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Newt Gingrich on Intelligent Transportation Systems

House Speaker Newt Gingrich is an outspoken advocate of advanced technology. What does that advocacy mean to the future of the U.S. Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) Program?

by / April 30, 1995
May 95

Jurisdictions/Agencies: Congress; House Transportation Committee; Chicago; Orlando, Fla.; Detroit; France; FAA; MARTA; New Mexico; NASA

Vendors/Products: ITS Online; Avis; Travtek; ADVANCE; FAST-TRAC; American Automobile Assn.; MasterCard; Visa; FEDEX; Loral; Rockwell.

Jerry Werner

ITS Online

House Speaker Newt Gingrich's belief in the impact of advanced technology is well known -- he often characterizes it as a modern revolution. Shortly after taking over as speaker of the House, he announced that pending legislation would now be posted on the Internet (World Wide Web address: http://thomas.loc.gov). But what does that belief in the importance of advanced technology portend for congressional direction and support for the national ITS program? ITS Online Editor-in-Chief Jerry Werner recently discussed this issue with Rep. Gingrich in the speaker's suite at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

ITSO: What are your thoughts on Intelligent Transportation Systems? I know you used to be on the House Transportation Committee.

Gingrich: I don't know, on a realistic level, how close we are to anything that is implementable with a reasonable investment. Again, it depends on whether you're talking about a centrally organized system based off of some kind of grid or a decentralized system that comes off of GPS (Global Positioning System). In fact, Avis is now experimenting in California. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some kind of GPS-based intelligent mapping system available in 5-10 years. So you could literally rent a car or buy it and install it in your car and have a remarkable capacity to do things.

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ITSO: In fact those are demonstrable today in various operational tests.

Gingrich: Sure. And there are some places today that Avis will actually rent them to you. I would distinguish that, though, from what was the model in the late 50s and early 60s, which was going to be a central grid -- a kind of intelligent system. Whether you go from there to the next phase which is an intelligent avoidance system -- which I used to spend time on in the aviation subcommittee -- and see us get to the point where you have that down to the level of the individual car. I don't know what the order of magnitude drop in cost would have to be for that kind of equipment.

ITSO: There are three well-known ITS operational tests that are being funded -- one -- Travtek in Orlando, Fla., is actually over. There's the ADVANCE program in Chicago and the FAST-TRAC program in the suburbs of Detroit. Each has some component of in-vehicle system, and yet a car in any one operational test will not be able to drive to one of the other cities and have it work. I'm not arguing for a centralized grid, but wouldn't that argue for some standards or for some national interoperability there?

Gingrich: Well, that's not really the question. The danger you have -- as the French discovered 10 years ago when they went to an integrated telephone system that was very advanced for the period -- is that if you go to the best available technology while you're in the early stages of a technological revolution, you get an enormous capital investment that's [soon] obsolete. Building canals in the 1830s, which rapidly was obsolesced by the railroads.

So I would be skeptical of our ability to create a centrally integrated intelligent transportation system in the near future, but I would be intrigued with our potential to use core structures like GPS to create decentralized, market-oriented breakthroughs that would become either rentable or purchasable within a very short time. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see AAA have as part of its package for members that you could rent a trip package, and it would take you from A to B and you turn it back in and you use your credit card for deductibility. I think it would be more likely to evolve very, very rapidly through that kind of free-standing decentralized model than we are from a centrally governed planned effort to brute force the current technology.

ITSO: There is an effort you may be aware of to do a national ITS systems architecture, and in fact there's been a down-select of two companies -- Loral and Rockwell.

Gingrich: Right. My guess and my hunch is that it's at least two generations too early. My hunch is that there's a pretty high chance that its sensor system and its database system will turn out to be far too centralized and far too controlling for where we're going. Space is cheaper than land. The shorthand is that that's the thing that's driven me crazy in dealing with the FAA. A space-based system for aircraft is infinitely superior and free-standing compared with the system that they decided to build, which is much more ground based, but which gives the controller more control, whereas a space-based system gives the pilot more control.

The power struggle is over who's in charge, and I'm very leery anytime public bureaucrats explain why they should allocate the money to buy what they think is the state of the art, because as a general rule you can already find crazed experts who know the next-generation's breakthroughs before they start laying the concrete for the current generation. That's also, by the way, why I like decentralized marketplaces, because you can obsolesce things and just let them go bankrupt.

ITSO: To the notion of centralization, are you against the Washington centralization or any public-sector...

Gingrich: I'm against any public-sector centralization which requires complex systems of information control. Let me give you the simple difference -- I think it is terrific that we're moving all over America to where you can put your MasterCard on your windshield and you could drive through every tollway in the country and never stop. Highly centralized control system of MasterCard. Highly decentralized personal possession, and a "point-of-service" database.

I have a machine on this bridge, and so you have your car that permanently has this decal and you can go through any of these data systems in this country. That makes sense to me, because it's simply a modest extension of existing scanning technology and existing credit card technology. What doesn't make sense to me is to have people who plan MARTA or Metro now plan an intelligent transportation system. It will be too expensive, it will be too obsolete, and it will be too centrally controlled.

ITSO: You're familiar with so-called "toll-tag" technology?

Gingrich: That's what I'm referring to. I'm just suggesting you tie it into a MasterCard or Visa, instead of having to buy the local toll card.

ITSO: There are also several competing technologies for trucks, so that when they enter a new state their data can be reported to that state. The problem is that there currently isn't a national standard. In the state of New Mexico, for example, there's one technology for East-West roads and a different one for North-South roads. Truckers have to have two different tags. Does that make sense?

Gingrich: No, but the correct answer is to put the truck into an uplinked GPS system, and have the uplink automatically tell the computer network when the truck crosses the state line. Go talk to FEDEX -- these technologies are free-standing and available right this second. You could put one in every truck in the country, you wouldn't have to play Mickey Mouse games at the state line, and it would simply have a real-time record of where the truck went, and it would automatically bill the truck based on where it went.

Notice that it's all free-standing. The more sophisticated the embedded base, the freer I am to operate. The more simple the embedded base, the more it constricts my choices.

ITSO: So how do we get there? Do we completely let market forces do it, with no guidance or direction or encouragement from government?

Gingrich: I suspect if you simply had expensing for these breakthroughs, that user companies would find it so valuable...What would be happening would be that you would be piggybacking the state's interest on the normal information database of a trucking company. Secondly, I would suggest to you that what you really want is a clearinghouse for the states. You've got all these governments that have all this financial pressures and the faster that one of them makes a breakthrough, you want to share it back to the other 49 states and say "why don't we do it this way." When you get into cumbersome bureaucratic structures, where people have rice bowls, you inevitably have problems you need to avoid. There's a great book that you ought to read, published in the mid-1960s, called "The Railroad in the Space Program" [Bruce Mazlish, MIT Press, 1965. NASA did a study on the historical analog of the Apollo project.]

This interview originally appeared in ITS Online, a new Internet-based publication covering the field of Intelligent Transportation Systems. ITS Online is available on the Internet's World Wide Web at: http://www.io.com/~itsol/

For more information on ITS Online, send a request by e-mail to itsol@io.com



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