalled car in the crossing.

This is a laudable goal. Each of the episodes I've seen have had a nice goal. One time they were protecting a building from explosions, another had them wrapping a mobile home in carbon fiber to protect it from hurricanes, and finally they had an attempt to convert airport arrestor beds made of "aerated concrete" to highway use. The problem I have with this show is that in each case, the "experts" don't actually solve the problem. Is that possible on an hour long show? I don't know, but surely they could come closer than they are.

For example in this episode the idea is to protect the occupants of a car that has stalled in a railroad crossing. Setting aside the fact that the occupants could likely get out of the damn car when they see the train coming at them, the "Smash Lab Experts" actually have a decent idea for solving this: Put an airbag on the front of the locomotive so the force of the train is reduced.

Of course, when they look at the high speed film to see the effects of a locomotive/car collision, they don't notice that the road bed of the crossing is at least four inches higher than the railroad tracks. Or that the car, when hit, tends to get "pinned down" because the tires are digging into the gravel and dirt of the railroad track bed after dropping the four or so inches between the road and the track bed. And they overlooked one other important historical detail: Trains have been hitting things ever since they were first introduced.

Things like, oh I don't know, cattle.

Thus the creation and installation of the "cow catcher" on older steam locomotives. A contraption that looks something like a skeletal snowplow that was bolted or welded onto the front of the locomotive to prevent it from being derailed. See the shallow angle of the catcher would lift the cow up and push it to the side of the train track. Why? Well for this reason:

On a road locomotive, the pilot [cow catcher] has to successfully deflect an obstacle hit at speed; the ideal is to push it upwards and sideways out of the way. The locomotive should not lift on impact or the train will follow, and the ideal is for a fairly smooth structure so that the locomotive will not get caught and pulled sideways off the track either.
But the "Smash Lab Experts" apparently have no research staff to inform them of this before they install the airbag to the front of the locomotive.

The airbag is installed on a flat plate, which is in turn attached to a pivot point that allows the airbag to swing to the right or left of the locomotive's direction of travel. So basically it's a bulldozer blade with an unrestrained pivot point. Sort of like a capital "T" with the pivot located at the top of the stem. Got that image? Good. This is what the "Smash Lab Team" has brought together and welded to the front of a locomotive.

Why is this a problem? Well, remember how I mentioned the four inch drop between the road and the train tracks? It seems that with the little drop the car's center of gravity lowers, and all that force gets applied to the top of the car, with the wheels and tires digging into the track bed, pushes the car down into the ground at a five degree angle. And since the car isn't lifted out of the way by anything, it just gets pushed along by the massive force generated by the locomotive's motion. The pivot point doesn't do anything except allow the train to disperse more of its force along the entire length of the car. It looks like a beer can after a heavyweight boxer punches it.

Interestingly it looks like the car would stand a better chance of survival if it was instead lifted up and swept aside, off of the tracks completely. If only there was a bulldozer blade we could put on the front of the locomotive. Of course it would have to be at a shallow angle to actually get under the car and lift it. And the blade probably should be fixed at an angle instead of mounted on a pivot point, so that the blade wouldn't twist and allow the train's energy to hit the car. Oh, and if we made the blade out of a series of flattened out bars, like say a chef's fish turner, the bars would absorb some of the crash energy, AND give us a nice place to position our airbags.

Oh. Wait a minute. I just invented a cow catcher with a bunch of airbags in it. Whoopie!

The part I find most embarassing for the "Smash Lab Team" on this episode comes at the very end when the "idea guy" says "The technology's all there, but the engineering needs work."

Apparently no one told him that the work has already been done -- in the 1850's.

Maybe It's A Fluke

And the other episodes are no better. My personal favorite is the one where the team wants to use aerated concrete arrestor beds from airport runways in highways to prevent cars from going left of center. So one team goes off and creates a Jersey barrier with this aerated concrete in front of it to absorb force, and the other team goes off and creates an arrestor bed that will fit in a highway.

Well, the Jersey barrier modification fails because the concrete turns to powder when it gets hit and forms a ramp up and OVER the barrier. So the first team created a new stunt ramp. Good work boys!

The team that built the arrestor bed overlooked a few minor details when implementing their idea. Little things, really, like the fact that passenger jets are around 300 times heavier than your average sedan, and they have nose wheels that take a lot more force than the front wheels of a car. In fact, that nose gear was slicing through the arrestor bed concrete like a knife through butter. So maybe you need a lot of force in a really small area for this idea to work. Ultimately the arrestor bed the second team creates is also useless; it doesn't even slow down a car or bus.

But what's really irritating me about this is that Ohio has long had a solution to this problem that's cheaper and works pretty well: In between the lanes of traffic on the highway is about thirty or forty feet of grass arranged in a V shape. So if your car goes into the median strip, you get caught in a drainage ditch before you cross into oncoming traffic. You're dazed and confused and your car needs work, but you haven't hurt anyone else.

Dear Discovery Channel, I understand that you want to capitalize on the popularity of MythBusters by adding more scientific and engineering based programs to your lineup. But when I can sit down and in five minutes destroy the main premise of the episode and spot obvious flaws in the experiments put together by your "experts", it's time to cancel the program. I mean I'm not a scientist or engineer, just a guy who knows how to think logically.