3D or NOT 3D? THAT is the Question!

by Brian McHenry, originally 2009, some minor updates 2020


Today, on a PC or MAC laptop or desktop, anyone can easily and affordably make 3-Dimensional animations which can rival Hollywood’s best.  See Lightwave for THE state-of-the art animation software all for less than $2500. And with this newfound capability, it is very easy to make anything imagined look very realistic. 

For example, a sample application which is included with the Lightwave animation program is how to make a cow fly! By following the example, anyone can create an animation of a cow flying. And very quickly and easily someone could create a very realistic animation such that upon viewing the animation you might believe that cows do indeed fly!  So now let’s say there is a court hearing to determine whether cow’s fly. And at the court, an expert with an advanced degree from an esteemed university and years of experience testifies that ‘cows can fly!’ and as part of the testimony the expert offers a video to prove it! Well everyone know that cows don’t fly, yet, when the expert, impressive in his academic credentials,counters that argument and supplements it with a realistic animation of a cow flying, the jury may be swayed to believe something that is obviously not true.

(Here’s a link to a video ad for Time Warner Cable. It includes images of realistic looking Pigs flying! The above example included with Lightwave software could have been for flying pigs!)

In consideration of the extreme example you might be able to begin to understand the problems which can occur with improper application of animation and/or simulations.

In the field of crash reconstruction there is an increasing use (and abuse) of animation techniques for demonstrative evidence purposes. So you may find yourself, either as an expert or attorney, being faced with a reconstruction which is supplemented with a 3-Dimensional realistic looking animation. How are you to determine whether the fancy looking video is actually based on a scientific analysis or simply an animation? You need all files in electronic form so you can verify that with the simulation program the expert used you get the same results. It also allows you to test sensitivities of the analysis.

This page and links are being created to assist interested parties in evaluation of the existing “3-Dimensional” software. With this page we will explain the origins, capabilities and limitations of programs which are available which claim ‘3-D’ analysis and/or simulation’.


PC-CRASH is a momentum based collision reconstruction program.


Engineering Dynamics Corp (EDC) markets a ‘3-D Reconstruction and Simulation’ package. They originally marketed the product as a ‘value-added ‘SGI graphics hardware and software package. SGI is Silicon Graphics which was an industry leader in 3-D computer graphics and which required a dedicated graphics systems. With the advent of Pentium PC’s, the need for SGI workstations diminished (for example Light wave for the PC provides a low-cost state-of-the art capability all for less than $2500).  In 2001, EDC began marketing a Windows based version of their HVE.

2020 NOTE: Longtime user and supporter of HVE, Anthony D. Cornetto, III, took over ongoing development, distribution, and support of HVE.

The HVE has the following components:

    • HVE SMAC = EDSMAC = NHTSA SMAC, circa 1974, (see SAE paper 97-0947 and SMAC-type programs for some related discussion.) EDC also refers to their use of EDSMAC in the HVE environment as ‘2.5-D’ because the vehicles can ‘drive on and respond to 3-D surfaces’ however they ‘do not include degrees of freedom for roll, pitch or Z’. 
    • EDSMAC4 – EDC claims “more realistic modeling of actual vehicle structural behavior” based on “an A, B stiffness model”?! The “A, B stiffness model” is a “virtual”model equating residual crush to dissipated kinetic energy. The “A, B stiffness model” is not a dynamic model. EDC also mentions that their new model requires a “threshold force to be applied before deformation begins”. How is there a force with no deformation? There may be a force without leaving any residual deformation, but there is dynamic deformation. For additional information on EDSMAC4 please see our recent  SAE TOPTEC presentation. Please also see our paper Effects of Restitution in the Application of Crush Coefficients, SAE Paper 97-0960 for proposed refinements to the CRASH and SMAC collision models
    • EDVSM = (a subset of) HVOSM 1976 VD2, (see our discussion on HVOSM for references to some extensive research and development that has been performed in the past 20 years on HVOSM, most of which is not included in the EDVSM.).
    • PHASE4 – The Transportation Research Institute (formerly the Highway Safety Research Institute) of the University of Michigan (UMTRI) conducted research under the sponsorship of the MVMA and the FHWA to develop a means of predicting and evaluating the directional response characteristics of trucks, tractor-semi trailers,tractor-trailers and triples.  In 1980, UMTRI released the PHASE4 program which constitutes a compilation and consolidation of nearly a decade of development of the existing models into a single program. The PHASE4 program includes small angle assumptions. The use of ‘small angle assumptions‘ is a process for simulation models wherein many equations can be simplified and/or eliminated by the assumption that the program will remain in small angles (angles smaller than 10-15 degrees, wherein the angle in radians can be used to roughly approximate the trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, etc.)). EDC incorporated PHASE4 into the HVE and in a SAE paper 1999-01-0103 they announced (on page 4) that “The equations of motion were rewritten and extended to allow complete 3-dimensionalmotion. The small angle assumption was eliminated“. They have provided no other documentation of the procedure they used to ‘rewrite and extend’ the PHASE4 program to eliminate the small angle assumptions (one has to wonder if it was so simple why did UMTRI use small angle assumptions?!!) Obviously any analyses wherein the HVE PHASE4 is used should to be carefully evaluated.
    • GATB – They have added a version of ATB to the HVE environment. For information on limitations of ATB and any occupant simulation models, please see Occupant Kinematics in Forensics: Evaluating an ATB Application
    • SIMON – Apparently in a an attempt to establish a single package encompassing all the elements of the HVE, EDC now has merged all the various programs into a single package called SIMON. An unfortunate side effect of the new marketing strategy is that it will further blur and obscure  the path for their users to the origins, documentation and validations of the various programs they repackage and market.
    • EDGEN – The HVE also includes EDGEN,a ‘3-Dimensional kinematics spreadsheet’ which provides the ability to graphically use spline fits to arbitrarily change the movement of any vehicle being ‘simulated’. This means that any ‘simulation’ and ‘animation’ created with HVE or SIMON may also include arbitrary changes in the simulated movements and/or arbitrary changes added onto the simulated movements (e.g., for most vehicle rollovers, most or all of the rollover event will probably be created with the SPINE FIT option. Therefore a careful analysis of any animation created with HVE or SIMON should include the determination of whether EDGEN was used.
    • Cost: The HVE and/or SIMON system costs between ~$3000 (2-D) up to~$20,000, depending on options, etc.

