Efficiency Needs to Pay the Bills

by Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator


Infrastructure maintenance continues to be costly and finding equitable solutions to pay for it will be challenging.  Historically, infrastructure repairs fell on the revenue made from the gas tax.  The gas tax had been a fair way to have all infrastructure users pay their share.  With the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles (eg. Zero emissions vehicles (ZEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV)) on the rise, especially out west, relaying on trips to the gas pump to fix the highways is not sustainable.

Currently, eight states have passed bills that include a form of assessment on ZEVs and BEVs.  These assessments include an additional registration fee and/or licensing fees.  These two revenue forms do not demand an upstart cost and are easy to implement.  In-terms of other revenue sources (eg. mileage based fees) a couple of states have discussed introducing a bill for this; but the State of Arizona is the only that tried to pass a bill, but it didn’t get any traction.

Even though the sale of vehicles that have zero or reduced emissions is on the rise, putting something in place to track vehicle distance or mileage is still a ways off.  California, who is leading the nation with the number of ZEVs and BEVs, has recently considered developing a mechanism to tax per mile someone who has one of these vehicles.  Ideas that have been discussed include: tracking your mileage every time you pull up to the gas station or charging station; or retro vehicles with a tracker (collecting miles driven).   Tracking miles would require additional funds for operation and administration.

A recent MassDOT published report by UMTC Research Affiliates Song Gao and Michael Plotnikov titled:  Zero Emission Vehicles: Impacts on Transportation Revenue, states that Massachusetts currently pays for their infrastructure maintenance through a state and federal gas tax, vehicle registration fees, and the purchase and use tax.    MA passed a bill earlier this year, promoting electric vehicle use.  There continues to be discussion in MA about other ways users of ZEV and BEV can financially contribute to maintaining the transportation infrastructure.


New Year, New UMass Human Performance Lab Web Site

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

Photo Source: Shannon Roberts, Human Performance Lab, UMass Amherst

The Human Performance Lab (HPL) based at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has a brand new look! The HPL was originally created by Professor Donald Fisher in the 1990s and is world-renowned for its work on teen driver training. In 2016, the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center (UMTC) Affiliate Researcher Professor Shannon Roberts joined the HPL and now serves as the HPL co-director, overseeing research activities of the lab and day-to-day operations. Professor Roberts’ research is focused on driver feedback, in-vehicle interface design, automated vehicles, and teen/novice drivers. Her research group’s web site has information on her team and other interests.

With Dr. Robert’s arrival, the lab underwent significant changes. Upgrades include a new vehicle (2015 Ford Fusion), five new projectors with an expanded field of view of 330 degrees, new channels for displaying the side and rear-view mirrors and a new in-vehicle display.  The HPL has also obtained other new equipment including Virtual Reality (VR) headsets for delivering training and using with simulations, and a new heart-rate monitor to use with participants in lab studies.  Coming soon will be an instrumented vehicle for use with on-road studies.  The upgraded equipment will significantly expand the lab’s research capabilities.  One recent new area of research for the lab involves autonomous vehicles.  This is the transfer of driving control from driver to vehicle, and drivers’ awareness of their surroundings and ability to respond to potential roadway hazards as they switch from autonomous modes that require more attention and input from the driver, to those that require less attention.

As it has since its beginning, the lab, based in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, continues to collaborate with other departments at UMass-Amherst including Civil Engineering, the UMTC, Computer Science, Electric and Computer Engineering, and Psychology.

Where is my Snowplow? Snowplow Apps and Cams Comfort Drivers

by Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

Minnesota DOT

When snowy weather comes, drivers want to know which roads have been plowed and what the road conditions are.  A number of state Departments of Transportation (DOT) are now providing the public access to the real-time data that the DOTs collect on roads and plows.  Some states even have snowplow dashboard cameras so people can watch the plows at work and see the roads as the plow drivers see them.

The Iowa DOT’s Track a Plow program started in 2013. Track a Plow lets anyone with Internet access see where plows are operating, and view photos taken from cameras attached to plow windshields.  As described on the Iowa DOT web site, “the data and images coming from the snowplow trucks are part of a larger data collection process that includes global positioning satellite and advanced vehicle location technology to help the Iowa DOT make smarter decisions related to treating Iowa’s roadways. Eric Abrams, the Iowa DOT’s geographic information systems (GIS) coordinator, developed the architecture behind the public website. ‘Our snowplow trucks are now equipped to collect a wealth of information. Some of it is more useful to managers and supervisors at the DOT and some of it helps everyone. We’ve made the data available in a variety of layers on the track a plow site so people can pick and choose what they want to see. So far, the camera layer has been the most popular with the public.’”

