November 16, 2020

Helping to Avoid Crashes

UMass Amherst PhD student Alyssa Ryan ’18 wins a scholarship to research driving safety in Germany

One day soon, your car may detect when you’re too tired to drive safely and intervene to save your life or the lives of others. At the Technical University of Munich, Germany, UMass Amherst PhD student Alyssa Ryan ’18 is now contributing to research that could make this scenario a reality.

Ryan is excited to have the opportunity to acquire an international perspective on driving safety and to benefit from Germany’s transportation expertise and technology. She’s in Germany on a resident permit for researchers, via a prestigious year-long German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) research grant.

A PhD candidate in transportation engineering, Ryan is part of a massive European Union project called i-Dreams that aims to use cutting-edge technology to detect driving risks and to design interventions to mitigate those risks, increase awareness, and upgrade driver performance.

It’s practical research that could be put in place tomorrow to make daily driving safer all around the world, Ryan says.

For instance, i-Dreams technology could be used to detect when a driver is distracted, fatigued, or stressed and could give a driver a warning or make a driving correction, functioning much like today’s lane-keeping assist systems.

Ryan is connecting with global leaders in transportation safety, human behavior, and roadway infrastructure and is savoring lab work with an international cadre, including PhD students originally from Lebanon, China, India, Italy, and elsewhere. Her role in the i-Dreams project involves using a driving simulator, which she is quite familiar with through her research at the state-of-the-art UMass Amherst Transportation Center.

Ryan will be looking at how drivers react to pedestrians in the roadways. Following the simulator study, she’ll work on a real-world study utilizing cameras in cars. The human behavior component of this research is what initially drew her to transportation engineering.

“When I started at UMass, I hardly knew transportation engineering existed,” she says.

“I was interested in civil engineering because I loved math and architecture. I appreciated the problem-solving aspect of transportation engineering, and that it affects people and safety.  I saw that I could make an immediate impact on society in this field.”

As an undergraduate, Ryan gained early research experience in the lab of Professor Michael Knodler. Her ongoing commitment to research and the support of the UMass Office of National Scholarships (ONSA) helped her obtain a highly coveted Fulbright award as well as the DAAD Scholarship. With many Fulbrights postponed due to COVID-19, she opted to accept the DAAD. Ryan credits UMass, faculty, staff, and her fellow graduate students with her opportunity to work abroad. “UMass made this possible,” she says.

While in Germany, Ryan is anxious to take her first drive on the Autobahn, where there are famously no speed limits and the average speed is 80-90 mph. She’s intrigued by how Germany achieves lower highway fatal crash rates than the United States. “Some of the factors may include that the roads are better, drivers don’t follow one another as closely, and they use passing lanes only for passing,” she says. “But this has not been proven yet.” That is driving safety research for another day.