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Prototyping New Ideas with the Volpe Innovation Accelerator

Wednesday, May 24, 2023
Volpe's Innovation Accelerator (VIA) logo
Volpe's Innovation Accelerator (VIA) logo (U.S. DOT Volpe Center photo)

Since its launch in August 2020, the U.S. DOT Volpe Center’s Volpe Innovation Accelerator (VIA) has spurred innovation by inviting employees to propose ideas, recruit teams, and develop prototypes and concept papers. In the process, it encourages collaboration, develops skillsets, and strengthens cross-divisional professional networks. Increasing employees’ capacity for innovation will help solve important transportation challenges, especially those aligned with U.S. DOT priorities.  

To date, 22 projects have been evaluated and funded in a total of three sprints, with several projects being deployed to solve pressing transportation challenges. For example, one Sprint 1 team created a machine learning algorithm to identify when driving study participants look at single or multiple operations while operating a vehicle—a tool that has reduced labor costs, improved R&D approaches, and provided benefits to other agencies who may sponsor future work with the U.S. DOT Volpe Center.  

Another Sprint 1 team developed an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) case study to identify Boston-area locations where vertiports and UAM routes could be located. The team performed an economic analysis of door-to-door commute options to address questions on mode shift, time, cost, environmental impacts, and equity. The team’s paper titled Urban Air Mobility (UAM) and Total Mobility Innovation Framework and Analysis Case Study: Boston Area Digital Twin and Economic Analysis received the Best of Session award at the Digital Avionics System Conference in September 2022.  

Five Sprint 2 projects were selected to receive additional funding:  

  • Using Virtual Reality to Study Vehicle Operational Safety near Vulnerable Road Users: This project examines the use of virtual reality (VR) headsets to study a variety of transportation and safety problems, including unintended consequences of automation, vehicle and infrastructure design, and driver training. This project created a virtual world using VR headsets to allow researchers to assess options for mitigating blind zones in heavy trucks to protect bicyclists and pedestrians.  
  • Truck Parking Status Using Drones: Insufficient truck parking leads to truck drivers parking on highway ramps and other unsafe places. This innovative solution uses drone video to capture available parking spaces and machine vision technology and artificial intelligence to determine parking lot status. Key advantages of this approach are lower costs compared to previously tested alternatives, and faster notification of available parking to truck drivers via smartphone, changeable message signs, variable message signs, and in-vehicle displays.  
  • Inclusive Demographic Data Collection Handbook: Demographic data is essential for measuring and advancing transportation equity; however, many federal datasets are not disaggregated by key demographic variables. A comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all requires an accurate demographic assessment of race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identify, sexual orientation, and disabilities. This project developed a handbook to help U.S. DOT Volpe Center staff decide which demographics and level of detail are needed for specific analyses. The handbook will guide staff when they design inclusive demographic questions or surveys or undertake other data collection efforts, enabling staff to better support sponsors’ transportation equity priorities.  
  • Creating a Climate Change Toolkit: Climate change presents a significant and growing risk to the nation’s transportation infrastructure, the communities it serves, and the people who rely on it. This guide will help U.S. DOT Volpe Center staff discuss climate risks with project sponsors and how those risks could be addressed in project development, scoping, and closeout. The toolkit presents lessons learned from interviews with U.S. DOT Volpe Center subject matter experts and leadership, presents case studies of projects that work toward greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change resiliency strategies, and references internal and external climate resources.  
  • Environmental Justice Impact Lifecycle: Historically, infrastructure investments have not considered the impacts to communities and the disproportionate effects to specific populations of people. Many communities are not fully engaged in the decision-making process, and some projects lack accountability to ensure investments are made that benefit short and long-term environmental justice goals. This project created an evaluation tool that state DOTs, metropolitan planning organizations, and local agencies can use to analyze infrastructure projects at different stages, enabling communities to define priorities and shifting decision-making power to a broader, more equal group of people.  

Sprint 3 ran in 2022 with an expanded scope, including concepts focused on internal processes. VIA continues to experiment and adapt to help ensure employees are engaged and pressing challenges are addressed.