- Three research projects have received federal grant money from both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to improve the energy efficiency and affordability of public transit systems through the advancement of "innovative vehicle technologies" and data.
- The projects from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Chattanooga Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) and Utah State University (USU) each received $1.75 million in joint funding from the DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) and USDOT's Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
- Researchers at MIT will look to develop a transit-centric Smart Mobility System to help agencies create short-term operating plans and adaptable real-time control strategies. CARTA will also develop a software platform using artificial intelligence (AI) to integrate fixed-route transportation with on-demand services and paratransit and determine where best to deploy electric buses. And USU aims to develop tools for planning and operations to help the large-scale electrification of bus fleets.
DOE officials said public transit plays a "key role" in keeping transportation systems efficient and affordable, and provides a “natural opportunity” for collaboration across agencies. With the transportation sector one of the leading causes of carbon emissions in cities, efforts to reduce its energy consumption can have a big impact on overall emissions reduction efforts.
The USU research project comes as more transit agencies look to electrify their bus fleets in a bid to cut emissions, but come up against issues like higher electricity costs from charging and the need to balance their schedules to ensure the vehicles have enough time to be charged without impacting service. With partners including the Argonne National Lab and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the project will help agencies understand electric grid demand and how to ensure fleets are charged efficiently.
"Currently, we haven't seen any impact of electric buses on the power grid yet," said Ziqi Song, an assistant professor of civil engineering at USU and the lead researcher on the project. "The reason for that is really just very few electric buses [being used] … When you have an entire fleet of electric buses, then you can imagine the power requirement for the fleet is huge, and then certainly there will be some impact on the power grid."
There have been other efforts at the local level to electrify buses and provide solutions like the nation’s first electric double-decker bus at Foothill Transit in Los Angeles, while the Delaware Transit Corporation (DTC) received an FTA grant in August to power its electric buses with a solar array.
In Chattanooga, CARTA is exploring how to balance its fleet and integrate other transportation modes, including micromobility and car-sharing, into a holistic transit system. Partnered with Vanderbilt University and others, the agency hopes to have actionable insights from its AI platform by early 2021.
Over time, the AI will be able to process a variety of scenarios through machine learning to determine the optimal place to deploy fleets, including weather and frequently ridden routes. Abhishek Dubey, an assistant professor of computer science and computer engineering at Vanderbilt University, said there are tools out there to help with some aspects of operations planning for transit agencies, but nothing that does everything at once.
"Right now, if you go into the market and try to buy all this scheduling software that do this kind of trip operations, they make lots of assumptions," Dubey said. "Sometimes they just outright ignore certain conditions, because they just can't handle it. If you try to write a simple computer program, you won't succeed."
The agency hopes the project will improve transit accessibility in Chattanooga, with the aim of having 73% of residents with frequent public transportation service within a quarter mile of their home. Philip Pugliese, CARTA's transportation system planner, said the platform will help officials understand how they can achieve that goal in an equitable way.
"We're trying to understand how best we can provide useful transit to the broadest popular area and number of people," Pugliese said. "Having dynamically routed transit opportunities and being able to optimize that service, that's the direction where we think we might need to go in order to service the needs of everyone."
Officials with MIT did not respond to requests for comment on their project.