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Need a Ride? Heinz College Students Make Car Services Smarter


By Scott Barsotti

Heinz College mobility projects highlight that smarter cars and car services are central to the future of cities.

When you imagine the “city of the future,” what comes to mind? Mag-lev trains winding across the skyline? Helpful robots on every street? Augmented reality in your neighborhood?

What about cars? Do you think of cars? We tend to imagine the city of the future in its most future-y terms, but the automobile—one of modern life’s most familiar objects—will be among the most fundamental and integral players in smart city development. In several recent projects, Heinz College students and faculty have used technology and analytics to create better, streamlined access to cars and car services for citizens in metro areas.

By 2050, over two-thirds of the global population will live in urban areas, according to the United Nations. Cities are changing quickly and looking for ways to use technology and data analytics to better serve the needs of residents. Nowhere is that more evident than in society’s evolving relationship with both human-driven and autonomous vehicles.

Cars for Work

Getting people to and from their place of employment is one of the primary functions of personal vehicles. Of course, not everyone can afford to have, fuel, insure, and maintain their own car. Public transit is supposed to be a great equalizer, but many Americans run into a “last mile” problem, unable to easily access their closest transit hub from their homes. Meanwhile, the job opportunities that best match their education and skill level may be in a different part of the city.

The answer? Professor Lee Branstetter thinks ridesharing might be the way to get disadvantaged people moving and connect them with job opportunities.

To assess how citizens might respond to a public ridesharing program, Branstetter and the Future of Work initiative of Carnegie Mellon’s Block Center for Technology and Society—have been conducting an experiment. The researchers are providing free or heavily-discounted rideshare coupons to a random group of citizens with special transportation needs, and comparing their behaviors and outcomes to groups without those same low-cost or no-cost options.

Heinz College students in the Master of Science of Public Policy & Management (MSPPM) program laid the groundwork for the experiment—the preliminary analysis and experiment design were completed as part of a capstone project with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The capstone project team was Momin Abrar Ghalib (MSPPM ’17), Michael Arthur (MSPPM ’17), Wenhao Lu (MSPPM ’17), Shelby Riggle (MSPPM ’17), and Lingyi Xu (MSPPM ’17).

But ridesharing innovations can do more than get people to work. They may help people stay healthier. 

Cars for Health

By now, you may be aware that ridesharing giants Uber and Lyft recently launched non-emergency medical transport (NEMT) services on their platforms. These services allow patients to hail rides to their doctor or other health care provider, and even allow providers to schedule and pay for rides as a courtesy to their patients.

A group of Heinz College students was actually ahead of the curve on this development. Working in Professor Rema Padman’s Healthcare Informatics course, a student team identified a big problem in the health care system that cars could be used to solve in a smart way.

Millions of senior citizens who need medical care cannot easily get themselves to a doctor or hospital. In fact, approximately 3.6 million Americans miss or delay medical care due to transportation issues; the problem is especially acute among senior citizens, who account for over 30 percent of U.S. health care spending and face multi-layered challenges in mobility.

The student team—Aderin Falana (MSHCPM ’18), Danielle Martin (MSHCPM ’18), Tanmaya Tripathi (MISM ’17), and Priya Venkatesan (MSHCPM ’18)—created a prototype decision support system (DSS) that providers could use to determine when to schedule rides for their patients. The tool uses predictive analytics to calculate ideal ride times based on factors like time of day, day of the week, the patient’s distance from the provider, and delays at the clinic.

“This kind of real time dynamic updating would be a fantastic convenience for patients and providers,” said Padman. She added that a system like this could make existing NEMT services on ridesharing platforms like Uber, Lyft, and Veyo smarter and more responsive.

Missed appointments can be detrimental to patients’ health, especially among senior citizens. Meanwhile, some estimates put the total cost of missed health care appointments in the U.S. at an eye-popping $150 billion. In many cases, it can be more cost effective for providers to pay for the patient’s ride to get them into the clinic, rather than have the patient cancel.

The students’ DSS could work hand-in-hand with existing TNC platforms to ensure that patients are not only getting to the doctor, but that they spend as little time in the waiting room as possible. Padman says such solutions are crucial for smart city development.

“Mobility is a big constraint [for patients and care providers]. Having cities that are sensitive to the constraints of seniors to get to their appointments and the services they need on time and have this managed in a smart manner is good for the city, good for residents, and good for the health of patients,” said Padman.

“It’s all interconnected. There is very close interaction between smart cities and smart health.”

Of course, ridesharing is a relatively new concept. And while TNCs and more futuristic technologies like autonomous vehicles are sure to play a huge part in the movement toward smart cities, there are legacy systems that can be made smarter as well.

Case in point: rental cars. 

Cars for Play

A big promise of smart cities is that interactions between citizens, businesses, and the government will be seamless, convenient, personalized, and efficient. For businesses in particular, to provide smarter services they need to keep up with their customers and have a sense of what’s happening in their lives.

An interdisciplinary group of Heinz College students in Professor Ari Lightman’s Measuring Social course recently completed a project for rental car company Hertz that provided the company with a smart model that will predict spikes in car rental demand based on social media chatter. The model will help Hertz prevent stocking out of cars due to an isolated event or phenomenon.

“If I’m managing a Hertz location, social data can give me insight into another demand that’s coming in that I hadn’t taken into consideration, like a concert, festival, or conference. That should inform my supply,” said Lightman.

The student team—Laurel Beatty (MAM ’18), Rajeev Bhatia (MISM ’18), Mohit Gattani (MISM ’18), Sanchit Suman (MISM ’18), and Fan Zhang (MISM ’18)—applied machine learning principles to develop a predictive model that Hertz can—and intends to—implement immediately and continue to refine.

While Hertz is a single company, they have locations across the country. When a business—particularly one that helps people get from one place to another—can better serve customers, that’s a plus for any city they operate in and can make life easier for citizens.

All of this is to say: in a smart city, there will always be a ride available, whether it’s to work, to the doctor, or any and all points of interest. Through policy, technology, and management solutions, Heinz College students and faculty are working toward a world in which no one misses out on their life due to a lack of transportation.

We may not see flying cars weaving across the sky anytime soon, but smarter cars may be just as good. In fact, they may be fundamental to the future of efficient and inclusive cities.

Learn more about the MSPPM program

Learn more about the MISM program

Learn more about the MAM program