Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) for 25 years and endowed professor, has announced he plans to step down from the directorship and return to the faculty.

As a driving safety researcher of 35 years, Dingus has dedicated his life’s work to improving and innovating roadway safety and transportation technologies. He has managed more than $800 million in external research funding in his career, including $150 million as a principal investigator, from more than 100 public and private sector sponsors to impact transportation safety nationally and globally.

Dingus is the Newport News Shipbuilding Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics and the president of VTT LLC Inc., a nonprofit, university-affiliated corporation of Virginia Tech Foundation that operates the Global Center for Automotive Performance Simulation.

In 2015, Dingus was the only academic to be elected to the Virginia Governor’s Unmanned Systems Commission.

“Of course, first as governor and later as senator, I knew of Tom’s great work at VTTI in working with VDOT on the world class Smart Roads facilities, and in bringing high paying jobs to Southwest and Southern Virginia," said U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA). "But I really got to know Tom through serving on Gov. McAuliffe’s Unmanned Systems Commission together and helping with the large-scale automated vehicle demonstration grants that are now starting up in Virginia. Tom’s leadership has been one major reason that Virginia continues to lead the country in this cutting-edge industry, and while I am sad to see him leave the VTTI leadership, I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

VTTI, under Dingus’ leadership, has grown to house the largest group of driving safety researchers in the world. The institute has evaluated many modern critical in-vehicle and modern roadside safety features, such as rear-view cameras, that protect drivers and passengers.

“Under Tom’s visionary direction, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has been one of the university’s great success stories, advancing our global leadership in research and innovation,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “The university community is grateful for his enthusiastic commitment to science and safety, which continues to bring exciting new opportunities to Virginia Tech and the commonwealth.” 

“It is our impact as an institute that makes me the proudest,” said Dingus. “Our position as a global leader in advanced driver assistance systems and vehicle automation has enabled the Institute to create hundreds of jobs in Southwest and Southern Virginia, provide funding for hundreds of faculty members and thousands of graduate and undergraduate students over the years, and to fulfill our mission to conduct research that saves lives.”

Although Dingus will step down once a new executive director is hired, he will continue to teach and work with institute researchers.

"Hammer" Tom.

Hammer Tom
Circa 2000.

A hammer, a tape measure, and a screwdriver: the beginnings of VTTI

A Virginia Tech alumnus (ISE ’85 and ’87), Dingus met his wife and partner of 35 years, Melissa Hulse, in graduate school (Hulse ISE ’87, still works at VTTI). They left Blacksburg for 10 years to teach and work at the University of Idaho and the University of Iowa. In 1996, Dingus moved with his family from Iowa City, Iowa, to Blacksburg to lead the Center for Transportation Research, which was later re-branded as VTTI. His colleagues Andy Petersen and Jon Hankey followed soon after. At the time, the center, which was housed out of an office at 1700 Kraft Drive, had 15 employees, no test track, no vehicles, and no garage.

“When I arrived, I remember Tom handing me a toolbox with a hammer, a tape measure, and a screwdriver in it, saying ‘I need an instrumented car.’” Petersen said. Petersen, now chief engineer at VTTI, originally came to the center to help Dingus develop data collection equipment — cameras, sensors, and radars — that could be installed in research vehicles to evaluate real-world driver performance and crash risk. He initially worked out of his home garage. Today, VTTI engineers can install this equipment in a few hours. Back then, it took three months. So, when Dingus decided to launch a new target of 100 instrumented cars, Petersen was less than enthusiastic at first.

“I told him he was crazy,” Petersen said. “It was essentially an impossible task. Do the math: you are talking months per car, times 100 cars! But Tom trusted us that we would figure out how to get it done and so the hardware group and I set out to design a system that could be installed in eight hours by two people.”

That massive installation led to the 100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study, which was the first large-scale naturalistic driving study ever conducted. Results from the study continue to be analyzed and inform transportation research and policies and have been cited more than 4,000 times in technical literature.

“Tom is the father of naturalistic driving research,” said Hankey, director of the Division of Infrastructure, Freight, & Mobility at VTTI. “He has big ideas and has this way of getting the most out of people. He throws them in the deep end and they often swim.”

“Nobody else saw 100 instrumented cars in the field at the time,” Petersen said. “There is a quote by Arthur Schopenhauer that I think describes Tom. It goes: ‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.’”

