The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has captured two federal contracts worth a combined potential $55 million to further study safety efforts for commercial truck drivers and break new ground in the burgeoning field of automated vehicles.

The contracts are being awarded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration with a ceiling of $30 million for a five-year period, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at a maximum of $25 million during a five-year period. Collectively, the contracts – both won this spring – are the largest of their kind awarded to the institute in its 25-year history.

“These awards are a testament to the growth of this institute and to the dedication of our researchers who continually strive to be forward thinkers, to take into consideration the greatest transportation challenges not only of today but those of the future,” said Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and an endowed professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech.

The $30 million award builds on a previous five-year, $10 million contract from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that led to several of Virginia Tech’s largest-impact transportation results from the past decade.

Among the work: Concluding that text messaging while driving increases the risk of a crash or near-crash event by 23 times for truck and bus drivers.

The research, headed by Richard Hanowski, director of the institute’s Center for Truck and Bus Safety, also helped shape current hours-of-service rules – that’s the allotted time commercial carrier drivers are allowed behind the wheel during any given day or week – now in use by the regulatory agency.

Hanowski will likewise head the new research. Among the areas outlined by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are research into driver performance, such as fatigue and distraction.

The work is expected to take multiple years and includes the use of a naturalistic driving video capture technique, which places multiple cameras inside and outside a vehicle, unobtrusively recording the participant driver as he or she interacts with the vehicle and the road while traveling.

Much of the institute’s current crop of research – from distracted driving to research involving the actions of teen and senior motorists – has stemmed from using video capture, with more than 40 million miles of data analyzed.

Additional potential tasks include vehicle handling and braking, vehicle dynamics, and other characteristics that influence driver behavior, said Hanowski. Also working on the contract as a co-investigator will be Jeff Hickman, a senior research associate with the institute 

“We have a strong team in place to explore, clarify, or resolve human factors and other safety issues that require human behavior and performance data, collected using on-road instrumented vehicles, field settings, and simulation in advanced driving simulators,” said Hanowski.

“The institute has conducted several important studies for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that have helped shape transportation policy in the U.S. and worldwide, and we are excited for the opportunity to continue our relationship with the agency through this new award.”

The $25 million contract from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is being awarded to Myra Blanco, who heads the institute’s new Center for Automated Vehicle Systems.

The award focuses on research – including safety protocols – of automated-vehicle technology that is expected to flood the automotive market during the next decade and beyond.

Blanco will study vehicle electronic systems, including electronic controls of the vehicle, seek reinforcements to block potential hacking of vehicles, and identify potential safety issues, including fail-safe systems. Serving as co-investigators on the contract will be Dingus, and Greg Fitch, a research scientist with the institute.

“We are going to take a wide-view approach at looking at the different sub-systems inside the vehicle, and we’re going to look at the human interactions with the vehicle, as well as the several key reliability aspects,” said Blanco.

Work by Blanco will build upon previous collaborations between the institute and General Motors and Google, including research focusing on how motorists interact with automated vehicles, such as letting the car autonomous programming take driving control duties, and the need or possibility of the a human commandeering the operation of the car. These studies by Blanco were carried out on the Virginia Smart Road, in Blacksburg.

“Every member of this institute is committed to our core mission: to save lives,” added Dingus. “Because of that commitment, we are able to undertake such high-profile research projects that ultimately help us mitigate fatalities and injuries occurring on our nation’s roads.”

The institute already has sponsored research exceeding $30 million per year, said Dingus.

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