Dr. Jim Sayer is Director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.  In addition, he conducts both basic and translational research in the areas of advanced vehicle safety systems, human interaction with highly automated vehicles, connected vehicle and infrastructure technology, naturalistic driving behavior, driver distraction, and pedestrian safety.  

Dr. Sayer’s professional accomplishments include the conception and design of Mcity, as well as the connected transportation environment within the city of Ann Arbor.  He is an internationally recognized leader in the conduct and evaluation of field operational tests of vehicle safety systems, connected vehicle technology, and the study of naturalistic driving behavior. 

Driven recently caught up with Dr. Sayer to learn more about what makes him tick and how he came to pursue a career in the development of future mobility ecosystems.

Driven: Dr. Sayer, thanks very much for speaking with us today – let’s start at the beginning: where were you born and where did you grow up?

Dr. Sayer: I’m a native Michigander, born in Detroit and grew up in northeast suburbs of Detroit, in St. Clair Shores.  My dad worked in machine shops which mainly supplied parts and components to the automotive industry, and we were a working-class family… the opportunity to attend college was not an assumption or given, but I was determined to get there.

Driven: What was your educational path?  Why was this the path you chose?

It was not the typical path!  Coming out of high school, I studied one semester of furniture design and manufacturing at one of the regional universities.  I came to the realization I was borrowing money to attend classes when a lot of the material I already knew.  I thought, ‘I could be out working and somebody paying me for doing some of this work!’  So I went out and worked for a couple years, odd jobs and things like that, while also attending community college at night.  After about two and a half years, I was able to transfer to the University of Michigan.

I completed my undergraduate work at U of M, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biopsychology – so not an engineering degree per se, but my interests really were in research related to engineering.  During this time I had a chance to work in laboratories doing research on vision and hearing, and then ultimately spent the last year and half of my undergrad working at the Transportation and Research Institute in the Human Factors Group.

After U of M I went off to graduate school at Virginia Tech, where I earned my masters and PhD specifically in human factors engineering within an industrial engineering program.

Why this path? It was a path that allowed me to learn the things I was being taught in the classroom and actually put them to practice – I also found that I really really enjoyed being engaged in research.

Who is or was the most influential person in your life?

Probably my graduate school advisor, Harry Snyder.  He placed a lot of confidence in me and very early on let me take charge of some projects, and I always knew he was there if I needed him.  Harry retired from academia shortly after I graduated, and I try keep in touch with him from time to time.

What are you reading these days?

Right now I’m making my way through a book called From Mobility to Accessibility: Transforming Urban Transportation and Land-Use Planning.  It’s re-envisioning transportation, particularly in an urban setting, specifically to focus more on making sure people having access to what they need and less on moving people in order to get access.

What are some of your current projects, things you’re excited about?

We continue to work on the connected environment we built up on the streets of Ann Arbor in 2012 and have been running ever since. We’re doing new work in pedestrian safety, detecting and broadcasting signals about pedestrians in crosswalks.

We’re also doing a project where we’re studying all traffic – pedestrians, vehicles, bicycles, et cetera – in a roundabout on the south side of town. A colleague of mine, Henry Liu, is leading that and developing detection algorithms.

I’m working on a certificate program in the College of Engineering in mobility, one that leverages our current online offerings through Nexus. We’ve got two classes in the series called Foundations of Mobility. It’s a multidisciplinary undertaking, looking at legal, safety, equity issues, data, finance of the infrastructure, urban planning – it covers a wide gamut.

These classes launched Sept 1 and they’re offered every semester. There’s also an a la carte option where you can take individual modules in topical areas of your particular interest.

This program primarily serves professionals, people who are already in the workforce, either retooling or they now find themselves working for a company that now calls itself a mobility company and not a car company. They’re trying to understand what this term mobility means and what are all the different roles associated with making mobility viable.

What motivates you to work for improved transportation and mobility?  What attracted you to this field?

What originally drew me in were technological developments, things like head-up displays, adaptive cruise control, collision warning systems, V2X… there’s a constant influx of new technology. That’s what drew me in – why I stick with it is because transportation and mobility are still very problematic, we’re still losing way too many lives. There’s even less equity now than there was 20 years ago in terms of transportation, particularly to underserved communities and rural areas. And, our overall transportation systems are really not that efficient – I’m looking at how those things impact the quality of our lives and how we can do a lot better.

What’s your opinion about what we need to do as a state and region to remain a world leader?

We have the talent in terms of the basic knowledge, and we’re educating people who can make significant contributions to transportation and mobility. But we have to keep them here in the state, and that’s a challenge.  At times they have a tendency to be attracted to one of the coasts, for example.

And in addition to growing and keeping our own talent, we have to start trying to attract people from out of the state, who are educated elsewhere, including other countries.  We also need to attract more under-represented minorities to the mobility space.

For me the way to remain a leader is to take a much broader approach to transportation and mobility solutions and treat mobility as an ecosystem.  If we take a more holistic view and we train our future workforce to view transportation and mobility more holistically, they’ll be more prepared to work with people across other disciplines.  No single discipline is going to solve the current and future challenges.  We need to make sure the people we educate are aware and open to working alongside other disciplines in order to really, truly develop successful mobility solutions.

I’d also say as a state, we need to make some additional major investments.  And the state has made major investments, in places like Mcity and the American Center for Mobility.  These were large, bold experiments in some respect, particularly with Mcity being the first of its kind.  But they’re focused primarily on automated vehicles and connectivity.  What we really need is a real-world operating environment, a community to work with and work in, to be able to demonstrate some of these more holistic approaches to solving mobility challenges.

We’re trying to make improvements that actually are meaningful to the community, and not just doing research for its own sake. We’re trying to develop real solutions that improve transportation and the quality of people’s lives.  You can’t lose sight of that focus.

What would you say to students today, high school and grade school students, about the future of transportation and mobility?

I would say that it’s probably an area that is going to have the greatest change in terms of impact on the quality of your lives in the next few decades.  Think big.  Think about the entire transportation picture and all of the mobility challenges, not just one mode for example.  And to reiterate: be prepared to work with people in other disciplines. The real challenges to society are not going to be solved by one discipline alone.