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.

The grant brings with it a total of almost $28 million across a five-year span to study how best to maximize the safety benefits of integrating technologies such as automation and connectivity into the transportation system.

“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.”

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. The national grant awarded to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute team will support the Safety through Disruption (SafeD): Goal Zero Center and entails a planned $2.8 million each year in federal funding for five years, matched by an equal amount of cost-share funds from university, state, and private sources.

“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.”

Motivated by an overall desire to promote safety on U.S. roadways, the SafeD 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.

Projects performed under the center will leverage existing testing facilities of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and its partners, including the Virginia Automated and Connected Corridors and the Virginia Smart Road that enable real-world testing of automated and connected vehicles.

“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.”

It is also expected that center projects will be able to make use of facilities currently under development, including an automation park to be located in Blacksburg, Va., and designed to enhance automated-vehicle testing capabilities as part of the recently announced large-scale, multi-disciplinary Virginia Tech Intelligent Infrastructure initiative.

“This award is exemplary of the hard work and dedication our researchers have collectively put into reaching this point,” Dingus said. “This grant gives us an unprecedented opportunity to work with a prestigious and experienced team toward the safe and efficient development and deployment of the next generation of vehicles and technologies, inform national discourse about how best to mitigate rapidly growing transportation challenges, offer students incredible hands-on experience in the field of transportation research, and provide more opportunities in the workforce.”

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 combatting 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.

“There is an increasing strain placed on surface transportation due to continued population growth, longer lifespans, increased freight movement, and emerging ‘megaregions,’” said Zac Doerzaph, who will serve as director of the SafeD Center. “If we don’t find solutions now to these issues, there is solid evidence that our current transportation system will be overwhelmed in the next 30 years. Our goal as a University Transportation Center is to help address and mitigate those national transportation issues quickly bearing down on the U.S. transportation system, and we have assembled an exceptionally proactive and experienced team to meet this objective.”

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 North Carolina A&T State University that are designed to study urban mobility and improving the mobility of people and goods, 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.”

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