Virginia Tech Transportation Institute received $28 million grant for technology research

BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) The federal government is helping to make self-driving cars and other advanced technology a reality. That's thanks to grants, including one to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced the award recipients of five highly competitive national University Transportation Center grants, naming the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and its partners Texas A&M Transportation Institute and San Diego State University — with support from the Virginia Department of Transportation — as one of two national safety University Transportation Centers.

Researchers at VTTI will be getting $28 million over the next five years. Half is from the Department of Transportation, with matching funds from the university, state, and private sources.

It's all to make future technology in cars safer.

Established under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act — or the FAST Act — the University Transportation Center awards are made available to nonprofit higher education institutions for the establishment of up to five national centers, 10 regional centers, and 20 Tier 1 centers.

Unfortunately, crashes can happen anywhere, even with cars we have full control over.

But as more and more technology becomes available, the Department of Transportation wants measures in place.

Director of the Center for Automotive Research at VTTI Zac Doerzaph explained, "The objective of our particular grant is to basically maximize safety during a time of what we call disruption in transportation."

Disruption meaning forces that change the way we travel. VTTI has already done a lot in that disruption.

The center will initially sponsor a series of collaborative projects across its consortium partners, all of which will build upon faculty expertise and will include student support. Initial projects are expected to include detecting and combating driver inattention while driving a semi-automated vehicle, training drivers of automated and connected vehicles, enhancing work-zone safety in an era of advanced vehicles, assessing child occupant protection in ride-hailing services, and determining the efficacy of truck platooning using automated-vehicle applications. The projects were designed to be quickly implemented and to inform broader national discussions.

Doerzaph said, "Cars that do things like active collision avoidance, a lot of those systems were tested here at VTTI and so this grant gives us the ability to reach into some other areas, maybe look a little out in the future than we sometimes get to."

Someday that could mean cars without steering wheels or pedals. But sooner than that will be connected vehicles.

"As the future goes on that'll become more and more useful," Doerzaph said of Connected Vehicles. "You'll start getting things like in vehicle signage, so you'll get stop signs or more dynamic information, maybe even lane specific speed limits."

Connected vehicles would also use Dedicated Short Range Communication, which is like WiFi between cars.

Doerzaph explained, "That allows cars to model everything that's happening around them and actually start to do things like avoid crashes because they can detect potential conflicts, issue warnings to drivers to avoid them, maybe with some other sensors even take active control and brake, steer, or other automated type features."

As the grants will be given annually, VTTI will re-asses every year what technology they'd like to focus on with the money.

Motivated by an overall desire to promote safety on U.S. roadways, the Safety through Disruption (SafeD): Goal Zero Center will focus on three key areas: performing innovative research that is led by the largest consortium of transportation safety researchers in the nation and is largely focused on advanced-vehicle technologies, transportation as a service, and “big data” analytics; education and workforce development; and sharing research findings with the broader transportation community.

The grant will also help study larger trucks, bikes, and even pedestrians on the road.

VTTI will be able to test it all on their Smart Road as Doerzaph has tractor trailers, buses, motorcycles, and setting changes on that road all at his disposal.

The sizable grant from Washington D.C. had Virginia elected officials excited for the work VTTI will be doing.

“Virginia Tech is leading the charge in the advancement of innovative technology in the world of unmanned systems, and I want to congratulate the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute for receiving this competitive grant,” said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner. “I have worked closely with [transportation institute director] Tom Dingus and VTTI to bring research and testing opportunities in the burgeoning field of autonomous vehicles to Virginia. This national UTC award and the associated research performed will yield critical results on how we ensure the safety of our transportation networks as we integrate autonomous vehicles, and help prepare a new generation of students to be leaders in the exciting new field of unmanned systems.”

“Virginia Tech is home to some of the strongest research and engineering programs in the United States and I congratulate them on earning this grant,” said U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, who was an original co-sponsor of the FAST Act congressional bill H.R.22. “I supported their efforts to secure the award and I am pleased that Virginia Tech will have the ability to contribute significantly to the research priorities set forth by the FAST Act.”

“I’ve driven on the Smart Road and seen firsthand the great work done at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute on transportation safety and technology,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. “It is clear why VTTI is a national leader, and I’m proud the U.S. Department of Transportation recognized its work with this federal funding and national center designation.”

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute previously served as the Tier 1 Connected Vehicle/Infrastructure University Transportation Center, which was awarded in 2012 and under which 24 projects were performed by researchers and students from the institute and partners University of Virginia and Morgan State University.

As part of the 2016 University Transportation Center awards, the transportation institute will also serve as a consortium member on Tier 1 centers led by Morgan State University and University of North Carolina at Charlotte that are designed to study urban mobility and advanced multimodal mobility solutions and education, respectively.

“In Southwest Virginia, we are proud of the research and development that takes place at Virginia Tech,” said Griffith. “I look forward to the potential advances made possible with this funding. It is my hope that the vehicle automation and connectivity studies and other testing will result in new breakthroughs, create opportunities for students, and expand workforce development in our area, in addition to safety advances that can benefit those across the country.”