Traffic drives U team’s project

by Jeannine Aquino

A University mechanical engineering team might well have the answer to traffic congestion: narrow, tilt-control commuter vehicles.

Standing about 5 feet long and 3 feet wide, these new vehicles promise to combine the mobility and fuel economy of a motorcycle with the safety and stability of a car.

Mechanical engineering professor Rajesh Rajamani is the principal investigator in the project.

“Basically, we are working on a traffic-friendly commuter vehicle,” Rajamani said. “It’s kind of like a motorcycle, but it has some new technologies in it.”

The narrow commuter vehicle features a computer-controlled tilt system that automatically calculates the degree the vehicle should tilt around turns.

The idea is for the vehicle to drive like a regular passenger vehicle, Rajamani said. People don’t need to know how to drive a motorcycle to drive this vehicle.

“Basically, an 80-year-old grandmother could drive it,” he said.

The motivation for the project, Rajamani said, is to reduce traffic congestion.

“Two-thirds of all traffic is actually congested traffic now,” he said, citing a traffic congestion study conducted by Texas A&M University.

Samuel Kidane, a doctoral student studying vehicle dynamics and control under Rajamani, said, as opposed to building more infrastructures, “we can reduce the average vehicle size and make better use of the already existing infrastructure.”

Instead of having a 12-foot-wide lane, Rajamani said, a 6-foot-wide lane would be enough for these vehicles.

The team has been working on the project for more than three years. With funding from the University’s Intelligent Transportation System Institute and the National Science Foundation, Rajamani estimated they’ve received about $300,000 to develop the vehicle.

The team is in the experimentation stage of their research. After a year and a half spent custom-building most of the parts, Kidane and mechanical engineering research fellow Lee Alexander began testing the tilt-control system last month.

“We’re all in a learning mode,” Alexander said. “I don’t know of any experts for small tilting vehicles.”

Kidane said he mostly is testing to see whether the computer lets the driver tilt at the right direction and at the right time.

The steering is not directly controlled by the driver, Kidane said. The driver would move the handles and the input would then be fed to a computer that controls the steering.

After perfecting the tilt-control vehicle, Rajamani said, he plans to work on the vehicle’s propulsion and equip the vehicle with short-range and long-range radar that would sound an alarm if it detected a possible impending collision.

Rajamani also hopes to equip the car with a frame and air bags to provide a “safety bubble” around the vehicle.

Although research on narrow commuter vehicles is being done in Europe, Rajamani and his team are the only ones developing the technology in the United States.

Rajamani said their research is “kind of unique.”

“We’re the only ones working on it,” he said. “From a research point of view it’s nice because it gives you the potential to really develop new technology that other people haven’t worked on.”