Our faculty members tackle a diverse set of problem-driven research questions with real-world impact, including:
- How do you get people to adopt low-emission vehicles?
- How much does government oversight cost and how much do you need?
- How do policy and regulation affect our ability to develop innovative technology?
This research theme asks how to develop policy and management approaches that enable and leverage technology. Complex socio-technical systems rely not only on engineered technology but also on the strategic management of the people and policies governing the system. There is an important interplay among these three elements. Policy can enable technological innovation, and must in turn leverage the possibilities of new technologies. Technological innovation relies on policy-driven incentives and on strategic management approaches that enable creativity yet steer toward success. The management of any complex system must be sensitive to the underlying technology and structure governing the system and the policies that steer it.
Understanding the burden of government oversight on engineering work
The following image shows a breakdown of the time spent on different categories of engineering oversight. 1. external monitoring is 16%. 2 NVA-External Monitoring is 6%. 3. All monitoring is 39%. 4. NVA-Monitoring is 13%
Proportion of engineering work time spent on different categories of oversight. NVA refers to non-value added activities as defined by lean principles.
Oversight—the activities performed by government acquirers and imposed on their contractor base to ensure that high-reliability systems function as intended—adds costs, compared to commercial equivalents. The debate is not over whether oversight is necessary - it is - the question is one of how much and what kind should be done? One major challenge in determining how much oversight is productive is the dearth of empirical evidence available. Valid, granular time allocation data that spans a sector is notoriously difficult to obtain because it is both sensitive to the industry and plagued by methodological issues surrounding human memory. To overcome these challenges, and move the discussion forward, PhD student Samantha Brainard and Professor Zoe Szajnfarber conducted a two-part study that (1) draws on qualitative techniques to unpack the mechanisms through which oversight-related requests affect engineering work at the contractor-level, and (2) quantitatively measures time allocated by engineers to these activities as part of their normal jobs. The latter is enabled by a novel application of instantaneous sampling: ~400 engineers at a major defense contractor respond to a 30-second, web-enabled survey of their current task, two times a day over the period of six months. Together this builds the basis for linking oversight to working-level activities and distinguishing non-value added components of oversight.
Electric vehicle adoption: can short experiences lead to big change?
The following image is a chart showing how respondents felt about purchasing a plug-in vehicle before and after riding in one.
After a short (<5 min) ride in a Plug-in vehicle (PEV), the number of participants that indicated a positive rating for considering purchasing a PEV more than doubled.
Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) offer a promising pathway to decarbonizing the personal transportation sector, but PEV sales remains low. Prior research has found that consumers are more likely to adopt a PEV when they have direct experience using one for extended periods of time (e.g. days to months), but less is known about short experiences. Does riding in a PEV for just a few minutes increase consumers' willingness to adopt a PEV? To answer this question, Professor Helveston and his doctoral student Laura Roberson conducted an experiment at the 2019 Washington D.C. Auto Show. Participants (n = 6,518) were asked to rate their level of consideration to adopt a PEV before and after riding in one of four different PEVs for only three to five minutes. Results showed that the experience of riding in a PEV on average had a significant, positive effect on participants' consideration ratings -- the number of participants that indicated a positive rating for considering purchasing a PEV more than doubled. Results also showed that the vast majority of respondents were unable to correctly answer basic knowledge questions about refueling a PEV and federal subsidies available for purchasing a PEV. These results suggest that while consumer knowledge about PEVs remains low, short rides or drives in a PEV could be an effective and scalable strategy for increasing PEV consideration across larger populations. This research is published in Environmental Research Letters.