Associate Professor Hamsa Balakrishnan is the associate head of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. She is also the director of Transportation@MIT, an initiative that knits together the wide-ranging, robust research underway at the Institute and creates new opportunities for education and innovation in the field of transportation research. Her thinking addresses the dramatic changes in transportation systems worldwide due to advances not just in vehicular technologies, but also in computing, communications, sensing, and information processing. Her current research interests are in the design, analysis, and implementation of control and optimization algorithms for large-scale, cyber-physical infrastructures, particularly air transportation systems.
Q: The research scope of Transportation@MIT is broader than what is traditionally considered the purview of “transportation,” and it encompasses what you refer to as “networks of things that move.” Could you tell us more about the new transportation research opportunities presented by data, intelligence, and autonomy?
A: Dramatic transformations are happening because of rapid advances in technologies. This includes vehicular technologies — but also technologies in communications, big data analytics, and computing at large. I think MIT is a unique place because we have strengths both in the domain of transportation and also in the disciplines that impact it. For example, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence are changing nearly every system around us — including the way people and things move. Let us consider driverless cars or drones: at MIT, we have expertise not just in automotive and aerospace engineering, but also in intelligent systems, manufacturing, autonomy, and computation. This allows us to tackle transportation challenges on the ground and in the air with integrated cutting-edge research.
Q: The successful integration of multiple modes of travel will greatly enhance the passenger experience, enable reliable door-to-door transport and delivery, and improve the reliability of transportation systems. You describe this as the seamless movement of people, materials, and information. What would this look like in daily life?
A: We currently have very siloed modes of transportation. We need a seamless flow of information, so that a journey reflects the most reliable path from origin to destination as well as the most efficient use of different transportation modes. For instance, if I want to go to New York, I need to know that it isn’t a good day to fly and that the train is a better option. Or on a certain day, I may decide to take public transportation, such as the subway, because I know certain roads are jammed. We need the seamless movement of people and things and materials — and that first requires the seamless flow of information.
Q: MIT currently attracts some of the best students in the world studying transportation. You emphasize the close integration of cutting-edge transportation research at MIT and the transportation education programs. What do you see as the long-term impact of MIT’s commitment to this integrated approach?
A: One of the best things about MIT is the close coupling between research and education. When our students go out knowing where the state-of-the-art is in both the transportation domain and the technical disciplines, they are empowered to advance knowledge and have a practical impact. Climate change is probably the biggest issue that humankind faces today. Although vehicles have been getting more efficient, the transportation sector still remains a significant consumer of fossil fuels. The growth of electric vehicles and advances in autonomy have led to a range of interesting questions on the potential impact on energy consumption and the environment. What are the most efficient strategies to manufacture these vehicles, and also for routing traffic and the managing heterogeneous fleets, for instance? If there is more efficient travel between work and home in urban areas, for example, this will have implications for the future of employment and work, including the nature and location of jobs. Or consider how a fundamental rethinking of tolling mechanisms and incentives will be needed to make transportation truly accessible and affordable to all parts of society — and how that will lead to societal change. The research possibilities and the opportunities to make a positive impact on the world are tremendous.