On her commute to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) every morning, former research participant Dr. Jackeline Rios-Torres paid particular attention to her distance from other vehicles, her blind spots and her gas gauge. While so many Americans say “if only” to the vision of stress-free and accident-immune morning and afternoon commutes, Rios-Torres knows self-driving, fuel-efficient cars designed to reduce sleep-induced fender-benders and the gas bill, are just around the corner. Scientists like Jackeline are making such cars a reality.

For seven months, Rios-Torres participated in the Advanced Short-Term Research Opportunity (ASTRO) program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy at ORNL. ASTRO assigns recent masters or doctoral graduates to real-world projects in the basic and applied sciences, energy and environment.

ORNL Post-Master’s Research Profile: Jackeline Rios-Torres

In the Advanced Short-Term Research Opportunity (ASTRO) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Jackeline Rios-Torres, Ph.D., had the unique opportunity to research ways to improve the fuel efficiency and overall sustainability of self-driving cars.

Under her mentor Andreas Malikopoulos, Ph.D, a research & development staff member and Alvin M. Weinberg Fellow with the Energy & Transportation Science Division at ORNL, Rios-Torres’s goal was to develop strategies to improve transportation efficiency and sustainability through use of connected and automated vehicles (CAVs).

Specifically, her research focused on traffic coordination control of connected and automated vehicles and energy management for hybrid electric vehicles. Her contributions were part of her mentor’s project, funded by the prestigious Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program. The LDRD program awards funding through a rigorous and highly competitive peer-review process.

“Using optimal control theory, I helped develop a strategy that allows CAVs traveling on different roads to merge into a primary road without idling while minimizing the fuel use and travel time,” said Rios-Torres. “The designed strategy can reduce fuel consumption by almost 50 percent and also improve the total travel time when compared to a baseline scenario in which the vehicles have to decelerate and eventually stop to be able to safely merge.”

At the time of application, Rios-Torres was scrubbing scientific literature for her doctoral thesis about intelligent transportation systems and discovered a paper by her soon-to-be mentor, Malikopoulos. After a few conference calls between the two, Malikopoulos invited Rios-Torres to apply to the ASTRO program. It was an opportunity Rios-Torres wouldn’t dream of missing.

“I come from a financially challenged family and grew up seeing learning as the best way to succeed in life. That is why I was the first one in my family to get a doctoral degree,” said Rios-Torres, who traveled from her hometown of Palmira, Colombia, to Clemson University in South Carolina to pursue a doctoral degree in automotive engineering—and to become the third woman at Clemson University to earn it. “I hope I show others this is a good path not only to overcome the difficulties of life, but also to positively contribute to a more sustainable society.”

Rios-Torres’ passion for learning inspired her to attend numerous motivational professional development seminars on ORNL’s campus and to interact with talented and successful individuals from a variety of disciplines. She describes the meaningful discussions she had with her peers and feedback she received from her mentor as her favorite parts of the ASTRO program.

“Dr. Malikopoulos’ feedback was timely and constructive and allowed me to accomplish more than what I had anticipated, and I am truly thankful for that. During the course of the program, I believe I improved as a professional and strengthened my self-confidence. I gained knowledge, but more importantly, I enjoyed the process,” said Rios-Torres, who, after finishing her experience in the ASTRO program, was selected as a Eugene P. Wigner Fellow and currently holds a full-time position in the Energy and Transportation Science Division at ORNL. In this role, she will continue finding new ways to improve transportation efficiency and sustainability.

“I am really thankful and honored to be the recipient of this fellowship that is also supported by the LDRD program, and I know my experience in the ASTRO program helped get me there,” Rios-Torres said. “Altogether, I would definitely recommend the program. It was an amazing, positive and enriching experience.”