National Intelligent Transportation Vision Begins to Take Shape

Research on smart driving systems show how information technology can change the way people commute.

by / June 1, 2010 0

The nine counties that compose the San Francisco Bay Area will determine this fall whether technology can help ease the region's infamous traffic congestion.

The Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) is leading efforts to build an 800-mile express lane network stretching from the Napa Valley wine country to California's fabled Silicon Valley. The initiative will create high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that are free to vehicles carrying multiple passengers and available to single drivers for a fee.

The United States already has HOT lanes, like the 95 Express in Florida, but the MTC plans to test new technology on the debut segment of the Bay Area's HOT lane construction. If everything goes as planned, a stretch of I-680 will play host to a pilot project in October that will feature "intelligent" cars that could automate the tolling process.

The MTC intends to use wireless technology developed through the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) IntelliDrive project to automatically detect how many passengers are in a vehicle, give drivers estimated commute times, and calculate and charge toll fees.

"IntelliDrive requires each vehicle to have an onboard unit, like a personal navigation device, where you have lots of time and space to communicate information to the driver," said Janet Banner, the project manager at MTC. "Things that drivers want to know when they're approaching or in a HOT lane are, 'How much is it going to cost?' and 'How much time would it take me to take a trip?'"

The MTC will supply some drivers in the HOT lane project with vehicles equipped with IntelliDrive technology. Others will have to agree to allow the vehicles they already own to undergo temporary installations for the project's duration.

In March, the organization released the first draft of an RFP for help designing, building and operating the test bed site, including roadway structures and technology that will assist in electronic tolling and radio communications for patrol officers. The HOT lane project is scheduled to end in March 2012, according to the program plan.

Looking for Vision

IntelliDrive is a federal initiative to outfit cars with wireless connectivity that lets them communicate with one another and fixed structures. The goal is to see how this technology can help combat congestion and make commuting safer. The national IntelliDrive program will eventually push for deployment of onboard intelligent transportation systems (ITS) equipment into vehicles. Efforts like the MTC's HOT lane project will test whether the equipment is effective for automated tolling.

But national thinking on ITS issues has been in short supply, according to ITS advocates. "We haven't had a transportation vision that is equivalent to the vision that Eisenhower had when he built the National Highway System," said Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America), referring to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that was championed by then-President Dwight Eisenhower.

Most current intelligent transportation systems operate independently, which limits their effectiveness when drivers cross jurisdictional lines. As the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation points out in the report, Explaining International IT Application Leadership: Intelligent Transportation Systems, a system that allows a vehicle to communicate over a Michigan-centric network won't work in Indiana. Of course, moving to a more nationally coordinated approach also raises sticky issues about management of these systems between localities, states and the federal government.

In addition, ITS America - a government and industry group that promotes ITS deployment - contends that the U.S. simply isn't spending enough on highways and the tools needed to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

"Three bipartisan panels over the last two years have looked at U.S. investment in transportation," Belcher said. "Each of them concluded that the United States has woefully underinvested in transportation and transportation infrastructure."

Pockets of Innovation

That's not to say that innovative projects aren't under way. Existing research explores how ITS can take the guesswork out of surface travel for citizens and managing agencies.

The USDOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration's (RITA) ITS Joint Program Office receives $110 million annually to research. The office's 2010-2014 strategic ITS plan lists projects on the horizon, including vehicle-to-vehicle projects involving wireless communication between vehicles and vehicle-to-infrastructure projects involving wireless communication between vehicles and surrounding structures.

RITA created the IntelliDrive project that's behind the MTC's HOT lane endeavor. IntelliDrive also is supporting SafeTrip-21, a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) initiative to use technology to reduce congestion and improve safety.

Although IntelliDrive envisions equipping vehicles with specialized short-range wireless communications technology - known as dedicated short-range communications - most vehicles won't have it in the near future. So SafeTrip-21 uses the ubiquity of the mobile phone instead.

"We wanted to do something near term that could be useful to a large population," said Jim Misener, executive director of California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways at the University of California, Berkeley, an organization assisting Caltrans with SafeTrip-21 efforts. "SafeTrip-21 was the bridge between now and the future."

It's a huge project that includes numerous subprojects, like Mobile Millennium, which ran from November 2008 to November 2009. Mobile Millenium used GPS-equipped cell phones in moving vehicles to gather real-time traffic information.