The Michigan DOT (MDOT) piloted its snowplow tracking program for the past few winters and has now expanded it statewide. The department’s Mi Drive website and app for traffic conditions lets people see where MDOT snowplows are and also whether they are actively plowing or applying ice melting materials. Some of the plows also have webcams which can be viewed through Mi Drive. As the MLive newsite reported, “MDOT has long allowed access to traffic cameras and images, but this new feature will show the havoc of Michigan’s winter with a first-person (vehicle) view.”  Information on the web site and app is updated every 60-90 seconds. According to MDOT, the Mi Drive app version is especially popular with motorists as it is faster and easier to use than the web site and allows more customization.

The Minnesota DOT (MNDOT) pilot tested snowplow cams for the first time last year and put them on about 200 plows (25% of the MNDOT fleet). A short video on this MNDOT initiative can be seen here.  The snowplow info shared with the public by MNDOT is part of the Minnesota’s 511 road information system (511mn.org).

Other state DOTs do not have web cams on their snowplows yet but still share weather and snowplow data online, and give the public access to some of their GIS data layers used by staff. The Pennsylvania DOT shares snowplow locations through its 511pa.com site. The Utah DOT (UDOT) includes a snowplow layer in its real-time UDOT Traffic web site and smartphone app. This website and app gives plow locations and shows where the plows have traveled in the last 30 minutes (the data is updated every 3-5 minutes). Last winter, the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) launched its Find My Plow site which helps motorists see where plows have been, and when the next plow is coming, so they can plan their driving trips accordingly.


US: Transit Agencies Cautious on Electric Buses Despite Bold Forecasts – Dr. Christofa and Dr. Pollitt Weigh in

by: Melissa Paciulli, UMTC Manager of Research

electric buses
Chicago Tribune, 2017

One Center Affiliates, Dr. Eleni Christofa and Dr. Krystal Pollitt recently completed research for MassDOT on evaluating electric and other zero emission buses in the U.S. As part of this research, they completed an extensive review of transit agencies’ experience with electric buses across the country.  We asked them to weigh in on a recent article published by Nicholas Groom, from Reuters, December 12, 2017 on MassTransit, which reported that “more than 65,000 public buses plying U.S. roads today, just 300 are electric. Among the challenges: EVs are expensive, have limited range and are unproven on a mass scale.”

Dr Christofa and Dr. Pollitt, argue that based on their findings, “Electric buses have the potential to expand across the fleets of U.S. transit agencies; limiting factors have been driving range and costs. Recent advances in battery technology are moving towards overcoming these hurdles with increases in energy density and decreased battery costs.”

TRB Lounge – Many learning and networking opportunities

From the lectern sessions, to the poster sessions, to the workshops, the spotlight themes, to the AICP certification, to the practice ready paper sessions, there will be over 1,160 features at the upcoming January 2018 TRB Annual Meeting; a variety of sessions for everyone to attend.

Please join UMass Amherst graduate students and UMass Transportation Center Affiliates and staff at our reception on Tuesday evening:


Traffic Apps Impact on Neighborhoods and Safety

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

Photo by Noe Veloso Fremont, CA Public Works Department

Smart phone apps, such as Waze and Google Maps, help drivers find the quickest routes to their destinations using real-time traffic data.  Sometimes this means that drivers are being directed off congested highways to streets through residential neighborhoods instead. Not everyone is happy about this, including traffic planners and people living in these neighborhoods who don’t want higher volumes of traffic on their streets.

News media have reported these impacts of traffic apps on Cape Cod neighborhoods, and in the Boston area.  Quoting Police Sergeant Charles Hartnett, head of Medford’s traffic division, in one news report: “For the residents, it’s a safety issue.”  Some communities are responding by restricting a cut-through and turning movements into residential neighborhoods during commuting hours when the traffic is heaviest.  In some places, certain streets are being changed to one-way roads as another means to divert traffic.  When such changes are made, transportation planners often share these updates with the app companies so that their maps and algorithms can be adjusted accordingly.

The traffic apps can also present a challenge to safety officials in emergency situations.  For example, in the Los Angeles area, while officials were busy fighting wildfires, they implored residents to ignore the apps that were directing them to lightly traveled roads in the fire zones, and put up message signs telling drivers “Don’t Trust Your Apps.” As described in this USA Today article, the fires and evacuation orders were the reason the traffic volumes is these areas were so low.  In Vermont, the shortest way isn’t always the safest way.  Cars have been abandoned because the driver followed Google maps, only to end up on a road that was not maintained in the winter.

