A $14 million grant to improve mobility and safety in transportation

Penn, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), is participating in a $14 million, five-year transportation research grant to establish a new national University Transportation Center (UTC) called Mobility21.

The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) with the hopes of increasing both mobility and safety on the road. It is the third DoT national UTC award Penn and CMU have won since 2013.

“This significant award recognizes Penn's national and global leadership in technology, policy, and planning that are revolutionizing transportation," says Vijay Kumar, the Nemirovsky Family Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). "Building on the real-world experience and expertise we have established with other Penn initiatives, such as TerraSwarm and in Cyber-Physical Systems, this cross-disciplinary effort, led by Penn Engineering, will rely on innovative research from across campus. The collaboration will develop and deploy solutions that will fuel our economy, keep our nation's drivers safe, and deliver efficient and reliable transportation.” 

According to Rahul Mangharam, an associate professor in Penn Engineering, and also the Penn director of the UTCs, the Penn team focuses on cross-disciplinary problems such as autonomous vehicles, pedestrian and bicycle safety, and interregional transportation. The team is a one-of-a-kind successful partnership between SEAS and the Design, Law, and Wharton schools, as well as the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

“I think there are a lot of new technologies that are coming in that should be enablers for making transportation safer and more efficient,” Mangharam says. “We want to essentially take a very holistic view of introducing these technologies to address long-term problems.”

In one project, researchers in SEAS are working to improve the safety of autonomous cars.

“These driverless cars have driven several million miles with Google, Tesla, and Uber, but even a simple lane change maneuver hasn’t been certified to be safe,” Mangharam says. “Insurance companies on one hand say that if the driver is not involved in the decision-making then the manufacturers are stuck with a trillion-dollar liability. And from the government side, they want to know how to minimize the risk in the decision-making of these cars.”

The team is working on developing a driver’s license test for these autonomous vehicles to statistically estimate if the car is making good decisions and make sure that the software is trained for various driving scenarios.

PennDesign's Erick Guerra, an assistant professor in City and Regional Planning who is involved with the project, says he’s interested in how the intersecting relationships between land use, transportation infrastructure, and human behavior help people fulfill their daily needs and influence public health through traffic collisions, local pollution, and physical activity.

Megan S. Ryerson, also an assistant professor of City and Regional Planning, says she researches “the interdependence between critical infrastructures such as airports and highways,” and develops “integrated supply and demand models to study the flow of passengers and freights over these networks.” One of the things she investigates is the “interaction between air, highway, and rail,” and how that enhances mobility in a region.

Researchers will also make sure that as these technologies progress, communities are able to engage with them in order to make them a reality.

“A lot of the research otherwise just stays in conferences and within academic circles and doesn’t get applied,” says Mangharam. “The DoT doesn’t want people to do research for the sake of research. They want the research to be transformed into actual transportation innovation.”

Mangharam says that this grant is a reflection of the productive engagement Penn and CMU have had with the transportation communities in the region. He added that they actively engage with federal, state, and city transportation administrations, including SEPTA, Amtrak, and mayors’ Streets departments.

“Penn and CMU have been working on these issues since before 2011,” Mangharam says. “This research positions Penn and CMU as leaders in national transportation technology and policy.”