m-smac3D =McHenry Simulation Model of Automobile Collisions 3Dimentions

The msmac3D program represents a combination of research performed by Raymond R and Brian G McHenry for over 50 years all of which is included in the msmac3D program, please see the following:

WHAT YOU NEED to Evaluate an 3-D Reconstruction/Animation.

If you are faced with someone using one of these tools (or others), what do you need to evaluate what they have done? These programs cost from ~$3000 up to~$20,000, so to facilitate the evaluation of an application of any of these programs, you need to obtain complete documentation of the analysis procedure.

  • Request complete inputs and outputs for any and all computer programs used
    • Printed and in computer form (CD or diskette).
      • Printed output pages can be saved as text files and copied to a CD to save paper
    • IMPORTANT: Request input files in electronic form so the program can be obtained and the inputs loaded and the program rerun to verify results and test sensitivities.
      • Today with cloud scanning of scenes a reconstruction (by Leica, Trimble and/or Faro) can include gigabytes of information about the crash scene and vehicles which are NOT included in any printout (or if it is they will be thousands of pages of unintelligible numbers)…not quite full disclosure of inputs.
      • This is WHY full input file in electronic form MUST be required.
    • Most of the programs include options for outputs.
      • The outputs should be set with ALL OPTIONS ON to obtain all the outputs and time history data, etc.
    • Request the program version, an indication of any add-ons or options used, etc.
    • If a video created, request all the files used to create the video:
      • CAD files, Animation files, spreadsheet files, any and all notes, etc.
    • Cloud files:
      • For a simulation program to see a surface scanned with a cloud scanner, the cloud scan must be imported into the simulation program.
      • Therefore both the cloud scan file(s) and the simulation input file(s) must be provided so they can be examined to determine if the cloud file was properly transformed and imported into the simulation programs.
  • Some papers and links written on the subject:
    • SAE paper number 1999-01-0101Computer Generated Trial Exhibits: A Post- Daubert Update
    • SAE paper number 940920 “Case Studies in Animation Foundation”
    • SAE paper number 980018, “Documenting Scientific Visualizations and Computer Animations used in Collision Reconstruction Presentations  which includes as the Summary: SAE papers can be ordered online at the SAE website: www.sae.org
      • “This paper has presented a proposed standard for documenting computer generated images, animations, scientific visualizations, etc. The basic standard is that any still images or videos should be documented such that any qualified analyst can reproduce them. This is the requirement for the scientific community in general and should be adopted in the crash reconstruction community. It is important to note that this standard does not refer to any method of generating these images or videos. There is no implication that any one method or any one program is superior to others. This standard addresses only the images and videos and does not address the analysis or opinions being expressed by analyst. However, the only way to fully understand the analysis being presented or discussed is to have the ability to duplicate the images or video being presented”

We also provide consultation services for evaluation of the application of computer programs to crash reconstruction. For information, see  the McHenry Consultants website.