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Nov. 9, 2021

Zhaojian Li: Connecting vehicles for safer and more efficient mobility

Each year, the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, awards grants to “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” The following story is part of a series highlighting Michigan State University’s recipients of NSF’s 2021 CAREER grant awards.

This Spartan engineer is working to improve safety by using the power of the cloud and the data cars are already collecting

For an engineer who spends so much time with his head in the cloud, Michigan State University’s Zhaojian Li is remarkably grounded.

Li is taking today’s high technology — pairing cloud computing with 5G cellular data networks — and putting it to work for the average driver. With the support of a 2021 National Science Foundation CAREER grant, Li and his team are connecting vehicles with the cloud to make roads safer and improve cars’ performance and ride comfort.

To automotive purists, this may sound like highfalutin technobabble, but Li’s plan is firmly rooted in pragmatism. Having spent two years at General Motors before coming to MSU, Li is attuned to the desires and sensibilities of drivers. His project is about doing more with the data that cars already collect and using it to protect drivers, their pocketbooks and the planet.

“The general idea is to combine the resources of the on-road vehicles and the cloud,” says Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “By using cloud computing, we create more possibilities. It opens up better control and performance for all the vehicles that are connected. The goal is to make vehicles safer and greener.”

For example, say one vehicle runs over a pothole or a patch of black ice. Its onboard sensors would register those road conditions and react accordingly by adjusting the car’s suspension settings or engaging its traction control. But Li doesn’t want the data’s utility to end there.

He wants that car to beam its data to the cloud, which is a collection of online systems for data storage, sharing and analysis. The cloud could then distribute that data to other vehicles, allowing them to preemptively engage controls for a variety of road and traffic conditions to improve the fleet’s safety, comfort and fuel economy. Li’s team is essentially creating a network of automobiles that look out for each other.

“We’re not saying you would trust your brake response to the cloud. The driver will still be in control of things like that,” Li says. “But for things that don’t need a real-time response, we can outsource a lot of that to the cloud.”

Li and his team are also focused on making sure vehicles share data securely to protect people’s privacy. And they’re developing their system to work with existing automobiles to keep costs down for automakers and car buyers. The CAREER award will also give Spartan students hands-on experience and an opportunity to start building their professional networks through interacting with Li’s professional connections at companies like GM, Ford Motor Co. and T-Mobile.

Hearing how Li values these practical considerations, it’s easy to understand why he started his career in the auto industry. But a university setting provided more freedom for him to explore his ideas with students and co-workers.

“MSU provides a really excellent platform for that. We have all kinds of resources, none more important than my colleagues,” Li says. “When I reach out to them, they want to explore these ideas with me. We work on them together and that’s definitely been important to my growth.”

By: Matt Davenport and Kelsie Lane