Montana State University

Students use new traffic simulator to help prevent car-bike crashes

February 11, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

MSU industrial engineering senior Penny Atkins drives the university's $915,000 large-scale traffic simulator as a computer-generated bicyclist passes her on the roadway. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Montana State University engineering students Penny Atkins and Gordon Nelson will get a chance later this month to do something that nobody else at MSU will ever get to do: conduct the first research project in MSU's new large-scale traffic simulator.

"It's so exciting to be the first ones," Atkins, 21, said. "Most of the time, you'd be lucky to even get to drive the simulator."

Atkins, 21, was referring to the new $915,000 traffic simulator installed at MSU's Western Transportation Institute in November. The simulator uses a real vehicle body on a motion platform, complex computer hardware and 240-degrees of projector screens to replicate the experience of behind behind the wheel.

Atkins and Nelson, also 21, are using that simulator to research a warning system that would use radio signals and GPS to warn drivers about the presence of bicyclists on the roadway.

The pair hope that the technology could one day reduce the number of deaths that result from automobile-bicycle collisions. In 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, 698 people in the U.S. died in automobile-bicycle crashes, and another 43,000 were injured, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Rural areas like Montana are especially at risk for these kinds of accidents, said Atkins, who is from Belle Fourche, S.D. Narrow shoulders and many miles of two-lane roads often put bicyclists dangerously close to automobile traffic.

Atkins and Nelson's research is funded by the Western Transportation Institute's Undergraduate Research Experience program. URE students earn a stipend for two semesters while working one-on-one with a professional researcher on a transportation-related project.

WTI says the program helps students develop skills in data collection, analysis, interpretation and in communicating their research to a broad audience. Students in the program also get the chance to travel to professional conferences and submit papers to scientific journals.

Atkins, a senior in industrial engineering major, said her half of the project deals with finding the best type of warning to give to drivers -- sounds, lights, vibration or other types of interfaces -- and the best timing for that warning.

Meanwhile, Nelson, a senior in electrical engineering and a native of Kirkland, Wash., has been building the actual device that will transmit the warning from bicycle to vehicle and vice versa. The car-mounted transmitter, a box about the size of a paperback book, uses a GPS unit and a radio to communicate with a similar device mounted on a bicycle.

Using the location, speed and heading information from the GPS unit, Nelson's device tries to predict when collisions are likely to occur and sends a warning signal out before that happens.

To determine the optimal distance for triggering the warning signal and the best kind of warning, Nelson will work with Atkins to send 15 volunteers through tests in WTI's new traffic simulator. Atkins already has approval to use human test subjects and expects to begin testing at the end of February.

For Atkins, who used to think research consisted only of time spent in a library reading scientific papers, the URE project has been an eye-opener. Now she says her college experience would have felt much less full without the chance to conduct research on her own.

"That's really the point of this research experience, to learn what research is all about," she said. "Now I think research is really cool. I had no idea what went into all of it."

Nelson, who has interned at engineering firms in the past, said the URE project has given him a chance to engage with every part of the project, a broadness lacking from his experiences as an intern.

"This is the first job I've been at where I feel like I've done real design," he said. "Here, you're involved in the whole project. Every day you can see the big picture."

Nelson, a car enthusiast, also said the URE project has shown him that there's a place for electrical engineers in the transportation industry, one that goes beyond just the wires inside cars.

Atkins' faculty mentor, Laura Stanley, said that watching the project grow from being her idea to being Atkins' research has been one of the most enjoyable experiences she's had as a college professor.

"They have the ability to take an idea and create something new with it," said Stanley, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. "The URE project allows students to think beyond textbooks and schooling."

Another benefit of the URE project is the head start it gives students in the job hunt after graduation, said Nelson's mentor, WTI research assistant Gary Schoep.

"Gordon's going to be more competitive in the marketplace because of this project," Schoep said. "He's going to get to pick and choose his jobs, I think."

MSU has a lot of opportunities for students to get into research too, Schoep said.

"We're always looking for students," he said.

Related Stories

"WTI installs one of the country's largest driving simulators," Nov. 10, 2008 --

"Federal focus on rural road safety brings high-level visitors to WTI," Oct. 21, 2008 --

"High-tech equipment may help reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions," Sept. 11, 2006 --

Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or