At the intersection of industry and academia

By | March 22, 2017

In an effort to solve pressing issues faced by the engineering industry and by the world more broadly, researchers from across MIT joined forces with representatives from Parsons Corporation, a technology-driven engineering services firm, for a day of collaboration.

The Infrastructure, Smart Cities and Transportation Workshop, co-hosted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) and Parsons, was held on March 8. The event opened doors to future opportunities for MIT researchers and members of the engineering industry to work together.

“As students we can easily get caught up in the weeds of our technical research, so we find it rewarding to hear from experts who can help us connect the theory of our research with applications within and outside of academia. Today is the perfect example of that connection,” said graduate student Adam Rosenfield on behalf of the MIT Transportation Student Group, a student society of the Interdepartmental Program in Transportation.

The day-long event brought together faculty members and leaders from cross-cutting initiatives and programs from across MIT, leadership representatives from Parsons, and students and postdocs from many corners of MIT to explore parallels between ongoing research and current industry needs. The event highlighted how combining resources from academia and the engineering industry can solve major infrastructure and transportation problems and ultimately create a more sustainable world.

Overlaps between Parsons and CEE run deeper than research topics. Head of CEE Markus Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering and organizer of the workshop, explained that Ralph M. Parsons, Parsons’ founder, donated the funds needed to double the size of the old CEE hydrology laboratory. In 1970, the renovated and remodeled lab was renamed the Ralph M. Parsons Laboratory for Environmental Science and Engineering. 

“MIT’s commitment to address the most challenging issues in infrastructure and environment and the focus of Parsons to solve the toughest problems are an incredibly exciting mix that can lead to new paradigms of innovation and impact,” Buehler said. “Many of the ideas discussed at the workshop could define the future of civil and environmental engineering professionals. Changing the world to become a better place has never been more urgent and tangible.”

Biff Lyons, executive vice president of Parsons’ Security and Intelligence Division, furthered this idea by commenting on the innovative culture at MIT. “The unique nature of what you do here, to create an environment where students from all over the world can come and work together to tackle big problems, that kind of culture is also important to us at Parsons.” 

Empowering with data

“We can wake up, check a few apps, and decide in real-time at what time we are going to leave for work, what mode we will take, and what route we will take,” said Carolina Osorio, assistant professor in CEE. This is just one example of smart mobility.

The concepts of smart mobility and smart cities were central to the discussions at the workshop. By deeming something “smart,” one is referring the use of data and networked systems to create more efficient and sustainable alternatives to established norms. These types of “smart” innovations are already embedded into the world; smart mobility could refer to apps like Uber and Lyft, which allow users to track in real-time where their taxi service is located, such as the situation that Osorio referenced.

Likewise, a smart city might utilize an app that shows the exact route of a snow plow, suggested Lester Yoshida, senior vice president of Intelligent Transportation Systems at Parsons. The value of smart cities and improved infrastructure became increasingly apparent during numerous talks throughout the day.

Transportation is central to the design and function of smart cities, especially in urban settings. Bringing together scholars from across multiple departments resulted in an interdisciplinary approach to an oft-studied field. Combined with industry expertise from Parsons, intelligent transportation was another major topic of interest throughout the workshop.

Moshe Ben-Akiva, the Edmund K. Turner Professor of CEE, began the dialogue about smart mobility, speaking specifically about the use of optimization and behavioral modeling techniques to design efficient and personalized smart mobility solutions. Ben-Akiva’s group has developed an app-based behavior laboratory, Future Mobility Sensing, and a computer simulation laboratory, SimMobility, to make inferences about user preferences and to evaluate smart mobility solutions using real data and under various scenarios. Ben-Akiva gave an overview of his numerous research projects, including real-time toll optimization in Texas, Autonomous Mobility On-Demand in Singapore, Flexible Mobility On-Demand in Japan, and Tripod, a system of sustainable travel incentives with prediction, optimization and personalization capabilities in Boston. He concluded his talk by discussing the impacts of smart mobility and new technologies on the future of urban mobility.  