Since that groundbreaking study, Dingus, Hankey, Petersen, and many others at VTTI have significantly expanded the Institute’s naturalistic research. Today, VTTI houses nearly 2.5 petabytes of continuous naturalistic driving data, including the National Academy of Sciences-funded Second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP 2) NDS, the largest study of its kind with more than 3,500 drivers and more than 35 million miles of continuous naturalistic data. Collectively, VTTI naturalistic data sets help government agencies, automotive manufacturers, suppliers, and fellow researchers determine the greatest risk factors faced by drivers.

From small center to global transportation leader

Virginia Smart Roads - Rural Roadway Expansion

Virginia Smart Roads - Rural Roadway Expansion
Virginia Smart Roads - Rural Roadway Expansion

Under Dingus, VTTI has come a long way from its modest beginnings as a regional research center. Today, VTTI is a top three transportation institute globally. Institute faculty currently publish on the order of 150 journal articles per year, including in high impact journals like the New England Journal of Medicine, The Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, JAMA Pediatrics, the International Journal of Epidemiology, and the Journal of Public Health, in addition to transportation and safety specific journals.

VTTI houses several national centers, including the $28 million Safety Through Disruption University Transportation Center, as well as the National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence, which was established in 2006 with the assistance of then U.S. Sen. John Warner and has generated $15 million in research to date.

"I was pleased and proud in 2006, with Tom’s help, to be able to secure the National Surface Transportation Safety Center of Excellence for VTTI and dedicate the building which houses it today," John Warner said. "It is a tribute to his leadership, as well as his colleagues, that the program has saved many lives, has helped VTTI grow and create jobs, and is still going strong almost a decade after the original federal funding was invested."

“Through his pioneering vision and leadership, Tom has distinguished VTTI as an international beacon for transportation innovation, design and policy. His impact on and contributions to Virginia Tech’s research reputation and the students he has mentored cannot be overstated. Tom’s exceptional work and his commitment to strengthening our nation’s ground transportation policies and safety infrastructure will benefit drivers and road travelers for decades to come,” said Don Taylor, executive vice provost.

Forging a path for innovation in Virginia 

From left to right: Tom Dingus, Catherine McGhee, and President Tim Sands get ready to cut the ribbon on the Rural Roadway.

Rural Ribbon Cutting
From left to right: Tom Dingus, Catherine McGhee, and President Tim Sands get ready to cut the ribbon on the Rural Roadway.

Throughout his career at Virginia Tech, Dingus has led efforts to put Virginia on the map as a pioneer in advanced-vehicle research. VTTI, in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Transportation and other partners, manages a suite of advanced test beds, including the Virginia Automated Corridors in Northern Virginia and the Virginia Smart Roads in Blacksburg. Originally known as the Smart Road, the Virginia Smart Roads facility is renowned for its lighting and weather-making capabilities and its varied terrain. In addition to the original highway test bed, new test tracks have been added for surface street and rural testing, as well as a connector to U.S. 460-Business. Dingus oversaw the launch of the Smart Road and the expansions, which are anticipated to generate an overall economic impact of $285 million+ locally during its first decade and create an additional 156 jobs in the region by 2026.

"Over the course of his 25-year tenure at VTTI, Tom Dingus has championed projects, programs, and Institute expansions when others, including me, were skeptical. He carried on with confidence in his plans and his people, allowing VTTI to grow into the preeminent research institute it is today. The work between VTRC and VTTI continues to lead to improvements across an entire range of infrastructure issues and needs that Virginia tackles as it provides the very best transportation system. We’ll miss Tom and his leadership, but we are positive that his work will ensure VTTI’s role as a renowned transportation research facility for decades to come," said Cathy McGhee, director of Virginia's Office of Transportation Research and Innovation.

“Tom is a true pioneer and trail blazer in the field of transportation. Under his unparalleled leadership, VTTI’s contributions to research, education, and service has saved lives and improved access to transportation both through technology commercialization and through influence on policy, standards, and regulation,” said Dan Sui, vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech. “Over the past 25 years, Tom has grown the world-renowned institute to its current status as a powerhouse for transportation-related research and one of the largest winners of sponsored research on Virginia Tech’s campus. I look forward to the next stage of growth for this outstanding organization and working with Tom during the next phase of his stellar career.”

