Professors from Utah State University and the University of Utah are collaborating to create displays they hope will curtail idling vehicles, a source of significant pollution in Utah. The displays are similar to the flashing speed limit displays that have proven effective at helping motorists to slow down on the roadways.
USU psychology professor Gregory Madden is part of a team led by chemical engineering assistant professor Kerry Kelly from the University of Utah, which has received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to test their theory by placing air-pollution displays at several schools and hospitals throughout the state.
Kelly, principal investigator on the grant, reached out a year ago to Madden about partnering on a state grant related to behavioral economics.
“My research focuses on impulsive decision-making, and this is a very socially significant topic — I was also excited to be involved with this cool technology,” Madden said.
He explained that people often behave impulsively because of the natural human preference for immediate gratification.
“Idling your vehicle gives the immediate gratification of the heater staying on, etc.,” he said. “Although pollution creates long-term problems, we don’t feel the immediate effects of those small decisions.”
Madden said the new signs can give immediate feedback to drivers about local air quality, as sensors detect the air quality in the micro-environment outside the school or hospital. Infrared sensors can detect an engine being turned off, so the display can change as air quality improves. The sign could flash with a message that says, “One driver just turned off their engine! Thank you!” or “It’s getting better!”
When people immediately receive a reward of knowing they are helping susceptible people, like children with asthma, those messages will connect.
Researchers estimate that idling not only wastes about 6 billion gallons of fuel each year, but that personal vehicles alone generate around 30 million tons of toxic carbon dioxide through idling, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Seven states, including parts of Utah, have restricted idling.
This diverse team of professors, which also includes University of Utah School of Computing professor Ross Whitaker and University of Utah electrical and computer engineering associate professor Pierre-Emmanuel Gaillardon, is developing a system that collects and integrates air-quality sensor measurements, local meteorology and thermal images that dynamically provide feedback to drivers. The system measures air quality with a set of low-cost air pollution sensors that continuously measure particulate matter (PM 2.5) as well as ozone, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide levels. The team will also use thermal imaging to determine how many cars are idling at one time to alert drivers when too many vehicles are running.
The sensors connect wirelessly to large LED displays that will alert parked motorists when air pollution rises to dangerous levels. USU’s Madden, who specializes in the field of behavioral economics, is creating community-crafted messages for the displays that can motivate drivers to make smart choices.
Sara Peck, a doctoral graduate student and study coordinator working under Madden’s supervision, is coordinating with the schools and testing different messages to see which ones are most effective.
The pilot project will involve placing signs at drop-off zones at one school and one hospital each in Salt Lake and Cache counties. Intermountain Healthcare, which operates 24 hospitals in Utah, is working with the team of professors. They hope to begin the pilot project in the winter of 2021, with a sensor display installed at Bear River Charter School in Logan in the winter of 2022.
“Our hope is that schools and hospitals can have lasting reductions in pollution and reduce harm to the health of children and other vulnerable people,” Madden said.
Kelly, who is the associate director of the U’s Program for Air Quality, Health and Society and serves on the Utah State Air Quality Policy Board, says people receive most of their exposure to air pollution during their commute to and from work and that children can be exposed to pollution most during the pick-up and drop-off at school.
“Children are much closer in height to where the tailpipe is, and they have a much faster breathing rate than adults,” she said. “Their lungs are still developing, which means they’re more susceptible to pollution.”
She hopes signs discouraging idling at hospitals, school drop-off zones, and airports will someday become as ubiquitous as speed limit signs.