Skip to content Skip to navigation

Future of transportation infrastructure in the era of autonomous vehicles

November 16, 2017

Michael Lepech, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

(Image credit: Amy Y.J. Lee)

There are approximately 1,800 visiting faculty, scholars and visiting student researchers at Stanford at any given point. These are outstanding students and world-leading scholars invited by Stanford faculty from over 88 different countries around the world. Often they are seeking to connect with scholars outside of their discipline to explore potential interdisciplinary research that Stanford is well known for.

Since 2012, the Office of International Affairs has been helping these visiting scholars and faculty connect with relevant research communities on campus and keeping them apprised of academic events and resources based on their academic interests. Some of the meetings are just casual conversations to exchange ideas about potential ways to collaborate, while others develop into a new research project. 

New idea develops into new collaboration

 “I was told by the Office of International Affairs that there is a faculty member visiting from South Korea and became interested in connecting with him when I heard that he is interested in improving our existing civil engineering infrastructure, although his specialty lies in autonomous driving. I thought it would bring an interesting forward-looking perspective to designing and renewing our existing automobile transportation infrastructure. Besides, where else in the world would be a more ideal place than the Bay Area to talk about how we should phase in next generation infrastructure for next generation in the era of autonomous driving?" Associate Professor Michael Lepech at Civil and Environmental Engineering recalls his first meeting with Professor Seung-Woo Seo from Seoul National University. 

"Thinking intelligently about how we manage the renewal and management of our automobile transportation infrastructure over the coming decades to leverage a growing fraction of autonomous vehicle will have billion-dollar, if not trillion-dollar, impacts." – Michael Lepech, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

As one of the world-leading experts on autonomous vehicles in urban environments, Professor Seo is currently on his sabbatical leave, working with many collaborators in the Bay area. With his academic backgrounds focusing on network analysis and autonomous vehicles, Professor Seo has always been interested in figuring out how future infrastructure could better accommodate an increasing number of self-driving cars on the road. 

Through many test-drives of SNUver, an autonomous car developed by Seoul National University’s Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Center led by Professor Seo, he had already recognized some of the major problems these cars would encounter on the road. Because conventional road structure, traffic signals, road signs, and lane marks are designed for human-driven vehicles, an autonomous vehicle may find it challenging to perceive them or make decisions in a timely manner.

Professor Seung-Woo Seo
Department of Electrical and
Computer Engineering, 
Seoul National University (Image credit: Courtesy of Seung-Woo Seo

On the other side, Professor Lepech has already done extensive research on transportation network analysis and renewal planning for the San Francisco Bay Area. Through this research, his group has built numerous decision-making tools to inform local, regional, and state transportation planners looking to renew the Bay Area's transportation network in forward-thinking, sustainable ways. By collaborating with Professor Seo, he ultimately aims to answer a series of interesting research questions on the design and renewal of existing automobile transportation infrastructure such as: 

  • What components of our automobile infrastructure should be adapted for autonomous vehicles first? 

  • Should focus be given to ancillary, but more interchangeable infrastructure such as street lighting, dynamic signage, or traffic signals? 

  • Over the coming decades, what is the optimal timeline for renewing our aging infrastructure to prepare for fast-changing and emerging vehicle technologies?

  • How much will this renewal and upgrading cost?  Who will pay and who will benefit?


Professor Lepech and Professor Seo brainstorming research questions for the workshop

Engaging Graduate Students

This exciting project will also provide students with more research opportunities. Bo Shen, 4th-year PhD student and Tian Tan, 2nd-year PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering will be among the first students to be involved in this project. They have been conducting research related to transportation planning and optimization, which will be a part of the research collaboration between Professor Lepech and Professor Seo. They expect to engage more students who have conducted research on autonomous vehicle or infrastructure/transportation both from Stanford and Seoul National University.  


Bo Shen
PhD student, Civil and Environmental Engineering 
Tian Tan
PhD student, Civil and Environmental Engineering 

What’s Next

With a group of faculty members and researchers interested in the new project, Professor Lepech, along with the Stanford Center for Sustainable Development and Global Competitiveness, are planning to host a workshop in January 2018. The goal is to invite students and researchers focusing on automotive research and civil engineering to share current research topics and come up with a good set of research questions that the team will focus on. The workshop’s name is tentatively titled as “Design and Planning for Renewal of Automobile Transportation Infrastructure in the Era of Autonomous Vehicles”, and is scheduled to be held at the end of January 2018. “Through the workshop, we’d like to establish the framework for conducting collaborative research at Stanford between civil engineers, who are designing, building, maintaining, and renewing our extensive automobile transportation infrastructure, and researchers focused on autonomous driving,” says Professor Lepech. “Thinking intelligently about how we manage the renewal and management of our automobile transportation infrastructure over the coming decades to leverage a growing fraction of autonomous vehicles will have billion-dollar, if not trillion-dollar, impacts.”

Professor Seo also believes that this joint effort will set up an exemplary model for seeking multi-discipline and international research collaboration in both Stanford and Seoul National University. “Autonomous driving is one of the hot keywords in the Bay area and will make an enormous impact on our future life. Admitting that autonomous vehicles will be around us in the next decade, we should start discussing how we will be ready for adopting them in terms of road infrastructure. In this perspective, it is great to meet Prof. Lepech at Stanford and to discuss the common interests on automobile transportation infrastructure, sharing each other’s experiences and opinions.”

This workshop will be hosted by the Stanford University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Stanford Center for Sustainable Development and Global Competitiveness, and the Seoul National University Intelligent Vehicle IT Research Centre. This workshop is funded by the UPS Foundation and the Stanford Center for Sustainable Development and Global Competitiveness.

Are you an international visiting scholar or faculty who would like to expand your academic network while at Stanford? Submit your request via Office of International Affair’s meeting request form.

Design Principles Applied: