Research Themes

The Mobility Systems Center brings together academia and industry to adopt a multidisciplinary and pragmatic approach to the study of mobility. Industry consortium members guide the Center leadership in identifying pressing topics that lead to insights into current and future trends in global passenger and freight ground transportation from technological, economic, environmental, political, and social perspectives. For the period 2019-2022, the Center’s research is focused on the following four themes:

Mobility evolution in high-growth countries

The growth of the middle class in high-growth developing countries will be the primary driver of future demand for mobility of people and goods. We outline the unique mobility context of these markets as well as analyze the potential impacts of policy and technology interventions to combat local challenges of congestion, road safety, and air pollution without curtailing growing accessibility.

Freight ground transportation

Ground transportation of freight has a similar global energy demand to that of all light-duty vehicles. Freight transportation is expected to continue to grow. We analyze operational and technological approaches for improving economic and environmental efficiency of goods transport. Our analyses include long-haul freight by road and rail and urban delivery of goods.

Clean fuels and propulsion systems

Various alternatives for clean fuels and propulsion systems can help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions as well as local air pollutants and their health and mortality consequences. We conduct techno-economic environmental analyses to assess tradeoffs in performance, cost, and environmental footprint of battery electric systems, fuel cell propulsion systems, and other clean burning fuels with emission control systems.

Disruptive technologies and their supporting infrastructure

New business models and technologies are disrupting current mobility systems and shaping how they will evolve in the future. We assess how mobility-as-a-service, mobility-on-demand, and the vehicle sharing economy will continue to change consumer behavior and the transportation value chain. We also tackle uncertainties surrounding connected and autonomous vehicles, particularly the role of supporting infrastructure and issues of cybersecurity.

The Mobility Systems Center is building on decades of research at MIT in the transportation sector, including MITEI’s recent Mobility of the Future study focused on the economics, global and municipal-level policies, and consumer behaviors around light-duty vehicles and urban mobility.


Can Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) really disrupt the private car ownership model?
PIs: David Keith and Joanna Moody
Abstract: This project explores what factors influence consumer willingness to adopt MaaS as a substitute for private vehicle ownership. That is, what will it take for MaaS to disrupt people’s current reliance on their personal vehicles? To answer this question, we first measure the ‘option value’ of owning a car (including convenience, flexibility, control, and status that comes from having one’s own asset) separate from the utility of using a car among respondents in the U.S. and Germany. Second, we explore the system-level attributes of MaaS (such as quality of service, annual cost, etc.) that will be most important in determining its competitiveness with the private automobile.

Economic and environmental analysis of H2-based transportation and role of liquid organic hydrogen carriers
PIs: Emre Gencer, Dharik Mallapragada, and Yang Shao-Horn
Abstract: Hydrogen has long been discussed as a fuel of the future. While hydrogen does not have the volumetric energy density of other fuels, combustion of hydrogen also does not emit carbon dioxide. As the energy transition carries on, opportunities for carbon-free fuels will only grow throughout the energy sector. The versatility of H2 makes assessing of its techno-economic and environmental viability challenging, as all steps of the supply to end use chain may involve several alternative pathways, resulting in a complex value chain. The aim of the project is to develop an end-to-end techno-economic and GHG emissions analysis of hydrogen-based energy supply chains for road transportation. The focus will be on two particular classes of supply chains, namely: 1) pure hydrogen, transported as either a compressed gas or a cryogenic liquid and 2) cyclic supply chains based on known liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHC) wherein a carrier molecule is used to transport, store and potentially deliver H2 in a liquid form for powering on-road transportation. The scope of the analysis will include the generation, storage, distribution, and use of H2 as well as carrier molecules being utilized in the supply chain. The project will rely on a combination of analytical approaches to estimate the economic and environmental performance of the various technology options across the entire supply chain. These will include: 1) Process modeling and optimization to estimate mass, energy balances for various conversion processes like H2 production via electrolysis, natural gas (NG)-based H2 production and integrated NG to LOHC production, 2) Synthesizing relevant attributes for well-studied technologies from the literature, such as energy and cost estimates for pipeline and truck transport, H2 compression at the refueling station, 3) Systems analysis to estimate overall cost and emissions attributes for the entire supply chain under various technology and market scenarios.

