Engineering student works to create safer ground transportation

Sai Bonthu is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati

Ground transportation has a substantial impact on the daily lives of humans. Sai Bonthu, doctoral student of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Cincinnati, is working to develop a product that has the potential to accurately reduce traffic crashes.

Currently, he is working on a grant with the Ohio Department of Transportation and was named Graduate Student Engineer of the Month by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Why did you choose UC? What drew you here?

Sai Bonthu stands next to a display of his project

Sai Bonthu is working with the Ohio Department of Transportation to create a product that has the potential to accurately reduce traffic crashes. Photo/provided

Coming to UC was a relatively easy decision for me. After completing my master's in electrical engineering at Akron in 2017, I was hired as an electrical engineer at Cincinnati Incorporated, making UC a natural destination for my PhD. 

With automation being the core of the machining world, I wanted to utilize the opportunity of pursuing a PhD at UC under the guidance of esteemed professors in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. 

Doctors Arthur Helmicki and Victor Hunt have advised me during my studies and as I have worked closely with them at the UC Infrastructure Institute (UCII), they have demonstrated extensive experience in applying control systems and machine learning algorithms to real-world applications such as smart mobility and civil infrastructure monitoring. 

Why did you choose your field of study?

Electrical engineering draws certain characteristics from individuals pursuing the highest level of the study. Back in 2012, I earned my bachelor's in electrical and electronics engineering. However, it alone wasn't enough for me to standout in a competitive environment. In a discussion with my sister, I realized that there weren't many opportunities to learn the toughest part of electrical engineering — power electronics and electric motor drives. That's how I got into a master's program at Akron and then successfully landed a job in Cincinnati. From then on, I wanted to earn a PhD. UC has a wide range of opportunities to dig deeper into electrical engineering and apply my skills towards researching something more meaningful to me and the community I live in. 

Professor Helmicki (my research adviser) and I have secured a National Science Foundation (NSF) Innovation Corps (I-Corps) award followed by a research grant from the Ohio Department of Transportation. These awards empowered me to pursue an exciting research project with a real-world case that transformed my life in the last few years. I'm also grateful to the consistent support that I've received from my superiors at Cincinnati Incorporated and HDS Global to pursue my dream while working full-time. 

Briefly and simply describe your research work. What problems do you hope to solve?

Sai Bonthu pictured next to a traffic light

Sai Bonthu is working with the Ohio and U.S. Departments of Transportation on his PhD research. Photo/Kristian McNeal, The Gaskins Foundation

Ground transportation has one of the most significant impacts on human life. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2021, traffic fatalities were 10.5% higher than the previous year at 42,915. During the NSF I-Corps program, our team conducted more than 175 stakeholder interviews and converted raw transportation data into inputs for generating real-time safety responses in traffic operations as well as producing insights for transportation planners. Transportation planners and engineers have identified specific transportation problems such as an increase in traffic crashes and the lack of accuracy validation in road user detection, classification and localization of vulnerable road users. 

My PhD research focuses on the development of a product that can potentially accurately reduce traffic crashes. The outcomes will benefit UC Digital Technology Solutions, public safety and planning teams to better understand road user trajectories and the capabilities of existing and new solutions to improve road user experience on campus. Furthermore, one of the research outcomes to test Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) alerts is prioritized by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to improve safety nationwide. 

What are some of the most impactful experiences during your time at UC?

Working as an entrepreneurial lead for the NSF Innovation Corps award and as a project lead for ODOT's Student Transportation Advancement Research (STAR) have been my most impactful experiences at UC. 

While the NSF I-Corps program expanded my network into the transportation ecosystem and taught me about real-world challenges, the ODOT STAR project has provided me with an opportunity to develop and execute solutions to identified challenges. 

As part of these projects, I've attended several national and international conferences to interview folks who are in the middle of dealing with real-world problems. I attended the American Association for State Highway Transportation Officials annual meeting in 2022, as well as several ITS conferences. FInally, one of the highlights of my time at UC was my visit to the Netherlands for the 2023 TRAIL International PhD Autumn School on Cycling in Cities. 

I had the opportunity to develop and demonstrate Connected and Automated Vehicle Education lesson plans for K-12 STEM educators. This was through the support of my research team, Mary Welsh Schlueter at Partnership for Innovation in Education, FHWA Saxton Lab, and ODOT/DriveOhio technical advisory committee. 

What are a few of your accomplishments of which you are most proud?

Sai Bonthu holds a giant check upon winning third in UC's elevator pitch competition

Sai Bonthu placed third in UC's Elevator Pitch Competition. Photo/provided

Publishing my research work at the UCII is definitely at the top of my list. Beyond that, winning third prize in UC's one-minute elevator pitch competition validated my ability to translate society and market needs into a value proposition for a new product idea. Finally, participating in numerous tradeshows, international conferences and expos to network, interview and learn from experts in the industry has been the greatest accomplishment during my PhD program at UC. 

What are your plans after earning your degree?

I will graduate in August of 2024 with my PhD. My doctoral studies at UC and the experience through the ODOT STAR research project have dramatically changed my perspective towards sustainable and smart transportation. I'm going to continue exploring pathways toward sustainable and active transportation through a technology lens. I strongly believe automation is possible at any level in any application, but autonomous vehicles (e.g., self-driving robot taxis) are not ready to completely blend into our traffic. Meanwhile, connected vehicles are here to stay. In the near future, all vehicles will communicate with one another and the infrastructure in real-time, causing trans-disciplinary impacts on e-commerce, supply chain, daily deliverance systems, decarbonization, circular economy, uncrewed vehicles (ground and aerial) and sustainable multi-modal mobility. I'm hopeful that I'll be uniquely skilled and positioned to address important issues in such an evolving and complex ecosystem. 

Do you have any other hobbies or experiences you'd like to share?

Like many other South Asians, I love cricket. I've played in the Midwest Cricket Tournament since I moved to the U.S. in 2013. At UC, I currently serve as the president of the UC Cricket Club and represented the club as captain and wicket-keeper/batter between 2021-22. We've made it to the finals of MCT Division II 35 over tournament in 2021, and that is one of the most memorable experiences for me during my time at UC. Beyond that, I've helped out Tri-State Trails, a nonprofit to connect people and places with a regional trail and bikeway network, as a trail monitoring intern in the summer of 2023, and it was a great experience to learn about the active transportation network in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky/Indiana area. 

Interested in engineering graduate programs?

Check out the engineering graduate programs offered at the College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

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