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Xiaopeng Li
August 18, 2022

Focus on new faculty: Xiaopeng Li looks to shape the future of automated vehicles

Written By: Alex Holloway

When Xiaopeng Li considers the potential smart vehicles could have on our world, he points to another, ubiquitous device: the smartphone.

Smartphones took off after the launch of the iPhone in late 2007. Now it’s the exception to see someone using a phone that isn’t smart. The devices have revolutionized our lives and the way we interact with each other, and Li, who joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as an associate professor in fall 2022, thinks smart vehicles — those capable of interfacing and communicating with other vehicles and smart roadside infrastructure—could have a similarly titanic impact on our society.

Li’s research focuses on emerging technologies within the connected and automated vehicle space. He’s especially interested in understanding and influencing how new connected vehicle technology develops as the era of the smart car begins.

“Most research in our field is based on modeling and simulation using third-party data,” Li says. “It tends to view connected and automated vehicles as an external factor, to see how that technology impacts our transportation systems. My group wants to be more proactive—not just viewing connected and automated vehicles as exogenous factors, but also trying to participate in the process of new technological development.”

Connected vehicles are a maturing technology and as such technologies do, will endure growing pains. Li says automakers might not be primarily concerned with system benefits and the type of impact connected and automated vehicles have on our transportation networks—instead, focusing on making the vehicles enticing enough for consumers to buy.

“Connected and automated vehicles are a player in the system,” he says. “So we want to encourage the industry to develop technologies that not only benefit the individual customers, but also everyone who uses or is impacted by a transportation system.”

Li brings plenty of experience in the automated vehicle research space to UW-Madison. He’s joining UW-Madison from the University of South Florida, where was an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and as director of the Connected and Autonomous Transportation Systems Laboratory. He’s also served as the director of the National Institute for Congestion Reduction, a multi-institution collaboration headed at USF and one of seven National University Transportation Centers.

As he settles into his new role at UW-Madison, Li intends to continue work on several major research projects he’s already initiated. One, a multimillion-dollar project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, focuses on low-cost technologies for connected and automated vehicles.

“One hurdle against the wide deployment of connected and automated vehicle technologies, especially from the infrastructure side, is the high cost requirement for new technologies,” Li says. “We’re looking at new methods to utilize existing infrastructure and equipment that is already out there to enable some of these connected functions.”

Li’s also working on two National Science Foundation-funded projects. One looks at creating more physically connected platooning—when vehicles travel close together in a “train”—for connected and automated vehicles. The other is a collaboration with the Federal Highway Administration to help develop CARMA, which is the administration’s system for enabling connected vehicles to cooperate with each other and with roadside infrastructure.

Li has worked with multidisciplinary teams for his connected and automated vehicle research and hopes to tap into that collaborative spirit again at UW-Madison.

“We need the fusion and integration of knowledge from different fields to push the frontier forward,” Li says. “I’m just a single person, but I can collaborate with colleagues and students from other areas who have their own expertise to contribute. I want to encourage multidisciplinary work to help us not only see connected and automated vehicles as a technology designed and developed by others, but to participate in the technology development and to help guide that process.”