MIOH UTC and UDM lead search for transportation solutions
A team of five universities in Michigan and Ohio led by the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) is looking for ways to improve the efficiency, safety and security of the nation's transportation systems.
The Michigan-Ohio University Transportation Center (MIOH UTC) has started the search for research and educational projects that will qualify for federal matching funds under a four-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Leo Hanifin, dean of UDM's College of Engineering & Science, is the director of the UTC. In the first week of April representatives from Wayne State University, Grand Valley State University, the University of Toledo and Bowling Green University came to the UDM campus to talk with state officials and leaders from the non-profit sector about improving transportation.
Three half-day forums were held to consider ways the universities and other partners can develop alternative fuels, increase the efficiency of the existing transportation system and improve supply chain performance. In each of these forums, the issues were "framed" by top leaders from industry and government. This was followed by discussions of ideas for research and educational projects that MIOH UTC may undertake. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) participated in all three forums.
MIOH UTC's operating committee expects to submit a strategic plan to federal transportation officials in May so that funding will be available early in the new fiscal year that begins July 1 for most universities.
Hanifin says that federal officials want both advanced research that could lead to future breakthroughs and immediate solutions to reduce congestion in urban areas. "They want to see technology transfer," Hanifin adds. "They want to see the impact of our results beyond the publication of a paper." The UTC also has been asked to develop educational programs that will improve general awareness of transportation issues and attract more people to study and work in transportation professions.
The April 3 forum on alternative fuels focused on what can be done to avoid an economic crisis if oil supplies no longer meet demand or prices continue to rise dramatically.
Research is needed to improve the efficiency of oil consumption and develop new sources of energy, such as hydrogen fuel cells and hydraulic hybrids, biomass conversion and coal-based synthetic fuels, according to James Croce, CEO of the non-profit NextEnergy Center, which is affiliated with Wayne State University.
Croce says the country can't count on a single solution to solve the problem. "We can promote economic security through energy diversity," he says. "There is no silver bullet."
One promising avenue of study for Michigan is the conversion of wood to energy, since the decline of the forest-products industry in the state has created a glut of wood, according to Croce.
More than one speaker stressed the importance of education in making the transition from oil to alternative fuels for transportation.
"We need to educate the next generation of people who have to deal with these problems," states Mark Benvenuto, chairperson and professor of Chemistry/Biochemistry at UDM.
In proposing a new course on biofuels, Benvenuto notes that the carbon dioxide consumed by plants grown for biofuels probably would balance out the carbon dioxide emissions that the biofuels produce.
Transportation system efficiency/utilization
The second forum on April 3 focused on how technologies such as Vehicle-Infrastructure Integration (VII) can improve the efficiency and safety of the nation's roads. Communication links make it easier to identify traffic bottlenecks and safety hazards and then relay information to individual drivers.
The country's first freeway management project was on the Lodge expressway in Detroit, and the auto industry's expertise makes Michigan a good place to test new products for reducing traffic congestion, according to Steve Underwood of the Center of Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
VII can be used to warn drivers when they drift out of their lanes and notify them of icy road conditions or the approach of emergency vehicles. "There's a long list of things we can improve," Underwood says. "By connecting [with wireless communications] we can solve transportation problems that can't be solved mechanically."
Ralph Robinson, a senior technical specialist at Ford Motor Company and president of the VII Consortium (VIIC), spoke about the goals of the VIIC, a consortium of six automakers that is working on a national initiative for a cooperative highway system. Field tests could begin in southeast Michigan next year.
"We want to have vehicles on the road that refuse to have accidents, but that won't happen for a long time," says Robinson.
Another possible area of study would be the social issues that a more comprehensive transportation system could create in areas such as privacy, liability and data ownership.
Carmine Palombo, director of Transportation, Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, and Greg Krueger, director, Intelligent Transportation System Program – MDOT, also provided insights on transportation system efficiencies from the regional and state government perspectives.
Experts from IBM, Ford and UPS gave presentations at the third UTC forum held on April 6 on supply chain issues.
IBM is working on a cargo-tracking system called tamper-resistant embedded controllers (TREC) that would not only provide the global positioning of a container but also monitor temperature, humidity and even radioactivity, according to John Drury, a leader of IBM's supply chain network optimization team.
New technology applications can provide a supply chain manager with current information on trucks right down to the pressure in the tires. Technology can help avoid traffic congestion and also manage truck loads, driver schedules and truck maintenance.
But the additional information created by technology also creates new challenges for supply chain managers, according to Chip Napier, the engineering manager for UPS in Detroit.
"Technology is the foundation of everything we do," Napier says. "The technology is so far ahead of our people that we can't catch it. We need universities to develop the people for us."Gregory Ulferts, a UDM Business Administration professor, says increased reliance on overseas production could create the need for new solutions for inventory control. He notes that just-in-time delivery hasn't eliminated the need for inventory but has placed that inventory in the transportation/logistics systems … and has changed who provides and pays for that part of the supply chain.