University initiative aims to make mobility smarter

Posted: July 23, 2021

Mobility drives the progress of civilization, but our transportation systems are stuck in the past. Despite being a $2 trillion per year enterprise in the U.S. alone, transportation is the last major industry that has not yet been fully transformed by information, computing and communications technology.

Airplane, wireless, cloud, computer, car and drone icons overlay a photo of downtown Columbus.

Mobility must be reengineered to be smarter and The Ohio State University has the breadth, depth and expertise required to lead that transformation.

“At Ohio State, we have initiatives and centers, such as the Center for Automotive Research, that work with industry partners to imagine the possible 10, 20, 30 years out,” said College of Engineering Dean Ayanna Howard, the Monte Ahuja Dean’s Chair. “Smart mobility will allow us to have equal access, will expand our opportunities for jobs and will ensure the quality of life that we as humans really do deserve.”

Last summer, the university launched its Smart Mobility Initiative, housed in the Office of Research, to lead and integrate mobility-related research, innovation and education across campus. The program’s director is Chris Atkinson, a technology-based entrepreneur with nearly two decades of higher education and federal agency experience.

“Ohio State’s definition of smart mobility is ‘transportation with a conscience,’ where that conscience takes into account all of the burdens transportation places on society—environmental, social inequity, access, land use, human health issues—while seeking to maximize the benefits of mobility to our society,” explained Atkinson, who is also a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Smart mobility involves the use of advanced communications and computing to integrate and control multiple modes of transportation. It’s about using technology and connected infrastructure for safer, cleaner, more efficient, more equitable and more accessible travel. While examining smart mobility systematically and holistically, Ohio State is moving decisively in R&D, innovation and education in each of these areas.

Research teams are currently leading or contributing to $12 million in federally-funded research focused on advancing vehicle sustainability. Researchers at the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) are working to optimize the efficiency of connected and automated vehicles as part of a $5 million project funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s (ARPA-E) NEXTCAR program.

Looking beyond the horizon, Ohio State engineers are developing new lightweight materials and electric battery storage systems for both air and land vehicles. Experts at The Ohio State University Airport and Aerospace Research Center are studying drone usage for unmanned traffic and roadway monitoring, cargo deliveries and more.

While propulsion, wheels and wings remain critical, emerging key focus areas include data analytics, artificial intelligence, connectivity and cybersecurity. Human factors and public policy must also be woven into mobility research from the beginning, rather than analyzed in the rearview mirror. Advanced materials and new manufacturing methods will enable lighter, safer and more efficient vehicles on the ground and in the air.

Innovation through collaboration

Collaboration is critical to solve challenging issues like modernizing transportation. Accordingly, Ohio State engineers captain major projects for the Department of Transportation and the FAA, and sustain long-term research and workforce partnerships with transportation industry leaders. Federal agencies often call on experts at the Center for Automotive Research, Center for Aviation Studies, Driving Simulation Laboratory, and City and Regional Planning in the Knowlton School. Atkinson himself currently participates in a federally-funded project with the Central Ohio Transit Authority to examine methods of dynamically rerouting bus and shuttle transit on demand to maximize utility for riders, while minimizing fuel consumption and travel time.

Ohio State NEXTCAR development vehicle at TRC
NEXTCAR development vehicle at the Transportation Research Center test track

The College of Engineering oversees operations of the largest independent vehicle testing and proving grounds in the U.S., the Transportation Research Center (TRC). It features a 540-acre SMARTCenter, the largest, most comprehensive testing site in North America for advanced vehicle technologies.

"We’re very conscious of the fact that we are a premier land-grant university within a larger ecosystem in Ohio, the U.S. and beyond,” Atkinson said. “The pandemic only reinforced that mobility and transportation are enormously important to our way of life and critical for the functioning of our society.”

Buckeyes also coordinate closely with the city of Columbus, winner of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 Smart Cities Challenge, as well as statewide efforts including DriveOhio, an initiative of the Ohio Department of Transportation; FlyOhio; and JobsOhio, a private non-profit focused on Ohio’s economic development.

“Smart mobility—on the ground and in the air—will be a key driver of Ohio’s economy into the future, creating new jobs that require new skills across a variety of disciplines and industry sectors, including aerospace, automotive and logistics,” said alumnus Rich Granger, DriveOhio’s managing director of workforce and economic development. “At DriveOhio, we’re very excited to continue expanding our workforce development and research collaborations with Ohio State across the areas of capstone education, innovation workshops and research projects. The breadth and depth of talent at Ohio State makes this a great partnership.”

Smarter for safety

There were 38,680 fatalities in motor vehicle traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2020, an increase of 7.2% over 2019. Even with steady improvements in vehicle safety over the past five decades, most crashes remain preventable. Driver assistance technologies in today’s cars and trucks are helping to save lives and prevent injuries, but driver distraction remains a critical issue.

A national consortium led by Ohio State is developing solutions to autonomous vehicle safety and security challenges. This Tier 1 University Transportation Center collaboration also includes the University of California, Irvine, University of Cincinnati and University of Texas. CAR researchers are addressing safety on multiple mobility fronts including cybersecurity, automotive functional safety, driver-in-the-loop vehicle simulation, and pedestrian and occupant safety.

Fueling the next generation of mobility innovators

Two female students sit inside a vehicle simulator, while a male student standing outside points to the vehicles dash. points to the dash and a
Students test their prototype at Ohio State's Driving Simulation Laboratory.

From flight education to city planning and so much in between, Ohio State students are also immersed in smart mobility activities. Beyond the classroom, students can gain hands-on experience with myriad capstone projects as well as student projects and teams such as the national EcoCAR Mobility Challenge, in which Buckeyes earned top honors in six years in a row; Buckeye Vertical, which explores Advanced Air Mobility and Urban Air Mobility; and the Buckeye AutoDrive Team.

“There's a clear economic opportunity for our students to be involved in this field. It spans the full range, from electrification to connectivity, communications, computation, automation and implementation,” Atkinson said. “It also includes materials discovery, manufacturing and beyond. Essentially every smart mobility job in the future will be given over to a STEM graduate, without doubt.”

In addition, Ohio State’s recently announced Innovation District on West Campus will provide researchers the opportunity to create a living laboratory for developing and testing new modes of smart transportation, including micromobility and autonomous vehicle solutions.

“Mobility permeates every aspect of our lives,” Atkinson said. “So it behooves us as an education, research and development institution to study it and work towards its betterment.”

The future of mobility will be more efficient, smarter, safer and more equitable. It will also be largely electrified, more automated, connected and convenient. How we get there is the key, Atkinson said. Emphasizing that such a multi-faceted challenge requires many creative minds, he welcomes ideas and support from alumni and industry partners. Interested parties can email to share ideas or begin a conversation.

Categories: ResearchFaculty