Kara Kockelman

Kara Kockelman is one of three UT professors who received a 2014 Google Research Award. The three professors were awarded grants for a variety of research topics that span from autonomous vehicle ride-sharing to health care data processing.

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Three University professors recently received Google Research Awards — totaling $170,000 — to fund cutting-edge scientific research on topics including driverless vehicle systems, data crunching and child-friendly search engines.

Transportation engineering professor Kara Kockelman, information assistant professor Jacek Gwizdka and computer science professor Lorenzo Alvisi will each receive funding structured as one-year gifts. 

Google Research Awards fund a project for one year and provide both faculty and students an opportunity to work directly with Google researchers and engineers. In the latest round of biannual awards for project proposals in computer science-related fields, 110 out of 722 proposals received funding. 

“What’s fabulous is the flexibility,” Kockelman said. “The topic is something I chose, rather than their issuing us a specific request for proposals, so that is very appreciated that we get to pick our favorite topics.” 

Kockelman, whose research investigates how automated driving capabilities will impact transportation system design, said the funding comes at a time when money is tight. 

“It is very challenging for us, even in engineering and traditionally well-sponsored areas, and so absolutely every dollar counts,” Kockelman said. “We are just hoping and praying that we can get more research support from the federal and state [transportation departments].”

Gwizdka, who is also the co-director of the University’s Information eXperience Lab, said the recognition for his work was more important than the money. His research focuses on how children search for information on the Internet. 

“We want to create a better metric of text readability of search results on the Internet, and one of the tools that I will be using in this research is eye-tracking,” Gwizdka said. “Something that tells me where a person, in this case where a kid, is looking on the screen.”

Alvisi, who could not be reached for comment, will work on developing instruments to help health care systems manage and process large quantities of data.

Civil engineering professor Kara Kockelman and graduate student Daniel Fangant are conducting research on driverless cars and shared autonomous vehicles. Kockelman and Fangant predict these cars will play an important role in people’s daily lives in less than 10 years.

Photo Credit: Mengwen Cao | Daily Texan Staff

According to UT researchers, driverless cars, or shared autonomous vehicles, could start driving people around the country in fewer than 10 years.

Civil engineering professor Kara Kockelman and graduate student Daniel Fagnant have worked with the Center for Transportation Research in the Cockrell School of Engineering to research the impacts these vehicles would have when implemented as a fleet car sharing program, similar to the ZipCar and Car2Go programs operating in Austin.

“Automated vehicles are coming, and our society needs to be ready,” Kockelman said. “Early research is critical in anticipating their impacts.”

Today, the automated vehicles would cost approximately $100,000 more than the average car, Kockelman said. If these cars were used in a car sharing program, though, people would no longer have to own and maintain personal vehicles, which make up a large share of household expenditures, according to Kockelman.

“They would have access to a very smart car, allowing them to work or sleep en route — in the longer term,” Kockelman said.

Kockelman expects these vehicles to be fuel efficient and available in different sizes depending on the length of the trip, while also providing transportation to those who might not be able to provide it for themselves.

“Smart vehicles allow for persons with driving disabilities to continue accessing key services and important social activities,” Kockelman said.

Kockelman said in the early years of the program the traveler would have to be licensed to drive in case any issues should arise.

To see how the shared program would function in Austin, Fagnant said he and Kockelman are simulating how the cars would get around Austin to pick people up and drop them off at request.

“Currently, we are simulating around 60,000 trips served by approximately 2,000 SAVs that travel around Austin picking travelers up, dropping them off and relocation to more favorable locations when not in use,” Fagnant said. “From these simulations, we examine resulting changes in travel patterns, implications for household vehicle ownership and life-cycle pollutant emissions impacts.”

Communication studies senior Victoria Collatos said she used ZipCar frequently when she studied at Univeristy of California-Los Angeles and needed a way to get off campus. Collatos said she would enjoy using a shared autonomous vehicle, especially if she could use the travel time to work.

“If it is proven to be safe, then I think that is awesome,” Collatos said. “I feel that traveling definitely cuts into productivity time.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the effect of driverless vehicles on household expenditures, the capacity of the vehicles and the way in which driverless car share programs would be rolled out.

Cars line up at the intersection of East Oltorf and I-35 Frontage Road Saturday afternoon. Last week the Texas Department of Transportation named the stretch of I-35 from State Highway 71 to U.S. Highway 183 the fourth most congested roadway in the state.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

Interstate Highway 35 from State Highway 71 to U.S. Highway 183 is the fourth-most congested roadway in the state, according to a Texas Department of Transportation list released last week.

