By Sara Cody
Drivers who commute in and out of Boston — deemed as one of the worst U.S. cities for traffic — have all experienced the misery of rush hour. Now, Professor Christos Cassandras (SE, ECE) is part of a research group aiming to ease commuting, and the resulting air pollution, by developing efficient, smart vehicle technology under a $4.4 million grant from the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy NEXTCAR program.
“Right now, the car’s awareness of its surrounding relies completely on the eyes and ears of the driver operating it,” says Cassandras. “But when you look at the data, humans are terrible drivers. Humans get distracted, they get tired, they can’t react as quickly to sudden or multiple simultaneous changes. But computers thrive in an environment like that, so what we want to do is create a technology that allows the car that can access information about its environment on its own, process it and act accordingly, and communicate it to other vehicles and infrastructure. Essentially, we want to create an internet of cars.”
Working with researchers at the University of Michigan and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Bosch as a corporate partner, the goal of the project is to design a control technology that enables a plug-in hybrid car to communicate with other cars and city infrastructure and act on that information. By providing cars with situational self-awareness, they will be able to efficiently calculate the best possible route, accelerate and decelerate as needed and manage their powertrain. The idea, says Cassandras, is to improve the efficiency of vehicles to the point where you can drive from point A to point B without stopping, which would have transformative positive effects.
“You can reduce fuel and energy consumption, which benefits the environment and lessens our dependence on expensive energy sources and you make the traffic system work more efficiently by reducing congestion,” says Cassandras. “The government would be satisfied if we could increase these efficiencies by 20 percent.”
Currently, obstacles like stoplights, heavy volume, and poorly designed infrastructure that causes bottlenecking contribute to heavy traffic. The constant stopping and starting not only wastes energy, but also expels the most harmful emissions into the atmosphere. On top of environmental effects, there is a human element to snarled traffic as well. This project seeks to shift this paradigm to one where travelers cooperate with each other instead of compete with each other.
“It’s hard not to behave selfishly when driving when we are all competing for the same space or to make the same green light, or to pass each other so we can reach our destinations faster. When you think of it, it’s total anarchy,” says Cassandras. “The price of this anarchy can be measured with the difference of this selfish traffic control versus social-optimal traffic control, and the only way to really achieve better social-optimal control is to remove the person from the equation and let the car make these decisions as long as safety is always guaranteed.”
The project—Ultimately Transformed and Optimized Powertrain Integrated with Automated and Novel Vehicular and Highway Connectivity Leveraged for Efficiency, or UTOPIAN VEHICLE — has several parts. Cassandras will helm several phases of the project, including one that focuses on the eco-routing algorithms to help establish the connection between vehicles, infrastructure and the environment.
Other partners will work on the cars themselves. On the spectrum of automobile autonomy, this project will generate a car that performs some functions automatically but will still require human input, which may help ease the public with the transition towards smart cars.