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2015 News Releases



MIT awarded Dept. of Energy grant to create and deploy energy-saving travel information and incentives system

Written by:
Marilyn Siderwicz
Civil and Environmental Engineering

$4 million grant will determine whether travel choices can be influenced by data and rewards to save energy

PHOTO: A new travel information system developed at MIT and the University of Massachusetts will use rewards to influence travel choices.The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has announced that MIT researchers, along with colleagues from the University of Massachusetts (UMass), received a $3,990,128 grant to design, build, and trial a new system to incentivize people to adapt their travel choices to conserve energy.

MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Professor Moshe Ben-Akiva and Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) Assistant Professor Jessika Trancik will lead the project, involving a diverse team from several MIT departments. The MIT team will work with UMass Associate Professor Song Gao and colleagues. The innovative initiative is one of five proposals funded as part of ARPA-E’s newest program, the Traveler Response Architecture using Novel Signaling for Network Efficiency in Transportation (TRANSNET).

The grant will be used to develop and test a Mobility Electronic Market for Optimized Travel (MeMOT). It will use real and simulated personal travel data to reward people to shift their routes, departure times, modes of travel, and vehicles based on live information they receive from MeMOT. Incentives will include points awarded based on energy savings that can be redeemed both in real-time and in the future for travel-related and other benefits at local participating vendors.

“Consumer rewards and loyalty programs have worked successfully for many years to modify people’s behavior in commercial areas, including air transportation,” says  Ben-Akiva, the Edmund K. Turner Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Now, we are excited to test if a rewards strategy works on the ground with a new real-time, data-driven project designed to curb energy use. The system would be able to scale easily and quickly to more locations, further multiplying its impact.”

The hypothesis is that users will modify their travel plans to save energy, if they also benefit from the shift.

“Our goal is to empower travelers with information on how their travel choices impact their energy consumption, and to reward energy-saving decisions,” says Trancik, the Atlantic Richfield Assistant Professor of Energy Studies in IDSS. “Voluntary decisions by individuals can in this way reduce system-wide energy consumption. This is a wonderful opportunity to combine insights from vehicle technology and behavioral models to achieve real-world energy and emissions savings.”

The researchers will develop a system model using data obtained from existing sources and new volunteers to simulate the transportation network of the greater Boston area. A network simulator will be used to model a wide set of traveler behaviors and vehicle types, and the team will adapt the simulator to dynamically measure energy use as changes occur to the transportation network and travelers’ behavior.

The MeMOT system will be linked with a control module that will evaluate energy savings and traveler satisfaction with different incentive structures. The control module will offer personalized travel options via a user’s smartphone app or a car’s on-board computer, and will include a reward-points system to incentivize users to adopt energy-efficient travel options.

ARPA-E grants fund high-risk, high-reward research that might not otherwise be pursued by industry, but could potentially lead to game changing results. The project could result in breakthrough insights on ways people can become their own best champions in the fight to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Other co-investigators working on the team include MIT’s Bilge Atasoy, Carlos Azevedo, Emilio Frazzoli, Marta Gonzalez, Li-Shiuan Peh, Francisco Pereira, and Fang Zhao, as well as Eleni Christofa from UMass.

ARPA-E is an agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that invests in disruptive ideas to create America’s future energy technologies. For more information on ARPA-E and its innovative project portfolio, please visit the ARPA-E website.