Carnegie Mellon University
November 14, 2016

Harper Studies Vehicle Automation with the NHTSA

Harper Studies Vehicle Automation with the NHTSA Magna International is among North America's largest automobile parts manufacturers and suppliers. Audi, of course, is a popular German manufacturer of luxury vehicles. They are multi-million dollar corporations, and this summer, CEE PhD student Corey Harper advised them both.

Working alongside some of the nation’s top safety researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Harper spent over two months during summer 2016 as a Vehicle Safety Research intern in Washington, DC. There, he had the opportunity to offer guidance on product development and safety standards to these and other well-known organizations.

“The internship allowed me to connect things I learned in the lab and the classroom to a professional setting,” he reflects. “It also assisted me in learning the thinking process and objectives of the USDOT [US Department of Transportation] from a safety perspective.”

Harper spent much of his time as an intern reviewing and providing feedback on Statements of Work (SOWs). Though he’d never reviewed an SOW before, Harper found them similar to research proposals, with which he was more familiar. “Basically, each Statement of Work identifies an issue, lists questions to be answered, and presents a plan on how to address those questions,” he says.

For the most part, his work focused on vehicle automation. Functional safety—related to identifying and mitigating risk around how a vehicle reacts to equipment failures, operator mistakes, and other inputs—was another common topic. For example, Harper reviewed one SOW for a study on vehicles with Limited Self-Driving Automation or Level 3 automation.

In these automated vehicles, the control switches between the vehicle and the driver based on traffic or environmental conditions. “At Level 3 vehicle automation, the driver is expected to be available for occasional control,” explains Harper. “With this particular study, the goal was to see how varying levels of vehicle error might impact a driver’s behavior.”

At the NHTSA, Harper also studied the cost and feasibility of equipping personal vehicles with adaptive equipment, like wheelchairs lifts and ramps. Such modifications can range from $10,000 to $20,000 and help individuals with disabilities travel easier and safer.

For this project, Harper drew on work he’d done in his PhD program for a cost-benefit analysis of partial automation systems like forward collision warning and blind spot monitoring. “The economic thinking experience, problem-solving skills, and independent work that I’ve done during my PhD were very valuable,” says Harper. “I was able to apply those skills to meet deadlines and consistently do what I was supposed to do with little oversight.”

Now in the last year of his PhD program, Harper will continue his research analyzing the environmental, infrastructure, and safety implications of autonomous and connected vehicles on policies and transportation systems—all the while soaking up as much knowledge as he can from his two advisors: CEE Professors Chris Hendrickson and Costa Samaras.

“You learn a lot from your advisors” he says. “The discussions I had with my supervisor in the DOT were very similar to the thought processes you go through with your advisors during a research project. Because of my work with them, I was able to go into the internship and learn from the people there, while also relying on existing knowledge for each assignment.”