UMTRI Feature: Paul Fancher

Please enjoy this featured legacy piece on Paul Fancher, senior research scientist emeritus, UMTRI Vehicle Systems and Control Group. Journalist Lou Fancher, Paul’s daughter, shares with us a unique perspective into one of the most prominent individuals in transportation research history.  Paul and his wife now live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Paul Fancher: A Backstory

When I was four years old, traveling in the mid-1960s in a Volkswagen van driven by my mother, Mary Fancher, and likely squabbling with my older sister, Janet, we were hit broadside by a dump truck. Mom tells me our VW rolled multiple times: her knee was shattered and face laced with glass shard cuts like a veil. Janet’s collarbone was broken and her head severely contused; my eye pierced by shattered glass; the van destroyed. What could have been a fatal vehicle accident, wasn’t; largely due to my father’s concerns about vehicle safety.

Years later as a professional journalist, I am alive to write this article—and my mom and sister to read it—because my dad, UMTRI Senior Research Scientist Emeritus Paul S. Fancher Jr., early on, recognized the importance of seatbelts. My mother drove a carpool of children to preschool several times a week. Combined with feeling a responsibility to protect his wife and four daughters from harm, the idea of other children riding pell mell in a vehicle prompted dad to put seatbelts in the van well before they were mandated by the government.

Perhaps dad’s early effort came as much from his interest in driver-vehicle-highway systems as it did from duty to family. Regardless, the result was that we always wore seatbelts, but also did more than our fair share of research during family vacations to visit his parents in Columbus, Ohio. Looping highway exits and cloverleafs multiple times—our moans and cries of, “Can’t we just go to the campground now!” notwithstanding—dad would “test” the infrastructure of Michigan and Ohio highways.

While politics and policies relating to highway safety and vehicles were important to his work, the central hub for him was always math and applying mathematical principles to projects undertaken with fellow engineers. He loved nothing more than solving a good story problem.  I’m sure it vexed him to have a daughter disinterested in the mathematical problem of Josie’s 5 colorful socks, 3 of them mismatched—how many and what colors will make complete pairs?—or what formula to use if Jack had 8 gallons of milk and needed 18. The mystery of how Josie and Jack got into these sock-milk predicaments held me spellbound; not so much my dad, who wanted only for me to do the numbers.

Paul Fancher: A Short Biography

To this day, Fancher is proud to have been an outfielder on Michigan’s 1953 NCAA Baseball Championship team, Big Ten Baseball’s first-ever national champions. After graduating in 1953 from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Engineering Mechanics, he served three years in the United States Army. In 1957, Fancher joined the Institute of Science and Technology as a research assistant. He received two Instrumentation degrees (M.S.E, 1959; Professional Degree, 1964) and joined UMTRI in 1969. Becoming UMTRI’s acting head of the Engineering Research Division in 1986, Fancher assumed leadership of the division from 1989 to his retirement in June 2000. Along the way, his early modeling and analysis of automobile and heavy truck control and safety standards expanded to include investigation of advanced technologies such as adaptive cruise control and collision warning applications. In 1997, Fancher was granted the highest national recognition established by Congress, the National Award for the Advancement of Motor Vehicle Research and Development.

During the 18 years after adding “emeritus” to his job title, Fancher maintained an office at UMTRI. He continued to be fascinated with analysis, simulation, component measurement and testing of road vehicles. He attended seminars, studied, consulted and wrote on the latest research on downhill braking, brake adjustment, headway control, long combination vehicles, rollover warnings, truck operating characteristics, and the safety implications of advanced technology and human factors in driving. In May 2019, he and his wife, also an UM alumna, moved from Ann Arbor to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 While politics and policies relating to highway safety and vehicles were important to his work, the central hub for Fancher was always math and applying mathematical principles to projects undertaken with fellow engineers. He loved nothing more than solving a good story problem.

Fancher was infinitely patient and persistent, characteristics appreciated and mentioned in separate phone and email interviews with three longtime colleagues.

“I can’t remember him ever getting angry. He was always even-tempered,” said Chris Winkler, Research Scientist Emeritus. They met in 1969, were co-workers for three decades, and shared an office in the years after Winkler retired in 2007.

Research Area Specialist Senior Steven Karamihas met Fancher at a group meeting in 1990. “I don’t know any other way to describe Paul than as a gentle man. He never showed any sign of being driven by ego, and was very patient in his efforts to help people like me learn about vehicle dynamics and control.” The two men often shared project updates during in-office lunchtimes. “Most of my interactions with Paul could be classified as ‘swimming in his wake,’” he recalled.

Research Professor Emeritus Robert Ervin encountered Fancher in 1969. It was his very first day at UMTRI and after working together for nearly forty years, he wrote in an email, “Among his professional strengths was the ability to bring a gifted, persistent, logical, mind to focus on a problem without irritation.  He could keep it up throughout a long and complex project, without ever threatening the team relationships with behavioral issues of his own.”

Of course, the not-so-silver-lining of Fancher’s dogged patience meant dialogue was occasionally less-than-engaging or swift. Conversations moved slowly as the dynamics in his gentle voice flattened. Decisions, declarations and opinions stalled indefinitely. “It was hard to get a conclusion from him, in any subject,” Winkler said. “He deliberates, deliberates and deliberates. But years ago, a colleague said something to me: Fancher doesn’t talk much, but when he gets around to saying something, you ought to listen.”