Because of Austin’s economic growth and population increase, roadways are growing increasingly congested during peak commuter hours despite attempts to fund infrastructure improvements, according to the city of Austin’s website.

“With a combination of the business district, downtown area, double deck split, hospitals and UT, there is a lot of entering and exiting traffic in that area,” said John Hurt, Austin spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the upper deck on the stretch of I-35 entering downtown Austin was built to alleviate traffic, Hurt said. However, since the 1970s the downtown area has become busier and more crowded and new lanes cannot keep up with increased congestion.

“The possibility of adding lanes is not good,” said Hurt. “It’s a temporary fix.”

In the last four to five years, traffic on that section of I-35 has not gotten dramatically worse, said Tim Lomax, research engineer for the Texas Transportation Institute. He said this has been a result of the ongoing recession.

“Congestion has actually dropped 10 to 15 percent, reflecting the economy of the past three to four years,” Lomax said. “However, on that section of the road, a decent economy combined with an increase in population is bound to produce traffic congestion that is still worse than average.”

For the every-day commuter, this means skyrocketing gasoline consumption, he said.

“In 2009, the average Austin commuter spent an extra $900 dollars a year in gas and travel time,” Lomax said. “If you think about the commuters on that section of 35, they’ve spent at least $1,100 just sitting in traffic. It boils down to about an extra $100 a month.”

However, the increased spending on fuel because of bad traffic is not the only cost to society, said engineering professor Kara Kockelman.

“The main cost to society lies in lost time [or higher crash severities, at high speeds], rather than extra fuel consumed,” Kockelman said.

A drastic change will require effort from many groups, including the city of Austin, the Capital Area Metro Planning Organization, the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and others, said Kockelman. While many Austin residents would not appreciate price increases, Kockelman said tolling and road pricing may be the best option for TxDOT at the moment.

TxDOT added state Highway 130 over the last decade in hopes to revive pressure from I-35, Kockelman said, but Highway 130 has not yet been successful at reducing congestion on I-35.

“It is rather new, in a largely undeveloped setting, and presumably too far away and tolled too heavily to attract much traffic at this early stage,” Kockelman said. “But it does offer a bypass option for those with long trips. Shorter trips remain very much attracted to the highly congested I-35 corridor through and near downtown Austin.”

Some commuter students of UT have also experienced the brute of peak I-35 traffic congestion. Journalism sophomore Rachel Knapp said she spent last semester commuting to UT and struggled to make it to campus in the face of the high congestion.

“I live in Round Rock, which is only a 30-minute drive from here on I-35,” Knapp said. “But because I had 8 a.m. classes every morning, I would have to leave at 6:30 every morning to beat the traffic and make it to class.”

City facilities around Austin will soon be equipped with electric car plug-in stations, said an Austin Energy spokesman. Austin Energy partnered with California-based Coulomb Technologies, an electric vehicle infrastructure company that works with public utilities across the country to install public charging stations for electric cars. Before next summer, 100 to 200 charging stations will be installed at city facilities such as Austin City Hall and public libraries. Austin Energy Spokesman Carlos Cordova said any public utility can install a charging station for $2,500. “They would show their commitment to the environment and that they are on the leading edge of promoting electric vehicles,” he said. Although there are only about a dozen electric cars in the city now, Cordova said he expects the number to increase to about 160 next year after the launch of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf next month. Kara Kockelman, a civil, architectural and environmental engineering professor, said Austin residents would make a good market for plug-in electric vehicles. She said that early users will provide businesses with an example to further modify the products to make them more affordable and effective. “As in any paradigm-shifting situation, timing of supporting infrastructure is critical,” Kockelman said. “Austin must roll out such charging infrastructure soon.” Having more electric vehicles on the road in Austin will improve air quality and reduce the city’s carbon footprint, Kockelman said. “We would do the world a favor in terms of greenhouse gas impacts and reduce our reliance on petroleum imports,” she said. The investment in the stations is a step in the right direction, but their effects might not be immediately noticeable in the environment, said Chandra Bhat, a civil, architectural and environmental engineering professor. The investments will be successful if government agencies monitor the adaptation behavior of households so that changes can occur without a substantial loss in the investments already made, he said. “It is important that new infrastructure in Austin is introduced in a careful, calibrated fashion so that Austin Energy can get reactions to the first few charging stations, learn from those responses and have the flexibility to design other stations in the pipeline based on that knowledge,” Bhat said.