If you've ever sat in stop-and-go traffic behind a congested merge area fuming about lost time and fuel, Jackeline Rios-Torres is conducting some research that could relieve your frustration.
Rios-Torres is in the driver's seat of research helping to create the future of transportation through connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. As a Eugene P. Wigner Fellow in the Energy and Transportation Sciences Division, she has been creating control schemes and algorithms for connected cars to ensure better traffic flow, fuel optimization, and safety.
One of the key challenges in the work is to create control strategies that are simple enough to be implemented online in the vehicles, she notes. Rios-Torres is also the ORNL technical lead for a multi-lab project sponsored by DOE's Smart Mobility initiative, in which she studies the possible benefits of improving the traffic flow in multiple scenarios and with varying degrees of automation. This initiative brings together expertise from across the U.S. national labs to boost research in transportation energy technologies and safety systems.
"We know that CAVs in general are coming on strong, so DOE is investing in research to make effective decisions" in the transportation space, Rios-Torres says.
"Improving vehicles is important to address a lot of problems we have. It touches on safety issues and social cost. If people are wasting time in traffic congestion, it also means they're wasting money and losing the opportunity to have more family time. For me this work amounts to a social responsibility," Rios-Torres says. "I started my work in energy management for hybrid electric vehicles, then began working on eco-driving systems, and now coordination of fleets of vehicles. I have been addressing the transportation efficiency problem for a broad variety of scenarios."
Rios-Torres first came to the lab as a graduate student researcher under the Advanced Short-Term Research Opportunity program administrated by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.
The researcher's work on novel CAV control technologies landed an award from DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) last fall. The ARPA-E project has as its goal a 20 percent improvement in hybrid electric vehicle energy efficiency by computing optimal routing to bypass bottlenecks, accidents, special events, and other conditions that affect traffic flow, while also optimizing onboard powertrain efficiency.
"I've learned a lot at ORNL from my work. But through the mentoring process here I feel I've also learned how to be a better researcher," she says. "We have so many well-qualified people working here in so many areas, that you can do just about any kind of research and find someone you can collaborate with to help drive your work forward."
For Rios-Torres, the journey to ORNL began in her native Colombia, where she earned an undergraduate degree in electronic engineering with studies concentrated on fuel cell technology and renewable energy.
She was then recruited to attend Clemson University, where she completed a Ph.D. in automotive engineering. "I initially wanted to continue my research in renewable energies," Rios-Torres says, but at Clemson she found another approach to sustainable development — exploring transportation-related technologies.
As the first in her family to earn a Ph.D., Rios-Torres has tried to be a role model for her three younger sisters, and at least one of those siblings has already earned a bachelor's degree in engineering. "My family is one of my main motivations to succeed. I owe a lot to my parents; they worked very hard to give us an education. My parents did not have the opportunity to finish high school. They started a small company selling clothes and have worked hard for their own financial security. At the same time, they encouraged their children to get as much education as they could."
Rios-Torres says her husband has also been a key supporter in her life. "When we met back in 2000, he told me I had the potential to go far in my career. Since then, he has been encouraging me and helping me to overcome difficult situations. We came from similar backgrounds and he has certainly been one more motivation and source of inspiration."
Outside the lab, Rios-Torres enjoys cooking, hiking, gardening, and working on home projects with her husband, who is a senior researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.