Anastasios Kouvelas now leads the group Traffic Engeneering (SVT) at the Institute for Transport Planning and Systems (IVT). He thinks the shift from human driven to automated cars is like the shift from horse-car traffic to automobiles. Learn more about his views on the future of our daily road behaviours.
What are the current challenges of traffic engineering?
According to the UN, 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. Urban mobility is changing; we have on-demand transport services, car-pooling commuters, and new car-sharing systems (e.g. Mobility in Switzerland). In terms of transport modes, apart from the increased use of public transport, more and more people are turning to cycling and walking, e.g. in Copenhagen, Delft (The Netherlands), but also in many other European cities. This multi-modal environment calls for efficient solutions that can increase the level of service and reduce travel times. Road users do not accept being stuck in traffic jams and demand effective solutions.
Traffic engineering has the tools and methodologies to provide these solutions. With all the emerging technologies, fast internet and communications everywhere, and fast computers, we can develop intelligent transport systems for efficient delay-free commuting.
How does this field of research affect our daily lives?
Transport is strongly related to the quality of life. When I mention that I am a traffic expert I sometimes hear: «So what does that mean? I am a traffic expert myself!». Since people commute and travel on a daily basis, they are very familiar with the topic and can understand many components from their personal experience. However, providing optimal solutions for our transport systems requires a deeper understanding of the mathematics and physics involved in this process.
How is machine learning and big data changing the way transport research is done?
As in every other field, the amount of data that we collect today is tremendous. Datasets with origin and destination points, GPS traces, speed information, and complete itineraries of passengers are available from many cities around the world. All these data can be utilized (anonymously) in order to analyze the special mobility characteristics of each network and provide better solutions. Our goal is to provide a good level of service to all commuters, and minimize the effects of network disruptions (i.e. unexpected events, accidents).
What new skills are becoming important for transport professionals and researchers?
We live in a digital era and IT skills are becoming more and more important. Transport professionals should be up-to-date with recent developments in the information and communication technologies. Smartphones have made our mobility much easier and accessible, and traffic engineers have played a crucial role in these recent developments. The digital transformation of the last years has also affected the way people commute and travel.
What does the future traffic look like?
In the next few years, there will gradually be more automation in mobility. This is happening gradually as many people have serious concerns about this autonomous transformation. In my opinion, future autonomous mobility systems are going to be safer than today’s human driven vehicles, but that remains to be seen. Many people are skeptical about this change. The last similar change was more than 100 years ago, when there was a shift from horse-car traffic to automobiles. At that time also the transition was not easy, people were reluctant, and it took some time (including a non-negligible number of accidents) to reach the state we have today. I believe we are currently facing a similar transition period towards autonomous driving.
Which focus will be relevant in future?
I believe we need to study more our social behaviour when it comes to the way we commute and travel. Looking at the mobility of a city as a game that involves different players (public authorities, private operators, subsidized mobility services, individual users), one could develop strategies that optimize the social welfare. When we commute, we should always think that selfish behaviour may improve our travel time, but it may not be socially optimal. In game theory, a cooperative strategy is in many cases better than a competitive one. As users of the road infrastructure, we should also cooperate rather than compete with each other, in order to have a better mobility system. Modern cities are currently looking for ways to incentivize their inhabitants towards this direction.
What do you hope to gain from the interdisciplinary integration at the NSL?
Interdisciplinary discussions are very crucial. Usually researchers from other fields can give you very interesting ideas, as a researcher is sometimes trapped in the so-called «tunneling vision». Bringing together people from different disciplines can help in numerous fronts, from blending research ideas and expertise to improving your teaching and tutoring style.
You were born and grew up in Athens. What is the big traffic difference in Athens compared to Zurich?
I would say that driving behaviour is quite different. Drivers in Athens are more aggressive, nervous, and they do not drive as safe as in Zurich. The planning of the road infrastructure adds to these differences. In Switzerland there is a strong focus on public transport. I am impressed that you can reach almost any small town or village of the country by railway. And I love to use the public transport in Zurich. It is very efficient and convenient and it makes my life easier. I do not own a car and I do not think one needs a car when living in Zurich. The public transport system in the city of Zurich is one of the best I have seen in the world.
Anastasios Kouvelas was born (1981) and grew up in Athens, moved to Crete for his studies and lived there for 12 years, where he completed his PhD at the Technical University of Crete in 2011, specializing in the analysis and optimization of large-scale transport systems. He then moved to UC Berkeley, California, and after this to the EPFL in Lausanne (2014–2018). Since 2018 he lives in Zurich and leads the group Traffic Engeneering (SVT) at the Institute for Transport Planning and Systems (IVT). The thematic focus of his work lies on traffic flow theory, traffic management, and real-time transport operations. He tries to provide optimal solutions for the management and operations of transport systems.