Tech Transfer Talks with Traffic and Transportation System Safety Expert, Professor Haitham Al-Deek

UCF’s Haitham Al-Deek, Ph.D., P.E., is a world-renowned expert in freeway operations and intelligent transportation systems and has received numerous awards from the national U.S. Research Council Transportation Research Board (TRB). Through his research, he has designed and developed numerous inventions, trademarks and copyrights, all focused on saving lives. He is also well known for his contributions to the field of wrong-way driving with various intelligent transportation system (ITS) countermeasures. Al-Deek is currently working on using connected vehicles to stop wrong-way drivers. Featured here is an interview with the professor regarding his work and contributions to transportation safety.

How did you become interested in civil, environmental, construction and transportation engineering?
The impact of civil, environmental and construction engineering on society is visible day-to-day. It is easy to see how civil engineering projects improve the quality of life on a daily basis.

Did you always see yourself working in these areas?

What brought you to UCF almost 27 years ago, and why did you decide to stay?
I came from a public Ivy League school, the University of California at Berkley, where I earned my graduate degrees and worked for a year there after graduation. It is the top civil engineering school in the nation. What attracted me to UCF is the opportunity. From day one, I realized that UCF has great potential for growth due to its location. The complex and growing transportation network all over Central Florida is a real-life, giant transportation lab.

What does your research today entail?
My research is focused on studying and improving traffic operations and the safety of transportation systems. Specifically, one of my research programs is studying wrong-way driving and looking into ways to detect and deter this dangerous behavior. The ultimate goal is to save lives. I am working on other safety projects in Florida and Texas, such as intersection safety. (Learn more about Al-Deek’s wrong-way driver detection inventions here.)

What do you like/dislike about research in general?
I like to apply my research to benefit society and improve quality of life. I enjoy investigating new research frontiers, especially those that no one else has explored before. I enjoy publishing interesting research results in prestigious journals and presenting the outcome at rigorous national and international conferences. I enjoy working with students and seeing them achieve higher goals than when they started their program at UCF. I see their success as my success. Writing research proposals and securing funding to support my students can be challenging, but it is very important for sustainable research.

Which do you enjoy more—research or teaching?
I enjoy both research and teaching. In addition, I enjoy professional service to UCF and service to professional organizations. To be successful, a faculty member has to balance the needs of research, teaching, and service responsibilities.

Can you please summarize how your latest inventions work and how they can benefit people?
These are partnership inventions with Central Florida Expressway Authority (CFX), an agency that stays on top of technology and focuses on customer service. Our patents and inventions of applied research contribute to saving lives every day as we speak. Hundreds of wrong-way drivers were detected and alerted on Central Florida high-speed roads. Due to these inventions, 83 percent of the drivers self-corrected their wrong-way driving act without any crash or the need for law enforcement to be dispatched to the site. Ever since the first system was implemented four years ago, our inventions have been saving lives. The systems have also saved precious time for law enforcement and emergency personnel so that they can focus on other urgent needs of society.

What sparked this idea? Was this work inspired by a specific event or experience?
What sparked the idea is a need to prevent wrong-way fatal crashes on high-speed limited access facilities in Florida and nationwide. A number of these tragic crashes occurred over the last several years, especially from 2012 to 2014.

What are some example applications/uses for this invention and how is it better than other similar technologies (if they exist)?
Our studies showed a positive response of wrong-way drivers to the implemented technology, which resulted from our concept invention that is much better than existing technologies. Over 70 percent of drivers and law enforcement officers who were surveyed preferred our invention compared to an existing one due to a better flashing mechanism. Self-correction was over 83 percent in our case compared to only 16 percent for other existing technologies.

How do you see this impacting the world of civil and transportation engineering and computing overall? Besides the Expressway Authority, what other organizations have implemented the technologies?
This could spiral into other related inventions in the future. We have another pending patent. So far, CFX implemented this invention at 35 exit ramps in their toll road network in Central Florida. North Texas Toll Authority (NTTA) was interested in this system and wanted to start with a pilot study using a very similar system to test it on their network before full-scale implementation in the near future.

Are there any inventions, projects or research efforts you’ve worked on earlier in your career that helped lead you to this invention?
I worked on as many as 75 applied research projects. Of course, projects can be related, and the experience I gained from previous projects benefit future projects. This continued over a span of my 32 years of research work which includes a research period before joining UCF. This helped develop my critical and innovative thinking and created many research extensions. For example, when I first came to UCF, I worked in the field of incident detection. Wrong-way driving is a different type of incident that is very dangerous, which needs to be detected and deterred before a tragic crash occurs. I came up with a holistic approach for studying the wrong-way driving problem, which included crash and non-crash events. This is similar to the airline industry, where they document thousands of near- to mid-air collisions each year, even though airplane crashes are extremely rare. The idea is to be proactive. As a modern society, we may want to eliminate wrong-way crashes just as we did with airplane crashes since air transportation is considered to be the safest mode of travel. Furthermore, I have about a dozen patents, trademarks, and copyrights that came out of my research since joining UCF in 1992.

What are your plans? What’s your next research project?
I am looking at a new way to evaluate safety and operational improvements at traffic intersections in Florida.

Do you like the direction/progress that civil/transportation technology research and advances have taken?

What do you enjoy when you’re not working?
Walking, gardening, traveling to new places, hiking, adventurous trips, exploring nature and Florida beaches.

More about Dr. Al-Deek

The following are highlights of Al-Deek’s research contributions in four main areas with significant impact on the community:

  • Through a collaborative effort with CFX, he was the first to introduce a new concept for wrong-way detection and control system, a new way to stop wrong-way drivers through the application of connected vehicles, and new ways to notify right-way drivers of the presence of wrong way drivers to avoid fatal crashes. He was the first to invent a new model for identifying the wrong way driving hotspots in the transportation network and develop an optimization technique for cost-effective deployment of wrong-way driving countermeasures which were applied in Florida and have the potential of nationwide deployment.
  • The original creator of the Central Florida Data Warehouse (CFDW™) and its concept.
  • The first to evaluate E-PASS (Electronic Toll Collection and Traffic Management Systems) before and after they were deployed in Orlando.
  • The first to study and model truck and freight movements at Florida’s 14 deep seaports for six years.