Originally published October 31, 2014
By Andrea E. Acosta
UTEP News Service
There and Back Again: With a gentle nod to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, this is the fifth article in an occasional series covering the off-campus experiences of UTEP students doing study abroad, internships and externships, because what students learn outside the classroom is as important as what they learn inside the classroom.
A University of Texas at El Paso master’s student had the opportunity to work as an intern for the Department of Transportation (DOT) in Washington, D.C., in summer 2014 and meet President Barack Obama.
Jessica Miramontes was selected to be among 600 students to take part in the Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups. As part of her internship, she analyzed and conducted research on driving simulators and driver behavior.
According to a DOT analysis, driver practice in these simulator automobiles could eliminate approximately 80 percent of crashes involving non-impaired drivers and save as much as 3.9 billion gallons in wasted fuel a year, as stated in a separate study.
From June 8 to Aug. 15, Miramontes was part of the Human Factors Laboratory, a team focusing on furthering our understand of a highway user’s needs and incorporating those needs into roadway design, construction and repair, as well as improving safety and enhancing operations throughout the highway.
Miramontes used her knowledge in transportation infrastructure to better conduct her research in augmented reality and practiced her communication skills to familiarize herself with the many sectors of the government that interconnect with her office of research and development.
“Being a part of the team opened my eyes to the many areas of transportation that I can partake in,” said Miramontes, who is enrolled in her first semester in the Master of Science in civil engineering program. “During my stay in Washington, D.C., I was constantly put out of my comfort zone and this ultimately helped me grow as an individual and a professional,” Miramontes said.
Miramontes realized the complexity of her research when her team involved not only engineers but psychologists as well, in order to thoroughly study the driver’s behaviors to help create a better design for the roadway.
Consisting of a full automobile chassis surrounded by a cylindrical projection screen and a motion-based system, the simulator provided pitch, used for acceleration and braking; sway, for curve forces; and heave, for bump cues.
The simulator’s sound system also provided engine, wind and tire noises, and other environmental sounds. Custom software was developed in-house to provide a driving environment that achieves a fully interactive simulation.
The simulator driving test facilitated studies that examined the simulator’s effectiveness to assist drivers in navigating rural mountain roads at night, signing and markings for roundabouts, driver comprehension of a novel intersection, interchange design and the variability in driver responses to traffic with signal changes.
Her experience, however, was fulfilled when she met President Barack Obama on July 15 during a visit to the Tuner Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia – one of the many events Miramontes was invited to attend as an intern.
“When we were informed that President Obama would be coming to personally test drive the simulator automobile, everyone was just surprised and excited,” Miramontes said. “This was an excellent opportunity that I’m happy I had the chance to participate in.”
During his speech, Obama discussed how these simulator vehicles could lead to self-driving vehicles capable of cutting down on accidents, commuting time and fuel consumption, as well as reinforcing the safety factor for all drivers.
“Now, as the father of a daughter who just turned 16, any new technology that makes driving safer is important to me,” Obama said during his speech. “And new technology that makes driving smarter is good for the economy.”
Obama said the research that Miramontes participated in would “save lives and save money, and lead to new jobs and new technologies and new industries.”
Miramontes continues to work as a graduate assistant at the Center for Transportation Infrastructure Systems in the College of Engineering, under the supervision of Ruey (Kelvin) Cheu, Ph.D., associate professor of civil engineering.
“Jessica is the second student in the transportation lab who participated in the summer internship program,” Cheu said. “The students who have completed this internship have shown more confidence, independence and a commitment to a research career in transportation. Jessica has been a good ambassador for UTEP. I encourage all UTEP students to participate in this kind of summer program.”
Editor’s note: If you have a story or an experience you think would fit this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: There and Back Again.
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