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Carnegie Mellon got $20M to establish a transportation safety-focused research consortium

The federal grant allows CMU and partners such as University of Pennsylvania to study autonomous and other transportation technologies to ensure they're developed "with safety, equity and sustainability in mind."

Robert Hampshire, Ngani Ndimbie, Summer Lee, Raj Rajkumar, and William H. Sanders at the Safety21 launch. (Courtesy photo)

Between electric cars and autonomous vehicles, some technologists believe the US is gearing up for another revolution in the tech sector. Pittsburgh wants to be at the forefront of researching and developing safe modes of transportation technologies, and what they could mean for residents in the coming years.

With that in mind, Carnegie Mellon University will receive a $20 million grant from the US Department of Transportation to establish Safety21, a new consortium of partners focused on transportation safety issues.

This consortium, called a University Transportation Center (UTC), will be led by CMU, but include institutions from across the nation, including Commonwealth neighbor University of Pennsylvania and extending to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The partners will work “to ensure that autonomous, networked, shared, and integrated transportation technologies and systems are developed and deployed with safety, equity and sustainability in mind,” per a university announcement.

In 2023, five National University Transportation Center grants were awarded. Safety21 is the only national center with the goal of improving safety. The $20 million will be dispersed over the course of five years, and is funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Safety21 will be led by Raj Rajkumar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Previously, Rajkumar has served as the director of four of CMU’s UTCs, the most recent one being Mobility21.

“Safety21’s project portfolio will enhance transportation safety through research, development, and deployment of breakthrough technologies and policy innovations,” Rajkumar said in a statement.

Although transportation has come a long way since the earliest incarnations of the automobile were introduced in the 18000s, there is still work to be done to ensure driver and pedestrian safety; consider the nearly 43,000 car-related fatalities recorded in 2021. And although autonomous technology holds a great deal of potential, and legislation allowing AV testing without a human driver recently became law in Pennsylvania, most self-driving vehicles aren’t yet ready to be widely deployed. Plus, the public doesn’t quite trust them.

The consortium’s members feel it’s crucial to keep the technology up to date while balancing the questions of trust, safety and the need for the domestic industry to remain competitive.

Safety21 plans to do this is by seeking input from stakeholders as it advances connected and automated vehicle technologies and intelligent infrastructure, the announcement said. Additionally, the Community College of Allegheny County and the Community College of Philadelphia will receive support for workforce programs tailored for the existing and emerging transportation workforce.

“Through Safety21, faculty and student researchers will capitalize on the opportunities and risks that automated and connected vehicles present,” CMU College of Engineering Dean William H. Sanders said. “The knowledge they create will be shared with transportation managers, companies and community organizations, resulting in technology transfer and deployment.”

University stakeholders believe Safety21 has the potential to be an example of the work CMU is doing to ensure that technological advancements don’t come at the expense of safety.

“We seek to broaden our impact by ensuring communities have equal access to safety technologies; evaluating energy use and emissions; and supporting domestic commercialization, entrepreneurship, and public policy to rally economic strength and global competitiveness,” Rajkumar said.

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Community College of Allegheny County / Carnegie Mellon University / Community College of Philadelphia / University of Pennsylvania

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