Ask an engineer

This question was posed to Dr. Brent Phares, director of the Bridge Engineering Center at Iowa State University's Institute for Transportation:

"What is your favorite project that you have worked on as an engineer?"

Dr. Phares' response:

My favorite project is one that I’ve worked on for almost 10 years and involves developing better ways of evaluating the condition of bridges. This project involved the development of new methods of analyzing bridge performance data. Although it has taken a very long to achieve our objectives, this work has been very rewarding and, in fact, will result in two new patents. 

This question was posed to Dr. Jing Dong, a transportation engineer at Iowa State University's Institute for Transportation:

"Is your job as an engineer what you expected it would be? If different, then how is it different?"

Dr. Dong's response:

My job as a transportation engineer is mostly what I expected—solving interesting and challenging problems. For example, I look at how to make traffic lights work better, how many parking spots are needed in specific downtown areas, and how to route snow plow trucks to clean every street. One main thing that is different from what I expected is how important it is to communicate with non-engineers. It helped me identify the real world problems that exist out there, understand the practical needs of groups of people, and sometimes form new ideas on how to tackle those problems.  

This question was posed to Mr. Zachary Hans, a research engineer at Iowa State University's Institute for Transportation:

"How would you characterize an average day at your job? What percentage of the day do you spend solving technical engineering problems?"

Mr. Hans' response:

Each day is somewhat different and is really project dependent. Every project is unique, with different tasks, stages, and responsibilities, which directly impacts my activities on any given day. However, on almost every day, I collaborate with colleagues and utilize problem solving skills. Some days, I may spend the entire day solving technical engineering problems related to current projects. While on other days, I may work on a project report, trying to best convey analysis results, or prepare a proposal for future research, trying to determine the tasks and resources necessary to address the problem.

This question was posed to Dr. Peter Savolainen, a safety engineer at Iowa State University's Institute for Transportation:

"What do you think is going to become the biggest challenge for transportation engineers in the future?"

Dr. Savolainen's response:

I think the biggest and most interesting challenge facing future transportation engineers is how to facilitate the continued integration of connected and autonomous (i.e., self-driving) vehicles. This includes practical concerns, such as how to deal with a driving fleet that includes varying percentages of "normal" and self-driving vehicles. For example, the Google self-driving car has not actually caused any crashes to date. However, its crash risk is significantly higher than other vehicles whose drivers tend to behave much more aggressively. There are a host of other important issues, as well, such as data privacy and security, legislative barriers, and public receptiveness to these technologies. It will be very interesting to see how transportation engineers deal with these issues, which are inherently multidisciplinary and will involve extensive engagement of experts from other fields, as well as relationships with the driving public.