"[Researchers] wrote an application that resides on a smartphone that collects that speed at a location and then transmits it back through the cell-phone network to a server, and it's collected from many phones and aggregated to give a good idea of what's happening on the roadway network," said Greg Larson, chief of the Office of Traffic Operations Research in Caltrans' Division of Research and Innovation.

More than 5,000 participating drivers downloaded free software designed by UC Berkeley and the Nokia Research center onto their phones. The software also incorporated digital mapping capabilities from Navteq, a company that provides electronic traffic and location data.

Software applications downloaded by participants also allowed them to receive data and incident reports for traffic arteries.

"It was more a behavioral study to see, What type of information will we get from this? How good would the information be? How frequent would the information be?" said Alexandre Bayen, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. "It was really way before the massive wave of iPhone apps."

Months before Mobile Millennium's debut, UC Berkeley launched Mobile Century, a similar project that ran on Feb. 8, 2008, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nokia N95 GPS-enabled mobile devices were placed in 100 cars. The vehicles drove on a stretch of Interstate 880 near San Francisco from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

"We had also set up a bunch of high-def cameras to get impartial measurements along the route, and so we have independent data where we can look at the cameras and see exactly how fast traffic is moving, how congestion is forming and compare that with what we can infer from the data from the mobile devices," said Quinn Jacobson, a research leader at the Nokia Research Center.

The project used data from the cameras and loop sensors on the ground to collect information and check it against data collected from the phones. The Mobile Century data is available for download for other research institutions to use as they wish.

Cell phone technology is a cornerstone of these Caltrans SafeTrip-21 projects, but plans for future initiatives hit a snag in late 2009 when federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spurred a crackdown on distracted driving and cell-phone use in vehicles. That meant some changes were in order for all cell phone-related projects on California's end.

esearch explores how ITS can take the guesswork out of surface travel for citizens and managing agencies.

The USDOT's Research and Innovative Technology Administration's (RITA) ITS Joint Program Office receives $110 million annually to research. The office's 2010-2014 strategic ITS plan lists projects on the horizon, including vehicle-to-vehicle projects involving wireless communication between vehicles and vehicle-to-infrastructure projects involving wireless communication between vehicles and surrounding structures.

RITA created the IntelliDrive project that's behind the MTC's HOT lane endeavor. IntelliDrive also is supporting SafeTrip-21, a California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) initiative to use technology to reduce congestion and improve safety.

Although IntelliDrive envisions equipping vehicles with specialized short-range wireless communications technology - known as dedicated short-range communications - most vehicles won't have it in the near future. So SafeTrip-21 uses the ubiquity of the mobile phone instead.

"We wanted to do something near term that could be useful to a large population," said Jim Misener, executive director of California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways at the University of California, Berkeley, an organization assisting Caltrans with SafeTrip-21 efforts. "SafeTrip-21 was the bridge between now and the future."

It's a huge project that includes numerous subprojects, like Mobile Millennium, which ran from November 2008 to November 2009. Mobile Millenium used GPS-equipped cell phones in moving vehicles to gather real-time traffic information.

"[Researchers] wrote an application that resides on a smartphone that collects that speed at a location and then transmits it back through the cell-phone network to a server, and it's collected from many phones and aggregated to give a good idea of what's happening on the roadway network," said Greg Larson, chief of the Office of Traffic Operations Research in Caltrans' Division of Research and Innovation.

More than 5,000 participating drivers downloaded free software designed by UC Berkeley and the Nokia Research center onto their phones. The software also incorporated digital mapping capabilities from Navteq, a company that provides electronic traffic and location data.

Software applications downloaded by participants also allowed them to receive data and incident reports for traffic arteries.

"It was more a behavioral study to see, What type of information will we get from this? How good would the information be? How frequent would the information be?" said Alexandre Bayen, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley. "It was really way before the massive wave of iPhone apps."

Months before Mobile Millennium's debut, UC Berkeley launched Mobile Century, a similar project that ran on Feb. 8, 2008, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nokia N95 GPS-enabled mobile devices were placed in 100 cars. The vehicles drove on a stretch of Interstate 880 near San Francisco from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

"We had also set up a bunch of high-def cameras to get impartial measurements along the route, and so we have independent data where we can look at the cameras and see exactly how fast traffic is moving, how congestion is forming and compare that with what we can infer from the data from the mobile devices," said Quinn Jacobson, a research leader at the Nokia Research Center.

