Lin Cai: Shaping the future of intelligent transportation


- Suzanne Ahearne

Lin Cai. Photo by Martin Lipman/NSERC

The future of safe and efficient self-driving vehicles relies on the instant transmission of accurate information to avoid accidents, reduce congestion and air pollution, and improve fuel efficiency. But our current system of wireless networking isn’t adequate.

Lin Cai, UVic professor of electrical and computer engineering, is developing what she calls an “elegant solution” to the complex challenges of creating a safe and seamless wireless network connecting vehicles, roadside infrastructure, pedestrians and the “cloud.”

From wearable devices to home appliances, advances in wireless communications and networking have seen more than 30 years of explosive growth, driving our society and economy. As the Internet of Things expands into the transportation sector, Cai is working to make sure we merge smoothly onto the roads of the future.

Vehicle-to-everything networks

These massive vehicle-to-everything (V2X) networks will need to be capable of instantly transmitting the speed, location, direction and driving conditions for every vehicle on the road at any given time. She’s designing the wireless technology that will transmit and sort all that information for transportation systems of the future.

“Similar to the way smart phones changed our daily lives since the first iPhone was released in 2007, V2X is the next disruptive invention that will shake up many sectors of the economy and increase the global competitiveness of all industrialized countries,” says Cai, an internationally recognized researcher in wireless communications and networking.

The major challenge in the current system of wireless networking is that it isn’t reliable over long distances nor for the type of large-scale applications required by V2X networks in cities. Cai’s research group at UVic is designing what she refers to as the “holy grail” of systems: a reliable, scalable, and fully connected “multi-hop” wireless transmission system.

Infographic showing the elements involved in a vehicle-to-everything intelligent transportation system

How will it work?

In urban areas, a wireless network of vehicles, roads, traffic lights, buildings, and pedestrians and cyclists with smart phones will exchange information via wireless technology. (In remote areas of Canada, the network will be a vehicle-to-vehicle—V2V—system, operating without the assistance of roadside infrastructure.) Building on more than a decade of pioneering wireless communications research, Cai’s design will eliminate a cacophony of digital noise, creating instead an organized system that maximizes safety and efficiency.

Recent fatalities involving self-driving vehicles in the US point to the need for a more reliable and intelligent transportation system. A stand-alone autonomous vehicle can’t outperform an experienced driver. “But when more information is acquired from other vehicles and from roadside signs and transmission towers, a reliable multi-hop V2X network can help vehicles be much smarter and make more intelligent decisions,” Cai explains. “When applied to a large-scale vehicle network, it will have a profound impact on transportation worldwide in the coming V2X era.”

“Since joining UVic in 2005, Lin Cai has developed research programs to provide students with interdisciplinary knowledge and skills that are in high demand in the information and communications industry as well as in academia. Professor Cai teaches her students to think critically and creatively, and how to research independently and collaboratively. She also enthusiastically recruits, inspires and mentors female students,” says Michael McGuire, chair of electrical and computer engineering.

A role model for women in STEM

Cai serves as a role model for female students in science, technology, engineering and math. In a department where about 15% of students are female (the norm in the field), the goal to increase that to 30% within 10 years weighs heavily on her shoulders. “Having more positive role models in electrical and computer engineering can inspire more girls and women to pursue a career in STEM…and to succeed and flourish,” she says.

Newest Steacie Fellow

Cai is a recipient of a 2019 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship awarded May 6 in Ottawa. The fellowships are awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to six recipients nationally every year from all science and engineering fields. The fellowship honours “outstanding and highly promising university faculty who are earning a strong international reputation for original research.” It includes a research grant of $250,000 over two years. Since its launch in 1965, Cai is the first female recipient of this prestigious award in the field of electrical and computer engineering.

Networking research is a highly competitive field and this funding will allow Cai and her team to give the Canadian V2X-related industry a significant advantage in what she refers to as the next industrial revolution.

Cai’s research is also supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, BC Knowledge Development Fund, and Compute Canada, in addition to other funding from industry partners.

This is the second year in a row that a UVic researcher has been awarded a Steacie fellowship and Cai is the 11th since the awards


In this story

Keywords: technology, transportation

People: Lin Cai

Publication: The Ring

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