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MIT Better World

By Ken Shulman

New technologies are upending long-static industries such as automobile manufacturing and highway construction, and altering the way we plan our cities and homes. The climate crisis is compelling the mobility and transportation industries to innovate in ways that are not only new but also clean and sustainable.

“It’s an incredibly turbulent but interesting time,” says Jinhua Zhao MCP ’04, SM ’04, PhD ’09, associate professor of transportation and city planning and founder and director of the MIT Mobility Initiative (MMI). “The transportation world is booming but in flux: the industry is being reshuffled, communities and cities are often confused and anxious about their mobility future, and the ecosystem pressure is daunting. While the major players like car manufacturers scramble to adapt, new players like autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence (AI) stake their claim. MIT wants to play a leadership role in shaping this new reality.”

Launched in 2020, the MMI provides continuity, context, and an ongoing forum for MIT researchers and key stakeholders in the mobility ecosystem, both inside and outside MIT. The Institute-spanning initiative includes 75 MIT faculty researchers from 12 departments and laboratories. Zhao has hosted a series of 62 virtual MMI Mobility Forums, showcasing the groundbreaking transportation research across the Institute and reaching over 10,000 participants and viewers from across the globe. Leaders from Hyundai Motor Group, Ferrovial, Ford, Liberty Mutual, Microsoft, US DOT, Chicago Transit Authority, and Transport for London presented during MMI’s annual Mobility Vision Day in November 2022.

“Transportation is a complex system with multiple actors in the public, private, and academic spheres,” says John Moavenzadeh, executive director of the MMI and former lead of the mobility platform at the World Economic Forum, who also developed and co-teaches the graduate-level Mobility Ventures course. “The future of mobility isn’t being charted solely in a research university. It’s being charted in a dynamic ecosystem of big technology players, startups, entrepreneurs, academics, and civic leaders. If we want to have a global mobility system that is safe, clean, and inclusive, we need to ground that system, to connect it across disciplines and institutions and people on the front lines. This is the type of thing that MIT can do very well.”

An opportunity to lead

Jinhua Zhao came to MIT in 2013 with a joint appointment in the departments of urban studies and planning and civil and environmental engineering. In 2018, he met with a small group of MIT leaders: Provost Cynthia Barnhart SM ’86, PhD ’88; School of Engineering dean Anantha Chandraksan; School of Architecture and Planning dean Hashim Sarkis; professor of engineering Sanjay Sarma (then the vice president of open learning); and Professor Emeritus Daniel Roos to discuss an idea for an Institute-wide project. “I observed that MIT had a long and proud history in transport scholarship,” says Zhao. “Transportation is not one single discipline but it requires and unifies all sorts of expertise. And all those disciplines need to speak with each other.”

By Zhao’s design, the MMI is perched on three pillars: technology, data, and values. The first pillar supports research in subjects including energy, vehicle design and development, and aeronautics. The second encompasses projects ranging from demand modeling to AI and big data. “The third pillar, values, is where we ask what transportation is for,” says Zhao, who also directs the JTL Urban Mobility Lab at MIT. “What purpose do our sophisticated technologies and intelligence serve? Do they alter our behaviors? Can we create a mobility ecosystem that furthers public health and creates greater equity and access? Transportation is currently the biggest contributor of CO2 in the United States. Can we quickly decarbonize transportation while providing everyone the access to opportunities?”

Digging deep

In March 2022, the MMI put out its first call for research proposals. “I applied with a proposal about safety and performance in autonomous vehicles,” says Cathy Wu ’12, MNG ’13, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering. “There is a perception that the public expects autonomous vehicles to be significantly safer than human-piloted vehicles. We wanted to explore whether that should be the bar. To ask how safe is safe enough.”

To answer that question, Wu first had to ascertain how safe human drivers are. To her surprise, she discovered there weren’t sufficient data to make that calculation. Performing even a rudimentary analysis would require simulating billions if not trillions of miles of driving, a largely futile operation requiring enormous resources. Instead, Wu is using neural surrogate modeling, a machine-learning technique, to simulate and analyze specific driving and traffic scenarios. “That would establish a baseline,” Wu explains. “Then regulators could debate whether autonomous vehicles should be 5 or 10 or 25 percent safer. And whether that level should change over time.”

Andres Sevtsuk SM ’06, PhD ’10, the Charles and Ann Spaulding Career Development Professor of Urban Science and Planning, is also undertaking research projects with MMI. “We want to know whether we can have built environments that don’t require everyone to drive,” says Sevtsuk, who explores public transport, cycling, and walkability. “With the demographic shifts we’re seeing, away from suburbs and into cities, can we see something other than cars 2.0 emerge? New transport services, personal mobility devices like scooters, and the challenge of charging the growing electric fleet have thrown the field into a whirlwind. The MMI is helping to create clarity and also linking the private sector with city, state, and federal governments.”

Asking the big questions

Karl Iagnemma SM ’97, PhD ’01, CEO of the Boston-based company Motional, which develops autonomous vehicle technology for major ride-hail companies including Lyft and Uber Eats, says the MMI offers both an invaluable network and a fresh perspective for its industry partners. “In industry, we are too often tied up in shorter-term technologies and strategies,” says Iagnemma, who recently joined MMI’s Global Advisory Board. “MIT is looking at fundamental questions related to the future of transport and mobility. They ask the ‘what ifs’ that could lead to meaningful strategies across the sector, in business, autonomous transport, urban planning, and policy.”

In addition to providing a holistic platform to view mobility, the MMI is also training personnel to drive the sector towards greater efficiency, sustainability, and change. “The Mobility Initiative provides great value as a place where the brightest minds from private, public, and academic organizations can connect,” says Regina Clewlow PhD ’12, CEO and cofounder of Populus, a data platform that helps private mobility operators and cities deliver safe streets for all forms of transit. “But it will also produce graduates with expertise in transport and mobility to work in those organizations.”

Wu says the MMI is already playing a vital role in shaping transportation—and society. She also believes the initiative can serve as a test bench, a first-generation experiment in facing and resolving a complex global problem. “Transportation, in the end, feels like one of our more tractable systems,” says Wu, who studied electrical engineering and computer science as an MIT undergraduate. “We don’t really understand why people click on a specific social media link, or why they choose to take their medication or not. We do understand how and why people hit the brake pedal. And we have decades of modeling under our belt. If we do this right, we can create the methods and tools that can help resolve far messier global problems.”

Mobility Ventures: Making Transportation Your Business

“We emphasize the idea of mobility as a system,” says John Moavenzadeh about the Mobility Ventures course he co-teaches with Martin Trust Center managing director Bill Aulet SM ’94; Jinhua Zhao MCP ’04, SM ’04, PhD ’09; and Jenny Larios Berlin ’15 MCP/MBA, entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center. “We want our students to understand that the many different stakeholders within the mobility system—regulators, startups, big corporates— have different and often competing incentives. They need to understand these incentives to change the broader system.”

Mobility Ventures has been offered jointly by the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning to students from MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and Wellesley since 2020. In one class exercise, students organize into small teams to explore a mobility problem and then present a proposed solution to their peers. “The exercise teaches them to see the broader picture,” says Moavenzadeh, executive director of the MIT Mobility Initiative (MMI). “It’s not just designing a better scooter and dumping them in the middle of a city. You need to involve the city officials to plan how they will be used and where they will be charged and stored.”

“This class brings the perspectives of behavioral thinking and computational thinking together to identify venture opportunities,” says Zhao, director of the MMI. Mobility Ventures has featured fireside chats and intensive Q & A sessions with a bustling roster of industry heavyweights including Kyle Vogt ’08, CEO and cofounder of the GM-owned self-driving company Cruise, and Mark Rosekind, a former official with the National Highway Safety Administration.

“The highlight was the visit from Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway,” says Sloan Fellow Morgan McCray MBA ’23, who came to MIT after a decade of work in the public and private sectors. “I sought out this class to understand what is going on in the mobility industry, to better understand the opportunities for integration that exist between the many stakeholders, and to learn how we can incentivize people and institutions toward change. This course is a beautiful hybrid that bridges all those elements.”