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August 4, 2020 10:45 AM, EDT

DOT Funds Four New University Transportation Centers

Ohio StatePart of the Ohio State University's campus. The largest individual award was given to the school. (abalcazar/Getty Images)

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The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $4.9 million in funding has been awarded to support four new University Transportation Centers.

Authorized by Congress in 1987, DOT’s University Transportation Centers program awards grants to consortia of higher education institutions in support of transportation research and technology. Each University Transportation Center is a partnership of colleges and universities that work together on a specific research topic.

The centers’ research topics cover various modes of transportation and are meant to develop the next generation of transportation professionals.

“These investments in four new transportation research centers will help advance innovation and create new solutions to increase accessibility,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said.

The largest individual award, for $1.9 million, was awarded to The Ohio State University for research related to highly automated transportation systems. Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska, associate dean for research at Ohio State’s College of Engineering, said a special emphasis will be placed on the security of the positioning, navigation and timing components associated with automated and autonomous vehicles. While testing will begin with ground-based transportation, she said extensions could include drones and maritime vessels.

The map above highlights each of the four new consortia's member schools, grouped by color. Click the "expand" arrow on the top left corner of the map to see the four groupings.

Ohio State is working in partnership with UC Irvine, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Cincinnati. Grejner-Brzezinska commended the expertise of her teammates, noting that they have the “ingredients necessary” to perform this research.

“Autonomy is upon us, so to speak, and in order for the Department of Transportation and industry to gain trust of the broader audience, we really need to make sure that the safety and security of those vehicles are absolutely assured,” Grejner-Brzezinska told Transport Topics. “We are really very pleased and happy that Ohio State and our partners were selected and we look forward to working with DOT.”

Some $1 million will be devoted to research on communications technology and e-commerce’s effects on travel demand. This initiative will be led by Northwestern University in consortium with UC Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin.

Hani Mahmassani, director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center, said e-commerce and telework are the two main “tele-activities” the team will be studying initially. However, he noted there are a host of other tele-activities associated with health, education and gaming.

In terms of e-commerce, Mahmassani said it’s likely people will continue to do lots of shopping online, but noted there are a range of business models associated with e-commerce. Among them is omni-channel retailing, a model under which businesses deliver goods while maintaining physical stores.

“There’s so much that’s ongoing in that space,” Mahmassani said. “That whole arena has just been changing so fast and will continue to change.”

Mahmassani acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has added a layer of considerations to this subject, as many people have shifted to telework during this time.

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“The health situation has immersed us in what we’re calling one of the longest natural experiments in the use of communication and information technology for teleactivities that one is likely to encounter in modern history,” Mahmassani said. “A lot of people have been sort of dragged into this kicking and screaming. We think it’s an opportunity to really study these phenomena.”

The remaining two grants will support research on the implications of accessible automated vehicles for disabled people and the strategic implications of evolving public transit trends.

The University of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the Catholic University of America, will use $1 million to research automated vehicle options for those with disabilities.

The Georgia Institute of Technology received $1 million to research public transportation travel trends with the University of Tennessee, the University of Kentucky and Brigham Young University.

The University Transportation Centers program has been popular among institutions of higher learning. According to DOT, the agency received 67 grant applications for this round of awards.

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