Driving safety: Applied research brings leads to DOT funding for Tier 1 UTC in Nevada

Zong Tian and graduate students

Zong Tian, director the University Transportation Center, with his graduate students in the transportation engineering lab.

A group of engineering researchers have put Nevada on the map when it comes to transportation engineering. Literally.

Last fall, the University of Nevada, Reno received a grant from the Department of Transportation to establish a Tier 1 University Transportation Center, or UTC. The University is the lead institution in a consortium that includes the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Desert Research Institute; Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico.

"To be a leading institution showing on the UTC map certainly gives the program, the University and the state good exposure," said Center Director Zong Tian, associate professor of civil engineering. "Now we have a star for the University of Nevada, Reno on the map."

The UTC, named SOLARIS, partners with local transportation agencies such as the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County to pursue research projects related to the Center's theme of safety, which includes three focus areas of crash reduction, traffic operations and infrastructure.

Nevada residents are likely familiar with the state's primary highway safety campaign, Zero Fatalities, which focuses on saving lives through crash reduction. Engineering plays a key role in that campaign, and it's not just about creating safer vehicles. Improved roadway and intersection design, as well as better traffic signal systems, are also identified as strategic measures.

Improved signal systems are of special interest to Tian, whose research focuses around technologies that improve timing of signal systems and relay better real-time information to motorists. His group has already developed one tool for professional engineers - an iPhone-based system that can help engineers quickly capture and analyze field data at intersections and other traffic problem spots.

According to the Institute of Transportation Engineers

Improving signal timing is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce congestion and improve safety.

  • 7-13 % reduction in overall travel time
  • 15-37 % reduction in delays
  • 6-9 % fuel savings

"Without this tool, it first requires a high-level understanding of engineering before someone can actually do something," Tian said. "With this tool they can quickly be able to handle a similar kind of a job."

Tian estimates each project funded through the UTC, at an average of about $100,000 a project, will support two or three graduate students. Growing graduate student enrollment, which is currently at about 10 for transportation engineering students, will enable Tian to recruit graduate students with programming or electrical engineering experience in addition to civil engineering knowledge.

That diverse background is essential to successfully developing the kind of sophisticated tools that can be used by transportation engineers and urban planners to do their work more efficiently. For example, the iPhone application was developed by Hao Xu, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University, whose background includes electrical engineering as well as civil engineering. Xu developed the application while working as a post-doc at Texas Tech, and Tian is now looking to recruit a new post-doc to work full-time on technology development.

Tian's program emphasizes research that is directly applicable to the problems facing engineers out in the field. In turn, that research experience prepares his graduates with skills that are directly applicable to the job market, and he estimates his graduates have a 95 percent placement rate.

Award-Winning Students

Transportation engineering students from the College have been recognized for their award winning papers at both the regional and national level by the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

View a list of student awards

"Our emphasis is applied research," Tian said. "Students write papers based on that research and professionals can easily understand and make a connection. If we give them a mathematical model, they are not interested. There's no use to them."

That applied research emphasis aligns neatly with the University's larger effort to partner more closely with the Reno business community. The UTC will have an office in the University's new Innovation Center, a building in downtown Reno where university researchers can connect directly with community partners.

SOLARIS will use that space to establish a traffic management center, which will enable real-time monitoring of traffic conditions and allow Reno's transportation engineers to respond accordingly. In addition to enhancing collaboration with the local community, the newly established UTC will bring a significant amount of money into Washoe County.

"NDOT is excited to collaborate with the University by selecting projects that improve safety and traffic operations while leveraging federal dollars for Nevada," said Ken Chambers, research chief for NDOT.

The UTC works on a matching funds model, meaning federal grant funds are matched by local agencies who identify research projects of interest to them and share in the cost of the research.

"We got it through a very rigorous competition, and we are bringing 2 million dollars to the state, so it's going to certainly help the state economy," Tian said. "It's going to help NDOT, because we're mainly going to work on NDOT projects, using their matching funds and also the University, the education, technology transfer, outreach part, which is all part of the mission of the UTC."