Mutual Aid During the Winter – Lending a Hand

by: Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator


A blaze recently destroyed the Sandisfield highway garage, leaving the town without access to trucks for snow removal.  Abutting towns and others have stepped in to offer services to assist Sandisfield with their snow removal needs.  Towns like Huntington, Northampton, Leominster, Beckett and others have posted on the One Center Baystate Roads listserve the various services offered for aid (e.g. equipment and staff) to help keep the roads clear and safe.  In Massachusetts, there are two types of Intrastate Mutual Aid Agreements that Towns can participate in: Statewide Mutual Aid Agreement and Public Works Mutual Aid Agreement.  Many Massachusetts towns have signed one of these documents to provide assistance to another town that is in need of equipment, staff, traffic mitigation, due to a natural disaster, fires etc…

MassDOT has also provided aid to Sandisfield.  Speaking with Kathy Stevens, District 1; “ MassDOT has committed two weeks of salt and plowing services to the town.”  This is not unusual for MassDOT to offer these services.  Historically they have offered other services as well, including traffic and safety mitigation.

Do You Trust Vehicles To Do The Driving?

by Courtney Murtagh and Melissa Paciulli, Manager of Research

While Boston is positioned to become a hub for autonomous vehicles, buy-in from the public, remains a potential hurdle.   New research based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), indicated that people aren’t so sure about self-driving cars.  The study surveyed 3,000 Bostonians of different ages. Half of those interviewed, said they would never buy a self-driving car due to safety, and citing that they did not trust technology.

Researchers at UMass Amherst are studying driver trust to determine how technology impacts human behavior.  Foroogh Hajiseyedjavadi, a PhD Candidate in the Transportation Engineering program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, was interviewed this past week about her research.

“Inappropriate level of trust in the technology, whether it is over trust or under-trust, would negatively affect the benefits of that technology,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

Hajiseyedjavadi is evaluating drivers’ trust in automated vehicles and believes that understanding peoples trust in automated vehicles will help enhance human automation interaction models.

“Automated driving is expected to enhance traffic safety and flow,” said Hajiseyedjavadi in her executive summary. “The system will not be as effective if users do not accept it or do not utilize it appropriately.”

Hajiseyedjavadi’s research is in two phases; the first phase being a 68 question survey distributed to participants online with questions that include general demographics, their driving history, and questions about their psychological and personal traits. This phase also addressed a persons’ previous experiences with automated systems, like ATM’s and vending machines, and their experience with computers.“The hope is that the results of this part will give some basic understanding of the level of trust consumers have even before experiencing the technology,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

The second phase of the research was conducted in the Arbella Human Performance Lab at UMass Amherst, on a driving simulator which included simulation of autonomous controls within the vehicle. Hajiseyedjavadi and her team recruited 80 people to participate in the study and programmed different driving scenarios.

During the simulated drives, there were different levels of automation and functionality that the driver would experience. Either the driver would get an autonomous driving system that worked fine, or the driver would get an autonomous vehicle with a 12 percent or even a 25 percent failure rate.

“We have never scripted a crash. The 12 and 25 percent failure comes when the autonomous vehicle sensors fail. This occurs at either a pedestrian crossing or an intersection. For these failures, it is up to the driver to correct the mistake,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

Sensors are set up during the simulation that measure the vehicles speed, lane keeping, acceleration, and deceleration. Another set of data is the physiological data of the subject. The driver wears a heart rate and variability sensor. There are also two sets of video cameras showing the hand movements on the steering wheel and the foot petals. This is to see when drivers are engaging in the system.

After the simulations the team would ask the participants to complete a second questionnaire about their level of trust while driving and their mental workload.

“All this data combined is hopefully going to give us a better understanding of the level or trust and how people are interacting with the vehicle,” said Hajiseyedjavadi.

“Trust is one of those things that control people’s use of the system,” continued Hajiseyedjavadi citing why this study is so important.

She said in order to improve drivers’ trust in automated vehicles, scientist need to improve the level of reliability of the system.

Communicating and teaching drivers how to use the technology is also essential, according to Hajiseyedjavadi.

“We are definitely going to see automated driving cars in the future,” said Hajiseyedjavadi. “I don’t know exactly how many years but we are definitely going to have them soon.”


Mark Your Calendars! The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) Data Workshop scheduled for August 8-9, 2018

“TRB is sponsoring a National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) Data for Transportation Applications Workshop August 8-9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. The NHTS allows analysis of daily travel by all modes, including characteristics of the persons traveling and their households, their vehicles, and their trips. This workshop, held every 5-6 years, explores how NHTS data has been used to support key transportation policy considerations, such as energy use, congestion, highway finance, safety, and mode share. The 2018 workshop will focus on the methods and techniques for using the survey data and the performance measures to which it can be applied, especially when integrating it with other data sources. For questions, contact Tom Palmerlee at TPalmerlee@nas.edu or visit TRB.org.

GHSA Announces New Research Partnership with Transportation Research Board

by:  Matt Mann, Research Program Coordinator

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is pleased to announce the launch of a new forum for collaborative research through the Behavioral Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Program (BTSCRP).  Speaking with Kara Macek, GHSA, “this partnership between GHSA and TRB brings a Research Panel together that will provide oversight and ownership, while promoting actionable results on each project.”