Driving self-driving car research

Advanced research vehicles drive down the Virginia Smart Roads - Highway.

Advanced research vehicles drive down the Virginia Smart Roads - Highway.
Advanced research vehicles drive down the Virginia Smart Roads - Highway.

As the transportation industry has evolved, Dingus has evolved VTTI to address the roadway challenges both of today and tomorrow. In no area is this more evident than in the institute’s research on “automated driving systems”, more commonly known as self-driving cars. Institute researchers work with private- and public-sector partners, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 14 automotive manufacturers, and more than 50 suppliers, to create data acquisition, advanced data analytics, and simulation methods that provide the technical foundation for development and deployment.

“Over many years, Tom has pioneered new approaches to understanding road safety and his influence has found its way in to nearly every safety feature on every GM vehicle. I greatly appreciate all he has done to teach policy makers, the industry, and me personally, about how crashes happen and things we can do to make driving safer,” said John Capp, director of Vehicle Safety Technology, Strategy, & Regulations at General Motors.

“Since my time as a student in CTR to my position today with Ford, I have always known Tom to be a determined and dedicated transportation safety professional. His work has made a significant impact on roadway safety, technology, and research,” said John Shutko, Technical Leader of Human Factors at ‎Ford Motor Company.

A legacy of progress

Tom Dingus White House

Dingus White House
Dingus at the White House in 2013.

An advocate for driver safety, Dingus has provided key testimonials about issues of driver distraction and attention for U.S. Congressional subcommittees, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the National Council of State Legislatures. Dingus was named a White House Champion of Change by President Barack Obama and Secretary Ray LaHood in 2013 for his exemplary leadership and innovation.

His advocacy work also includes “Survive the Drive”, which Dingus wrote with project associate Mindy Buchanan-King in 2015. Based on decades of research (and some personal experiences), “Survive the Drive” is a factual yet entertaining safety guide for drivers told in Dingus’ trademark dry sense of humor. The second edition was released in 2020 and is available from Virginia Tech Publishing, based in the University Libraries, as a free digital eBook and as an affordable paperback.

Over the course of his career, Dingus has received numerous awards and accolades.  Dingus was inducted into the Virginia Tech College of Engineering Academy of Alumni Excellence in 2020 and was named as one of the “100 people to meet in 2020” by Virginia Business Magazine. In 2017, Dingus was invited to give a TEDx Salon Talk in Wilmington, Delaware. There, he explored how automated vehicles really are not a revolution of driving as much as they are an evolution of safety, decades in the making.  

Other recognitions include: The Best Ergonomics in Design Article Award for 'Estimating Crash Risks' from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (2012), the A. R. Lauer Safety Award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society for outstanding contributions to the understanding of human factors in safety (2000), and the Jerome H. Ely Human Factors Award for the most outstanding paper (1998).

He has more than 300 technical publications with over 12,000 Google Scholar citations of his work and recently completed terms on the boards of directors of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

“As both an alumnus of the College of Engineering and a colleague who has pioneered research in transportation safety, data collection, and instrumentation, Tom has made innumerable contributions to Virginia Tech and our discipline,” said Julia Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. “He has been a visionary leader for VTTI whose legacy and positive impact will usher in advancements in the field for decades to come.”

As Dingus reflected on the success of VTTI, he credited the colleagues who have helped shaped the Institute into the global transportation leader it is today.

“There are a lot of people that deserve credit for the success of VTTI. Dozens of former students and colleagues have been with the Institute for 15 or 20 years. Eleven of them are leaders that are among the top 30 sponsored researchers out of 2,000 faculty, historically accounting for 12-15 percent of the sponsored research at Virginia Tech. These are the heroes of VTTI,” he said.

Although Dingus will step down once a new executive director is hired, he will continue to teach and work with Institute researchers.

“I have known Tom for a long time. I was his first graduate student at the University of Idaho in 1987 when he was a brand-new professor. Then later at University of Iowa, I was his first Ph.D. student to graduate.  So, I am either a slow learner or I know a good thing when I see it,” Hankey said. “At VTTI, I was the 13th person out of the 500 that we have now. Our growth is largely due to Tom’s drive, vision, and ability to motivate people. He has been a great friend, mentor, and boss to me as well as many others at VTTI."