Over the past few years, The U. S. Department of Transportation has been taking steps towards implementing Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). ITS uses new technology and data to connect cars, rail, buses and other transportation modes into a network that tracks and shares information with its users. Ideally, these improved connections will allow for increased travel efficiency and user safety.
So what does ITS technology look like? ITS is already in use in a variety of vehicles, such as the beeping sound some cars emit when they get close to hitting an object, automatic parallel parking systems or E-Z pass technology, which allows drivers to bypass turnpike toll plazas. These types of systems when applied to buses, motorcycles, and transit help decrease collisions and protect pedestrians.
ITS has been in the news following the May 12 derailment of an Amtrak train that was traveling at a speed faster than allowed around a turn in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers and injured hundreds. Experts say a system called Positive Train Control (PTC), which automatically decreases a train’s speed if the engineer does not respond to warnings, would have prevented the accident. The train was equipped with PTC, but the system was not operational due to budgetary restrictions. U.S. Congress previously mandated that every train across the country be equipped with PTC by the end of 2015. Unfortunately, few train companies have implemented the technology. Representative Quigley of Illinois explains, “We (Congress) require this without fully understanding it, without fully assisting those that are going to be involved, without thinking that this is an unfunded mandate, in particular our commuter railroads would never be able to meet these deadlines.” Political support for safer technology is critical in aiding the implementation of ITS. If PTC was in place, Amtrak says the derailment would have not taken place.
The data collected from transportation agencies by means of ITS can empower drivers and legislators to make better-informed decisions. Beyond promoting safety, the data collected from these vehicles could help reveal information on where there is traffic congestion, where there is high demand for transit, and more. The ride-sharing service Uber has taken steps to share their data system with city officials. Currently, Uber gives Boston officials quarterly reports showing the date and times of rides, the distance traveled, and the locations where riders were picked up and dropped off. This data allows city officials a glimpse into daily commuters’ patterns, and could determine where to build new roads or offer other transportation options. San Francisco is also experimenting with ITS, installing sensors in 6,000 parking spaces so drivers can determine which ones are vacant. Users can download an app or go to the website to locate parking. If parking does not exist, some drivers may choose transit. With greater knowledge, users can reduce travel time because they will have information ahead of time on congestion, parking, and construction, which will lead to less idle sitting on the road.In addition, riders can switch to other modes of transportation that may be more efficient than traveling by car. The data can also help elected officials and planners figure out how to improve traffic signals to encourage traffic flow, identify where new roads need to be built; and increase the efficiency of transit services.
Transit also benefits from ITS. Buses can be equipped with a pedestrian warning system, which may help protect the pedestrians crossing in an intersection. Another element of ITS that has shown success is Transit Signal Priority (TSP), which allows for buses and light rail cars that are behind schedule to manipulate the upcoming traffic signal to allow the transit vehicle to pass through. This helps buses to stay on schedule, which in turn improves their overall reliability. The ability of transit agencies to manipulate traffic signals requires the approval and support from local road agencies. ITS, and especially TSP systems, require close collaboration between the transit agency and the local agencies that have jurisdiction over traffic signals.
Another category of ITS—autonomous vehicles—have become the focus of many public debates. Advocates of autonomous vehicles predict reductions in traffic and parking costs, accidents, pollution emissions, roadway costs, and the need for conventional public transit services. Some argue that self-driving cars will replace chauffeur services and the need to subsidize public transit because non-drivers will now have access to mobility through self-driving automobiles. In addition, some advocates claim that autonomous vehicles will reduce vehicle ownership, with self-driving taxies replacing personal vehicles. The ride-sharing potential of autonomous vehicles could reduce a multicar family to a single car family. In addition, autonomous vehicles have the ability to provide mobility for all ages.
While the benefits of autonomous vehicles certainly are attractive, there are some policy concerns, including a decline in jobs for drivers, new safety risks, and the possibility the cars might make other modes of transportation less safe and convenient. Privacy is also a big concern. Self-driving cars have an always-on wireless connection, which makes them trackable at every moment. Yet, millions of Americans already consent to being tracked through GPS capability in their smartphones. A little public awareness and education about increased privacy threats may counterbalance any fear and show that privacy concerns may not affect the demand for self-driving cars.
The U.S. is increasingly moving towards a more connected and intelligent transportation structure. With these improvements, policy decisions will follow, shaping the path transportation will take into the future. Michigan is at the forefront of this technological research in a variety of ways. MDOT Director Kirk Steudle was recently named one of the ”Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers” by Government Technology magazine. He is heavily involved in supporting ITS research, a chair on the Board of Directors of the Intelligent Technology Society of America, and a member of the ITS Program Advisory Committee. In addition, Detroit hosted last year’s World ITS Conference and the University of Michigan has become a leader in autonomous vehicle research. This, of course, would not be the first time Michigan has had central role in developing the future of the nation’s transportation system. At Trans4M we are excited to see what is to come in the next few years.