California State University, Long Beach
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Tracking Truck Flow Goes Mobile

Published: December 2, 2014

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PHOTO COURTESY OF SHUI LAM
Shui Lam

Computer Engineering and Computer Science’s Shui Lam recently received a year-long $100,000 grant from the METRANS Transportation Center—a joint partnership of USC and CSULB funded by the Department of Transportation and CALTRANS—to study “Tracking Truck Flows with Programmable Mobile Devices for Drayage Efficiency Analysis.”

Lam, a member of the university since 1985, was pleased by her recognition.

“I think one reason for this proposal’s recognition was that it addresses an urgent need,” she said. “Everybody in Southern California is bothered by traffic congestion and pollution. Until we understand where the major problems are, we won’t be able to identify an effective solution.

“Not only does this grant support my research,” she added, “but it enables me to teach my student assistants the skill set of research. They not only learn about the subject but how to research the subject. They will understand their discipline a lot better.”

Drayage, she explained, is the transport of goods over a short distance, in this instance, the trucking between the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and distribution centers within Southern California.

“The combined cargo volume makes these the biggest port complex in the U.S.,” she said. “One of the big reasons for that is the rise of the Pacific Rim market. A lot of goods are moving between China and the U.S. with their first stop on the West Coast while many of the containers move through. But since California is a major population center, a lot of goods stop here and, to cover that short distance transportation, there is drayage. That produces lots of traffic and lots of pollution. We cannot continue to build new freeways to deal with the new traffic. We won’t have a good solution to pollution and traffic until we know where the major inefficiencies are.”

Programmable mobile devices play a major role in her research. “What I want to find out is the level of trucking activity,” she explained. “Where do they go? Where do they come from? Where do they stop? Where are the bottlenecks? With the advance of the new global positioning systems technology, we can locate where these trucks are. But that is not enough. We may know where they are but we still don’t know why they are there. What is the purpose of the trip? We really need help from the truck drivers to enter information about their trips along with the GPS. When we combine that information, then we have the full story of what’s going on.”

Lam praised the role of the CSULB-USC METRANS Transportation Center in her research. METRANS was established in 1998 through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century as the first University Transportation Center in Southern California.

“Trade in the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex was $382 billion in 2011,” she said. “Add to that the fact that Los Angeles International Airport is the fifth largest freight center in the U.S. and you have a state that is a center of both international trade and immigration. I am glad that METRANS is committed to the solution of transportation problems of large metropolitan regions through interdisciplinary research, education and outreach.”

The origins of her current research began with a multidisciplinary research grant from CSULB that provided seed money for work originally performed with Economics’ Kristen Monaco, now departed from the campus. “We explored the use of mobile tracking devices using a first-generation Android tablet,” she said. “We worked with a volunteer truck driver who tested the devices over 18 trips. It seemed feasible. The biggest hurdle faced by this research is the cooperation of the truck drivers.”

Reception to her research has been mixed among the drivers. “Trucking companies are enthusiastic and want to find the best way of using their trucks, hence their drivers are more willing to cooperate,” she said. “But individual owner/operators were less so. They saw their cooperation with the project as an additional duty they needed to perform and they saw that as a hindrance. But the important thing was to find drivers who would cooperate.”

The current project reflects Lam’s interest in the applications of computer science. “This research represents a good application of computer technology and reflects my interest in programmable mobile devices,” she said. “It also explores my interest in parallel computing, a form of computation in which many calculations are carried out simultaneously. Multiple processors in a single computer or multiple computers handling the same task means parallel computing.” The trick is to organize the parts of the task so that they can be performed simultaneously.

Lam received her undergraduate education in physics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and her master’s degree and doctorate in Computer Science from Pennsylvania State University in 1975.

Lam’s research has sensitized her to the problems of traffic congestion and pollution around the port complex.

“I didn’t recognize there was a problem at all until I got involved as a scholar,” she said. “I began to appreciate the problems of pollution and congestion more fully when I found myself following trucks going in and out of the port. I wished they would disappear. But when I began my research, I learned why the trucks were there. That’s when I thought I might be able to help solve those problems.”