Carnegie Mellon University
June 16, 2014

New Age Transportation

New Age Transportation
Transportation is on the verge of major changes. Someday soon, we may be able to simply relax and let our cars take care of the majority of driving and navigation.  Because these developments require careful planning, researchers like CEE/EPP Duquesne Light University Professor Chris Hendrickson are investigating potential improvements to current transportation policies and the potential implications of new vehicle technologies.

Hendrickson is a part of Technologies for Safe and Efficient Transportation, a U.S. DOT University Transportation Center (UTC) housed at Carnegie Mellon University. The center’s other CMU members are faculty from CEE, Heinz College, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Robotics, and Computer Science. They work alongside researchers from the University of Pennsylvania to develop and investigate technologies in a myriad of transportation domains. One of Hendrickson’s current projects involves evaluating the effectiveness of Pennsylvania’s vehicle safety inspection program as well as implications of the introduction of connected and automated vehicles. 

With funding from the UTC and the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance (PITA) program, Hendrickson, CEE /EPP Professor H. Scott Matthews, and EPP Professor Paul Fischbeck are examining whether yearly safety inspections actually help to reduce accidents.  To do this, they’re first comparing Pennsylvania’s safety statistics to those from states that don’t have an inspection program.  They’re also using data from accident reports to determine whether inspections really target the components of vehicles that are likely to fail during accidents.  

Another major piece of Hendrickson’s work involves studying the logistics and implications of autonomous and connected vehicles alongside Heinz Distinguished Service Professor of Transportation Systems and Policy Allen Biehler.  Autonomous vehicles are those that can drive themselves, while connected vehicles are those can communicate to traffic signals and other cars by sending electronic messages.  Hendrickson explains, “A connected car may send a signal to other cars warning them about a dangerous patch of pavement that’s coming up.” Vehicles can be autonomous, connected, or some combination of the two.

Funded by The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot), Hendrickson’s research is investigating several aspects of these technologies, one of which is the types of messages that connected vehicles should send and receive.  “For example, in 15-20 years, you might get a message on a screen in your car saying ‘congestion ahead,’ instead of seeing a sign on the highway,“ he says. Unlike typical highway signs, car screens wouldn’t have space constraints, allowing drivers to receive more detailed information.  And because maintaining large signboards is expensive, connected vehicle communication could translate into substantial savings. 

More efficient highway messages aren’t the only way new vehicle technology could be cost-efficient.  With MechE/EPP Associate Professor Jeremy Michalek and CEE Assistant Professor Costa Samaras, Hendrickson also worked on a Toyota-funded project that estimated the energy savings associated with vehicle automation. Highly automated vehicles use less gas by driving more efficiently— reducing unnecessary idling, stopping, and starting.  Additional savings can come from vehicle platooning, which is when a group of connected and autonomous vehicles drive close together on the road, one after the other. 

“Usually when you drive, you don’t know what the car in front of you is going to be doing, so you leave a lot of space.  That’s not necessary when all of the vehicles are communicating with each other,” Hendrickson says. The closeness of connected and automated vehicles creates less drag, reducing the amount of gas necessary to push the cars forward. It also means that many more cars can fit on the road at one time, which could help to reduce congestion during peak driving hours.

“This technology is going to transform how transportation works,” says Hendrickson. “Aside from congestion, it has the capability to reduce crashes and improve safety.  It will take about three decades to make the whole shift, but transportation is going to be much different in the future than it has been for the last 100-120 years.”  

Harper Looks to Improve Training

Corey HarperHendrickon’s current PhD student Corey Harper (CEE’14), has been doing additional research that will help PennDOT to prepare for automated vehicle technology.  One line of his work involves assessing the technology’s impacts on automotive technician training programs in the Pittsburgh area.  Harper says that he developed research-based recommendations for PennDOT suggesting that trade schools and community colleges incorporate more computer science and electronics classes into their curricula. This will be useful for technicians when they do maintenance on the new, computer-driven vehicles. 

Harper hopes to continue studying autonomous vehicle technology with Hendrickson and co-advisor CEE Assistant Professor Costa Samaras next year.  “I think this is a promising technology in the future of transportation,” he says.  “This will be a good opportunity to help understand the impacts of this technology be before it actually hits the road.”

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