Infrastructure development strategies for cost reduction and emissions savings from hydrogen-fueled mobility systems
PI: Jessika Trancik
Abstract: This project will identify cost-reducing and emissions-savings mechanisms for hydrogen- fueled mobility services, based on analyses of production and distribution scenarios, technology costs, and lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. There are three primary objectives of the project: 1) We will quantify the lifecycle emissions and costs of hydrogen production and storage using excess renewable energy (curtailed solar energy) and other primary energy sources, considering more centralized and distributed production and storage models; 2) we will model the distribution and refueling infrastructure requirements and costs of meeting demand across light-, medium-, and heavy-duty transportation end-use sectors; and 3) we will model the total costs and lifecycle emissions of hydrogen-fueled mobility services.

Long-haul freight on highways: Techno-economic assessment of options for powertrains and fuels
PI: William H. Green
Abstract: Across the globe, significant volumes of freight are carried by diesel trucks on highways. However, current diesel trucks emit climate-warming greenhouse gases and other local air pollutants. This project assesses proposed alternative powertrains and fuels, to see which combinations offer significant advantages in terms of emissions reduction at reasonable cost. For a few of the most promising options, we investigate in more detail the costs of fuel manufacturing and refueling infrastructure, and assess what research is needed to define fuel standards to ensure that these new fuels perform well in the new powertrain.

Medium-term impact of Covid-19 on urban mobility: Behavior, preference, and energy consumption
PI: Jinhua Zhao
Abstract: The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed all aspects of life in a very short time, including how and when we travel. All transportation modes, including driving, walking, and cycling, have been impacted by the spread of disease to different extents. Public transit may have been impacted most, given that the key to efficient transit service, passenger density, is in direct conflict with social distancing principles. While personal mobility is expected to recover in due time, it is difficult to predict the long term effects of the pandemic on travel behavior and preferences. Even when the virus is no longer a threat to public health, residual effects may affect activity choices, destination choices, and mode choices. These decisions, in turn, affect energy consumption by the transportation sector. For this project, we propose 1) to quantify the behavioral and preference change in the medium term after Covid-19; 2) to further analyze the change with sociodemographic data, built environment data, and different operational strategies of transportation; 3) to understand the difference of COVID-19 impact on mobility for different social groups, and what operational strategies, infrastructure, and equipment changes may help them recover; and 4) to translate the behavioral changes into energy consumption estimates. To accomplish these research goals, we propose to leverage our exclusive access to high-resolution trip records from public transit smart card data, TNC trip data, bikeshare data, traffic data, and new surveys designed for this project.

Price of privacy: Towards the quantification of the value of location data in smart mobility
PI: Jinhua Zhao
Abstract: This project investigates potential trade-offs between data privacy and data utility in the context of mobility sharing applications. By providing mobility sharing applications with transportation and location information on their activities, users reveal personal habits, preferences, and behaviors. Given that data breaches and misuse of personal information have become increasingly common over the past few years, users may be less likely to share their (potentially sensitive) location information. We evaluate to what extent location privacy could affect the performance of mobility sharing applications, in terms of transportation efficiency—namely energy consumption and vehicle miles traveled (VMT)—and quality of service. In an effort to identify a compromise between individual privacy and the societal need from a system design perspective, we simulate different privacy-preserving methodologies and fine-tune their settings to achieve and study different levels of anonymization granularity within a mobility sharing service.

Pricing and location strategies of electric vehicle charging networks
PI: Jing Li
Abstract: In the transition toward a low-carbon transportation system, refueling infrastructure is crucial for the viability of any alternative fuel vehicle. However, refueling infrastructure for any alternative fuel receives heavy support from government and other industry players. We ask how electric vehicle charging networks can become more profitable and outgrow reliance on external support. We will combine data on travel patterns, electric vehicle charging demand, and electric vehicle adoption to estimate a model of consumer vehicle and travel choices. First, we will quantify the value that each charging location provides to the rest of the refueling network, which may be greater than that location’s individual profitability due to network spillovers. Second, we will simulate the profits of electric vehicle charging networks as well as adoption rates of electric vehicles with different pricing and location strategies of charging networks. We hypothesize that some charging locations may not be privately profitable but would be socially valuable. If so, then a charging network may increase profits by subsidizing entry at missing locations that are underprovided by the market.

Completed Projects

Design, planning, and operation of highly responsive and sustainable urban last-mile delivery networks