The project used data from the cameras and loop sensors on the ground to collect information and check it against data collected from the phones. The Mobile Century data is available for download for other research institutions to use as they wish.

Cell phone technology is a cornerstone of these Caltrans SafeTrip-21 projects, but plans for future initiatives hit a snag in late 2009 when federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spurred a crackdown on distracted driving and cell-phone use in vehicles. That meant some changes were in order for all cell phone-related projects on California's end.

"Our field testing is scheduled to end on Aug. 31 of this year," said Larson. "It was originally supposed to end in January 2010, but because of the rescoping we had to do to comply with the distracted driving concerns, we had to extend the project."

California also modified another SafeTrip project where drivers are notified by phone about upcoming accidents or slowdowns. Thanks to the changes, volunteers will get instrumented cars pre-rigged with phones, but they won't know they are there.

"In deference to our USDOT sponsors, there's not going to be a cell phone anywhere in sight. The cell phone's going to be hidden," Larson said. So drivers will have to rely on their ears for alerts. "It's going to be delivered to them through the stereo system in the car."

The researchers' goal is to monitor how people drive normally versus when they get alerts. The cars will have sensors to gauge driving changes.

"For one week, we see how they drive naturally," Larson said. "For the next week, we see how they drive when they start getting these alerts as they drive through the network, and what we're expecting is, when people get an alert, they're going to start to slow down."

Riding Smart

Of course, intelligent transportation isn't all about drivers. Transit systems also come into play, and pockets of intelligent transit innovation pop up here and there, like the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) in Georgia. Tonya Saxon, a transit systems planning analyst there, knows firsthand how the technology helps her and her co-workers analyze their transit network.

MARTA uses an automatic passenger counting (APC) system, consisting of multiple sensors inside buses to collect data - like stop frequency, passenger enter and exit rates, bicycle rack usage and wheelchair lift cycles - to analyze what happens during routes. Then transit management uses analytics software to assess data for route planning and adjustments.

"These APC systems collect the ridership data [and] GPS information on the bus route that they are assigned to daily," Saxon said. "When those buses return, the data is transmitted via wireless to a base station in the garage. And on the back end, the predictive analysis is done through the software to bring us back the ridership information."

The data lets personnel see what trips are productive and determine where to place or remove stops. They can also generate custom reports based. MARTA still uses manual data to check against the automated data for accuracy.

"We have ride checkers who go out on the bus and manually count people getting on and off, and they have a sheet with the stops and the trip times for that particular route," she said.

RITA's IntelliDrive project also pumps funding into making public transit more attractive. Field-testing on many SafeTrip-21 projects is scheduled to end in August 2010 and some involve public transportation.

Caltrans is working with the San Mateo County and Santa Clara Valley transportation authorities on a network traveler transit project in the Bay Area. In the project, citizens waiting for buses can receive information on their smartphones about bus locations and expected arrival times.

"Let's say your bus is arriving in seven minutes and you're at the bus stop next to Starbucks and you think, 'Hey, maybe I have time to go get a cup of coffee and still catch my bus.' So there's an example of a benefit you get," said Caltrans' Larson.

Transportation 2.0

Although research and pilot projects continue, some leaders think the United States has work to do before an ITS revolution takes off.

In 2009, The Washington Post reported that high-speed rail had emerged as the flagship of President Barack Obama's transportation agenda, and that

nearly half of the $48 billion in stimulus funds set aside for transportation would go to non-highway projects, but the president's website doesn't mention a broad transportation agenda. The USDOT specifies in the 2011 budget plan that RITA will conduct more than $300 million in research, education and technology application, but LaHood's site doesn't mention large-scale ITS activities. It says he plans to shape the economy of the coming decades by building new transportation infrastructure.

The ITIF contends that the U.S. government needs to advance the domestic ITS agenda and take the lead on the issue. RITA, for example, is allowed to research but not to deploy. ITIF recommendations include spending billions more annually on ITS funding, allowing RITA to implement systems rather than just study them, and developing a national ITS system by 2014.

Until then, drivers and commuters may need to live with a patchwork of projects instead of a national ITS strategy.

"It's a mixed bag," Belcher said. "For the most part, there are some states and local governments that do deploy technology and deploy various stages of technology to manage traffic in their cities, and they do it through a combination of technologies."

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.