Data are extremely valuable in transportation research. Yoshida stressed the importance of origin and destination pairs, data points that show the routes autonomous vehicles (AVs) use on their trips. By looking at this information, Yoshida suggests the developers of AVs can more effectively understand the impact of AVs on traffic and infrastructure. The insight can allow for further consideration of how to create more efficient systems to take advantage of the existing infrastructure and to not congest certain areas.

“The key feature in transportation that’s really changing the field is all this data that we have available,” said Osorio, who develops methods to inform the design and operations of large-scale mobility systems, while accounting for the intricate real-time interactions between the system and its users. “We now have travelers that are better equipped with data and have a better understanding of the system and what their options are.”

While this is empowering to travelers, it puts increasing demand on the operators, designers and stakeholders that collect the information, since they now need to predict how individual users will react in real-time and how that will impact traffic patterns throughout the city, Osorio noted.  

Hype and hacks of autonomous transportation and smart infrastructures

Jinhua Zhao, the Edward H. and Joyce Linde Assistant Professor of City and Transportation Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), spoke about the social and emotional aspects of transportation that are often ignored in transportation research, and how behavioral science can be integrated with transportation technology to shape travel behavior and design mobility systems.

Zhao also pointed out the social function of the sharing economy, particularly ride-sharing. He explained that with public transit, “even though it is public, it does not induce social behavior. People look down and avoid making eye contact with each other. But in the back of a car, it’s different. That’s where conversation happens.” The nature of shared car rides is impromptu, captive for a considerable duration, and remarkably more intimate, representing a unique juxtaposition of spontaneity and intensity. He also noted that the opportunity for social interaction in ride-sharing can reduce the anxiety during commuting, enable passengers to use the time more productively, and fertilize innovative mobility system design. But Zhao also warned the potential for social prejudice to be reflected in the ride sharing context and called for regulatory innovations.

While there is lots of excitement surrounding autonomous vehicles, Ali Jadbabaie, the JR East Professor of CEE and Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) and associate director of IDSS, pointed out the vulnerability of self-driving cars to cyberphysical attacks. Jadbabaie described this as “hype and asymmetry,” an imbalance between the excitement about AVs versus the ease of attack and difficulty of defense. He furthermore pointed out the importance of understanding the social behavior of drivers and how the self-driving cars and regular vehicles can coexist in the near future.

Assistant Professor of CEE Saurabh Amin similarly presented on cyber-physical infrastructure security. He studies network control and resilient infrastructures, and spoke about the use of algorithms to detect and respond to both random and adversarial incidents in a network, such as in electrical power distribution and urban water systems. He and researchers from the Resilient Infrastructure Networks Lab create algorithms that anticipate and plan for malicious attacks on systems, such as the hacks alluded to by Jadbabaie.

Cybersecurity is also one service Parsons provides. Jay Williams, vice president of critical infrastructure protection at Parsons, spoke briefly about when cyber-attacks converge with physical spaces and he described the multi-faceted approach Parsons uses to ensure security.

What’s next?

Transportation is constantly evolving, from the rise of Uber and ride-sharing, to self-driving cars taking to the roads. Smart cities will also continue to evolve as transportation and other new technologies change.

Even though smart cities and autonomous vehicles are at the top of many peoples’ minds, Gibran Hadj-Chikh, director of innovative transport at Parsons, reminded the audience that “we never know what’s coming,” and that it’s vital to think outside of the box at what other alternatives there are that could enter the market.

Osorio echoed this uncertainty of the future; “When we think about the next generation of systems, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what it’s going to look like. Very disruptive technologies like Uber and autonomous vehicles are going to keep presenting themselves, and they’re going to change how users interact with the system and what types of new mobility services need to be provided,” she said.

Fortunately, the innovation and successful entrepreneurship that stems from MIT is well-positioned to address the future of transportation and infrastructures as they progress and advance over time.

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