CLEMSON — Mashrur “Ronnie” Chowdhury envisions a future in which car accidents will be reduced to virtually zero and drivers will travel down some of the state’s busiest roads without stopping for a single traffic light.

It could begin to happen in as little as a decade, he said, with the help of a new center that will based out of Clemson University with $1.4 million in startup financing from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Chowdhury, a civil engineering professor who is leading the center, said another $6.4 million in continued funding from the department over the next five years is highly possible.

Mashrur "Ronnie" Chowdhury

Mashrur “Ronnie” Chowdhury

The new Center for Connected Multimodal Mobility brings together researchers from Clemson, Benedict College, The Citadel, South Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina.

Researchers plan to focus on finding new ways to improve the mobility of people and goods with a special focus on how the emerging “Internet of Things” applies to transportation.

Chowdhury expects that it will soon be standard for vehicles to wirelessly communicate with each other, pedestrians and infrastructure, such as traffic lights and roadside sensors. The innovations that arise will revolutionize travel, making it safer and more comfortable, he said.

Greenville’s Woodruff Road, an artery known for congestion, could serve as an example of how new technology could work, Chowdhury said.

“Each traffic signal will have a highly intelligent brain, a controller, that is controlling the light in real time based on existing and predicted vehicular and pedestrian demand,” he said. “In real time, signal timing at each intersection will be optimized and coordinated to improve corridor-wide traffic flow. Each signal will communicate what speed each vehicle should drive to avoid having to stop. The travel will be a pleasure.”

But that’s just the start.

Several researchers across the state are envisioning the transportation system as a vast web of connections that includes everything from driverless trucks and Uber rides to the ports and railroads.

Weaving it all together holds great promise but will require research in an array of fields, including cybersecurity; big data; and the new technology’s social, economic, political and psychological impacts, Chowdhury said.

Clemson is taking on the task along with 19 other universities nationwide that have been chosen by the U.S. Transportation Department to lead Tier 1 university transportation centers.

An advantage to the South Carolina researchers is that they have access to parts of the fourth largest state-maintained road system in the country. The state has 41,500 miles of interstate, federal and state highways, and secondary roads, giving researchers a wide variety road types, Chowdhury said.

“We are working very closely with the South Carolina Department of Transportation,” said Chowdhury, who is the Eugene Douglas Mays Professor of Transportation. “We will provide the software and infrastructure that we develop for the center to the public. The roads will be a real-world testbed and laboratory where we do our research on connected and driverless vehicles, but it also benefits the state.”

Precedent has already been set. Clemson researchers have been testing connected-vehicle technology on a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 85 near the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville.

The specific projects that South Carolina researchers will do as part of the new center still need to be decided. Researchers from the state’s five eligible institutions will apply to the center for funding.

An academic advisory board and an industry advisory board will oversee the center, evaluating progress and how well it is meeting the needs of industry and the U.S. Transportation Department.

The research that is done as part of the center is expected to create opportunities for undergraduates and graduate students to learn about the latest transportation technology. Those opportunities could include new courses developed by the center’s faculty and internships at the center and public and private firms.

Activities for K-12 students are also planned.

James R. Martin, the chair of the Glenn Department of Civil Engineering at Clemson, said the collaboration will enable South Carolina to take a major leap forward in transportation research, while creating the workforce of the future.

“Transportation is a pillar of the state’s economy, a vital asset for the companies big and small that employ thousands of South Carolinians,” he said. “The collaborative research that will be done as part of this center will help create the connected and automated, multimodal transportation technologies that will foster growth in the state and nationwide economy. I congratulate Dr. Chowdhury for leading this effort.”

Amy Apon, the chair of the Division of Computer Science in the School of Computing, is among the collaborators on the center. She said Clemson is uniquely qualified to lead the center for South Carolina.

“We have faculty with expertise in connected intelligent transportation systems in different areas, including civil engineering, computer science, electrical engineering and automotive engineering,” she said. “We also have unique facilities, including the Palmetto Cluster high-performance computing system.”

Tanju Karanfil, Clemson’s vice president for research, said the grant will help Clemson and the collaborating institutions take a major leap forward in transportation research and prepare the next generation of transportation professionals.

“The center will be designed to link higher education and industry throughout South Carolina,” Karanfil said. “It will help incubate a business ecosystem centered on the quickly growing field of connected, multimodal transportation technologies.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, congratulated Chowdhury and his team on landing the grant for the center.

“Clemson University and South Carolina are well-positioned to advance transportation technology research,” he said. “Our efforts are crucial to meeting the economic, environmental and societal goals of the state and nation.”

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