Ervin said, “He could classify and differentiate conceptual material—which was especially useful when the rest of us weren’t sure what we were talking about. Of course, sometimes, he would go so doggedly in some new, undeveloped direction that you had to blow the whistle on him. I don’t know whether that was a strength or a weakness. Sometimes, the pragmatic constraints of time and funding grated on Paul, but never to the point that he failed to carry off his assignments in a joint effort. You gotta love it: if he agreed to do it, Paul would get it done.”

Ervin’s appreciation for this doggedness explains the pain he was willing to endure. “I loved going down the hall to sit in that cheap little, unpadded chair by the door in Paul’s office. Paul was always working attentively at his big table, facing toward his window, but he would always turn around graciously at my interruption and seem happy to see me. After what was often an hour of discussion on some work-pertinent subject, I couldn’t stand the chair any longer and would leave, usually quite satisfied that the conversation with Paul was worth the pain of that chair.”

Most rewarding for people who valued Fancher’s extended vision was the research he did that meant the team achieved critical goals and the industry advanced. Among the highlights, Winkler points to Fancher’s research leading to greater understanding of the mechanics of heavy truck rollover. “A rollover; it’s a vicious accident. The details of it were not understood: how to mitigate it, especially. He led most of the activity that led to a thorough understanding of the mechanics. The feds appreciated it in their rule-making books and the manufacturers appreciated it in their ability to reduce the problem in manufacturing design. Paul was important in the modeling. He was most important in developing tire models.”

Karamihas said Fancher’s modeling and analysis in heavy truck braking systems had direct effect on NHTSA’s truck brake regulations and Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Association (MVMA) safety regulations. A photo of Fancher in “nifty plaid pants,” posing in front of a massive, complicate network of electrical circuits—at the time, the analog solution necessary to create computer simulations of articulated heavy trucks in action—brought back memories. “This was a huge milestone in heavy vehicle dynamics research, and enabled analysis of truck handling that was not really possible yet. That yielded important results even back then, and was the first step in the development of the incredible simulation capability we have now.” In more recent years, Karamihas said Fancher’s work beginning in 1990 on “Intelligent Cruise Control” established safety features used in cars today. “Paul’s work made important contributions toward introducing (adaptive technologies) safely.”

It’s no surprise that Ervin highlights Fancher’s early mastery of mathematical modeling of the pneumatic tire. His modeled truck braking—in which tires played a major role—predicted the stopping behavior of heavy-duty trucks. “This became an urgent issue in the 70’s when the federal government pressed the truck-makers to achieve much higher levels of braking performance,” Ervin said. Touching on recent impact Fancher had in the field, he added, “Paul was the first to model the longitudinal separation between vehicles using the so-called Range/Range-Rate diagram. A great host of insights emerged from this work that helped pave the way for the study of modern crash-avoidance systems and adaptive cruise control.”

Paul Fancher: Personal Perspectives

Asked what they will think of first when the name “Paul Fancher” is heard or thoughts of him surface, Winkler says it will be the conferences they attended overseas. Teaching courses, visiting restaurants and exploring sites in Europe, Winkler and his wife, Noel Winkler, found Fancher and his wife to be “good fun.” An Ann Arbor-based memory about dad, a paper packrat at home and at work, is both fun and funny. “Every so often, someone would have us go into the storage area at UMTRI and toss out old paperwork,” Winkler said. “Paul never let them throw away anything. Early on, everything was written up on paper. When computers came out, it didn’t make sense to keep them anymore, but he always did.”

Kamarihas remembers a spelling error in a list of required specifications for members of a team. Meant to be “vehicle dynamicist,” the job title labeled dad as “the last vehicle dynamistic.”  Because Fancher was always curious about the way people approach research questions, the way research is completed, which key questions are involved, and how the work ultimately fits into the broader world around us, he says the misspelled title is grand, apt and unforgettably linked to his definition of Fancher.

Ervin’s favorite memories are surprisingly personal, often puzzling with Fancher over faith, reason, the Universe, the meaning of human life, as well as issues raised in a copy of Pope John Paul II’s document on Faith and Reason because they confirmed a mutual interest in ideas grand and worthy. “I always admired Paul and, in personal moments like this, could easily glimpse the marvelous heart that underlay his fine mind.”

On a lighter note, he like Winkler, holds as special a memory from a trip to teach a course in Europe. “Late one afternoon outside of Oberpfaffenhoffen, Germany, Paul and I walked about a mile following a ridiculously-tiny taxi that crept along ahead of us, down a winding rural road. Our two wives were in the taxi. There wasn’t room for us to ride in the taxi because we’d consumed all the left-over volume with luggage. It was a moment of hilarious camaraderie, perhaps 20 years into the 36-year stretch of enjoying one another as great co-workers. Being together…that was the heart of it.”

Paul Fancher: Family Legacy

And so, it is for this daughter and my sisters, Katie Enggass, Janet Fancher and Becky Lentz. My dad was a guy who loved math and loved going to work. He taught me to tell time, ride a bike, shoot hoops, throw footballs properly and to love thinking. Dad didn’t model truck braking systems at home: he and my mother modeled curiosity, enthusiasm for learning, sticking to a task, and pursuing avocations, not just vocations. Uniquely, Dad did most things with infinite patience and without anger.

Paul’s work and legacy were about improving and saving lives.  Dad wasn’t perfect: he could ponder a problem and come up with ten ways of solving it, but maddeningly, rarely choose which was best. But he did choose one time—putting seatbelts in a VW van—and that is why I am privileged and honored to write about Paul Fancher.