Penn drives transportation research forward

Innovations in the realm of transportation technology have historically been physical; steam boilers gave way to internal combustion engines and then to electric fuel cells. But like most other technological landscapes, the field of transportation has undergone a digital revolution.

Cars today contain increasingly sophisticated computer systems—some are even beginning to drive themselves—and public transit networks are integrating with social networks to provide more responsive service.

The U.S. Department of Transportation intends to get ahead of the curve by funding interdisciplinary research groups across the country called University Transportation Centers (UTC). One of these is the Consortium for Technologies for Safe and Efficient Transportation, a new collaboration between researchers at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Design, and Carnegie Mellon University.

Daniel Lee, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering and the Penn director of the UTC, helped kick off the collaboration with faculty from both Penn and CMU at a symposium on campus on Jan. 11.

Penn faculty presented some ideas they and their students are pursuing. 

Insup Lee, a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science, and Rahul Mangharam, an assistant professor of electrical and systems engineering, discussed how embedded computation and devices are becoming more prevalent in vehicles today. They agreed that in the near future, cars will begin to talk to one another via specialized networks, and their UTC research concentrates on different facets of that reality. Mangharam described how these systems could better alert users and manufacturers when there is a problem with a component, while Lee showed how hackers can already break into those systems. Lee also demonstrated strategies for defending against malicious users as vehicle-to-vehicle communications increase.   

CJ Taylor, associate professor of computer and information science, showed initial research on getting transit buses to automatically detect and warn pedestrians in intersections, and how traffic cameras could be analyzed to provide better data about vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian usage patterns.

The Penn UTC research is not only about making vehicles smarter. It’s about making their users smarter as well. John Landis, professor of city and regional planning at PennDesign, described his group’s research agenda, which includes experiments testing how driver behaviors change based upon their knowledge of traffic congestion.

Representatives from city and regional transportation authorities, including SEPTA and PennDOT, were on hand to discuss how to strengthen their partnerships with university researchers.

According to Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, transportation authorities excel in collecting data on how commuters uses their services. But they need help when it comes to turning that data into useful information.  

“Universities are particularly well situated to shepherd that evolution,” she says. “They try to solve problems that public entities aren’t ready to tackle.”

Penn UTC