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University of Minnesota awarded federal grant to research autonomous vehicles

Research rethinks transportation services to enable smart, connected communities

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (10/05/2018) — The University of Minnesota announced today that it has received a $1.75 million grant over three years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the NSF's Smart & Connected Communities grant program. The University of Minnesota’s project is one of only 13 projects chosen by NSF nationwide.

The grant, entitled Leveraging Autonomous Shared Vehicles for Greater Community Health, Equity, Livability, and Prosperity (HELP), supports fundamental research on a critical challenge facing many cities and communities—how to leverage the emergence of self-driving vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles, to rethink and redesign future transportation services and enable smart and connected communities where everyone benefits.

The research envisions an ambitious "smart cloud commuting system” based on giant pools of shared autonomous vehicles.

“These smart cloud community systems have the potential to bring about far-reaching societal changes,” said Zhi-Li Zhang, a University of Minnesota computer science professor of computer science and engineering in the College of Science and Engineering who is the lead researcher on the grant.

The proposed smart cloud commuting system would also provide equity and boost economic productivity.

“Using autonomous vehicles in this way will provide inexpensive mobility services to all people especially people with socio-economic disadvantages,” said Saif Benjaafar, a University of Minnesota professor of industrial and systems engineering in the College of Science and Engineering and a Center of Transportation senior scholar who is a co-director on the project. “A system like this would help build stronger family and community ties, and boost economic productivity and equity by mitigating or removing mobility constraints.”

The researchers say the work will also draw collaborators from across the state to help build stronger, smarter communities.

“The research will draw on innovative mobility field experiments underway in the Twin Cities region and will collaborate with several public, private and civil society partners,” said Tom Fisher, a University of Minnesota professor of urban design in the College of Design and a Center for Transportation Studies scholar who is also involved in the new project. “These partners will include the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Destination Medical Center in Rochester, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council, and Metro Transit to design, plan, and analyze a shared autonomous vehicle system for greater community health, equity, livability, and prosperity.”

Faculty in the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the College of Design will oversee the grant. The faculty, graduate students, and post-doctoral researchers involved in the project will:  

  • Study the feasibility, economic viability, and architectural and operational designs of the envisioned smart cloud commuting system
  • Quantify system efficiency gains that can be attained from the intelligent control of autonomous vehicles as well as from ride-sharing and smart trip scheduling of users
  • Develop optimization models and algorithms that account for essential tradeoffs, including cost, quality of service, and congestion in deciding how best to deploy autonomous vehicles geographically and temporally
  • Investigate using economic models and likely scenarios of vehicle ownership and market structures to study the impact of each scenario on traffic measures including vehicle ownership and traffic volumes
  • Understand the social impacts of autonomous vehicles on diverse populations and the effects they will have on land use and urban design as well as on economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities

The research will occur over a three-year period and will result in policy recommendations, design guidelines, and quantifiable information.

“We’re hoping that our work can inform local and statewide decision making for our cities and communities,” said Yingling Fan, a University of Minnesota professor of urban and regional planning in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a Center for Transportation Studies scholar.

“The Smart and Connected Communities program continues to generate innovative and collaborative research applications that are addressing challenges faced by our local communities and cities and are offering solutions to help improve people's lives,” said Jim Kurose, NSF's assistant director for computer and information science and engineering.

For more information on NSF’s Smart & Connected Communities Effort, visit the NSF website.

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