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The Power of Partnerships: $3.5 million federal grant will advance automated driving innovation in rural America

rural road

USF's Center for Urban Transporation has partnered with startup Connected Wise to bring lower cost technology to rural communities.

TAMPA  – What started out with a cold call to USF from a startup company working to bring high-tech driving to rural roads has turned into a partnership that recently secured a $3.5 million Department of Energy grant and created a nationwide network of transportation innovators.

The project guided by the USF College of Engineering’s Center for Urban Transportation Research and startup Connected Wise, a resident of the University of Central Florida’s incubator, was among the two dozen university and industry partnerships to improve the nation’s mobility announced recently by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Florida-led project aims to develop a new system that will solve the lack of wireless infrastructure for connected vehicle communication in rural areas by using message-encoded traffic signs to communicate with vehicles.

The two-year collaboration between CUTR and Connected Wise was initially supported by the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, a highly competitive program known as “the nation’s seed fund” with additional support from the Florida High Tech Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program. Now it has grown to a nationwide collaboration between 14 separate entities ranging from global technology company Bosch, the University of Utah, Argonne National Laboratory and Plan Hillsborough among others.

xiopeng shaw li

Dr. Xiopeng (Shaw) Li

USF Associate Professor Xiaopeng (Shaw) Li, whose lab develops connected and autonomous vehicle technology, will serve as the principal investigator of the project. The grant extends the work to dynamic smart signs and all aspects of cooperative driving automation, including sensing, communications and vehicle control. It aims to largely reduce energy consumption and costs of a future CDA system, Dr. Li said.

“This collaboration integrates the cutting-edge research ideas from the university with the industry’s capability of implementing the ideas into prototype products,” Li said. “It will not only advance our knowledge frontier but also bring in real-world impacts on technology innovations.”

The innovative system the collaboration aims to develop is ambitious in its goal. But equally incredible is that the research partnership happened at all.

Ennes Karaaslan

Dr. Enes Karaaslan

Orlando-based Connected Wise is a technology start-up working to create safer, smarter and more sustainable transportation systems using artificial intelligence, block chains and augmented reality. Founder and CEO Enes Karaaslan was looking for a university-based research team in February 2019 when he cold-called Elizabeth Nelson, the director of the Florida High Tech Corridor’s Matching Grants Program at USF. The unique program is designed to be a bridge between university researchers and industry innovators in projects that will bolster the region’s emerging knowledge economy and flourishing talent pipeline.

Elizabeth Nelson

Elizabeth Nelson

Nelson and her team connected Karaaslan with Li. By April, Connected Wise and Li’s research team were working on a proposal for federal SBIR funding, which came that June. Corridor Matching Grant funds soon followed to support the research team, which included two graduate students working on the year-long project.

“This is a tremendous example of the powerful connections the Florida High Tech Corridor can create to benefit local companies, our universities, and our region,” Nelson said. “From our initial introduction, the team has built a strong relationship providing valuable hands-on experience for our students, developing impactful technology, and now delivering tangible economic benefit to the company and the university.”

Paul Sohl

Rear Adm. Paul Sohl (USN Ret)

Florida High Tech Corridor Council CEO Paul Sohl said the evolution of the partnership from regional collaboration to now a national program with the ability to spread innovative ideas and technologies nationwide is an example of the capabilities of Florida’s rapidly advancing regional innovation ecosystem.

“We are proud to play a role not only as a catalyst for this successful collaboration, but also in enabling greater access to autonomous vehicle technology in rural areas that are often underserved,” Sohl said. “This is a big win for Florida and strengthens our position nationally as a leader in the development and deployment of autonomous and connected vehicles.”

The newly funded DOE project seeks to resolve a challenge facing rural communities as connected vehicle technology is being implemented. Unlike densely populated urban and suburban communities, rural access to power and fiber optic infrastructure is limited and connected vehicle technology becomes more costly to implement.  Connected Wise's technology uses message-encoded traffic signs to communicate with vehicles without requiring wireless equipment on the traffic infrastructure.

connected wise graphic

Current connected vehicle technologies use high-frequency wireless communication. However, due to the high cost of the necessary infrastructure investment, these technologies have very limited availability and other challenges. Connected Wise's VECTOR system uses dynamic message signs and low-cost sensing technologies, such as cameras, that are available on the traffic infrastructure and the flashing sequences of vehicles’  headlights, tail lights, and LED displays to receive information from the vehicles. The project will reduce the cost for sensing, communications, and computation by at least 60% and reduce energy consumption by at least 40% compared to existing technologies. Graphic: Connected Wise.

"In collaboration with CUTR, we are creating a new type of traffic infrastructure that will essentially allow special traffic signs to ‘talk’ with vehicles on the road,” Karaaslan said. “It will improve the safety and efficiency of our transportation system and reduce the autonomous vehicles' energy use.

“Receiving this major grant award from the U.S. Department of Energy highlights the strong need for new infrastructure technologies for autonomous vehicles and confirms the goals we are working toward are important and impactful,” he added.

The DOE funding was part of $60 million allocated to 24 research and development projects aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from passenger cars and light- and heavy-duty trucks. The projects will help enhance the infrastructure needed to reach a federal goal of a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.   

In addition to Li, the USF team includes co-PI Handong Yao; Distinguished Professor Sudeep Sarkar of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Lisa Staes, CUTR’s Associate Director and Program Director for Transit Safety and Workforce Development; Pei-Sung Lin, CUTR’s director of Intelligent Transportation Systems, Traffic Operations & Safety program; and researchers Sisinnio Concas, Jodi Godfrey, Alexander Kolpakov and Austin Sipiora.

CUTR and Connected Wise will collaborate with the following organizations in the project:

  • University of Utah
  • Argonne National Laboratory
  • Utah Department of Transportation, Blaine D. Leonard
  • Utah Clean Cities, Tammie Bostick
  • MetroPlan Orlando
  • ENSCO, Inc.
  • Florida Department of Transportation
  • Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority
  • Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition
  • Port Tampa Bay
  • Florida Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council
  • Plan Hillsborough

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