Putting Technology in the Driver's Seat

Article excerpt

When IBM's Big Blue beat Kasparov at chess, it was a sobering day for those of us who believe a machine can't match -- certainly can't outdo -- the human mind.

Now the high-tech dreamers in the transportation industry are telling us that very soon, our cars and roads will be smarter than we are.

On the automated highways of the future, they say, we can sit back and relax. Our cars will pilot us for miles, keeping a safe distance from the next vehicle, moving at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour.

So this, you think, is what "smart" transportation is all about.

Hardly Right now, the potential liabilities of entrusting driver safety to a microchip in the road are still too great.

What Are Intelligent Transportation


The "smart" transportation technologies cities and metropolitan areas are testing and using today -- known, collectively, as intelligent transportation systems (ITS) -- are not at all "Star Wars" technologies. They are addressing the real-world needs of urban, suburban, and exurban America: more mobility; less congestion and pollution; access to jobs and stronger economies; safer, healthier, more livable communities.

Today's ITS has its roots in 1991, when Congress authorized a program exploring the use of advanced computer, communications, and sensor technologies to improve travel on highways and mass transit. Dubbed the Intelligent Vehicle-Highway Systems (IVHS) program, the effort was formally established under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA.) (Congress is currently debating the reauthorization of ISTEA -- dubbed "NexTEA".) Since then the initiative has become known as the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program, to reflect its broader, more comprehensive scope as a test bed for developing technologies that enhance and improve the movement of people and goods.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the public sector's investment in ITS includes the following nine systems that have evolved independently, but that can be integrated to enable cities to realize enormous benefits from the smooth exchange of information, including provision of better services to their citizens and customers.

Transit Management -- Advanced vehicle location systems on transit vehicles improve their on-time performance and provide real-time information on bus schedule status.

Freeway Management -- Real-time information highlights problem areas for transportation agencies to notify response teams and divert traffic.

Traffic Signal Control -- Real-time traffic information can enhance signal timing to better manage traffic demands.

Railroad Grade Crossings -- Automated safety systems warn drivers of crossings hazards and provide advance notice of approaching trains.

Emergency Management Services -- Emergency vehicles respond more efficiently by avoiding traffic problems.

Incident Management -- Surveillance systems help local agencies respond to incidents rapidly and effectively.

Electronic Toll Collection -- Electronic readers keep traffic flowing at toll plazas and reduce operating costs for toll agencies.

Electronic Fare Payment -- Smart Card technology reduces costs and is convenient to travelers because one card can be used for parking and transit.

Regional Multimodal Traveler Information -- Real-time information enables the public to make informed transportation choices.

Examples of Cities Using ITS

In August 1996, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the New York City, Phoenix, San Antonio and Seattle metropolitan areas would receive federal funding to showcase how the public and private sectors can work together to implement these systems to solve local and regional problems. This program, the Model Deployment Initiative, will illustrate integration of existing ITS systems in each of the four sites. …