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Forward Momentum: What's Next in Smart Transportation

Contra Costa County, Calif., Transportation Authority Executive Director Randy Iwasaki talks about the agency piloting first-of-their kind technologies that could signal what’s on the smart transportation horizon.

Among public agency heads, Randy Iwasaki is in an enviable position. In the technology-rich and densely populated San Francisco Bay Area, voters twice (1988 and 2004) approved a half-cent sales tax earmarked for transportation, which funds the work of the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority (CCTA). Iwasaki has served as CCTA’s executive director since 2010. The most recent ballot measure is estimated to provide about $2 billion during its 30-year lifespan.

Those funds, coupled with significant support from the U.S. Department of Transportation, are being put to work to develop an autonomous vehicle test center, a smart corridor on Interstate 80 and other smart mobility projects aimed at maximizing the efficiency of Bay Area roadways. Iwasaki talked to Public CIO about his plans for a subscription-based autonomous transportation system, its role in a new 5G-based City 5.0 concept and the importance of data-driven transit programming.

Q: What is City 5.0?

Kevin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, and Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, coined the term “City 3.0,” a connected city using technology to reduce the cost of services that they provide their citizens. We’re all getting strapped for cash, and we’re trying to provide better service. There’s the old saying that instantaneous gratification isn’t soon enough now because of all the technology that we have at our fingertips. And so they’re trying to figure out ways to provide service through this connected city concept.

We’re working on a subscription-based autonomous transportation system. And when you talk vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, you have to have a communication backbone. We’re developing a shared autonomous vehicle. It’s going to be connected to an operation center, hopefully within that 5G technology of 2020. That’s when 5G is promised, and the hallmark of this City 5.0 concept is that the connectivity may not be Wi-Fi — it may be your cellular service. We have great hopes for this new 5G wireless technology coming our way: lower latency, fewer dropped calls, wider coverage and hopefully lower costs.

When you take a subscription-based autonomous transportation system and overlay it within that connectivity of the city, you’re going to get better information. All these autonomous vehicles are connected to the infrastructure and are going to be giving you information as an owner. Any transportation system owner will tell you that if the money is drying up, you want to make better decisions with your money. And you need data to make well informed decisions; it just isn’t a guessing process.

Q: How do you engage the public in transit decisions?

In the old days, we’d host a town hall at a library. We’d announce it in the newspaper, and we’d get 40 people that would come out to tell us what their transportation needs are. You haven’t talked to anybody else because that’s all that shows up. So what we’ve done now is we’ve used social media. When you log into our website, you engage your customer by giving them an allocation of 10 CoCo [Contra Costa] coins, and they make a budgetary decision on what they want to invest their 10 coins in. We aggregate all the taxpayers that have engaged in our process and determine if it is reflective of the direction that we’re headed. And then we also do telephone town halls where we robocall and live-call people to get into that telephone town hall, and then we answer questions from that live audience for over an hour.

Q: How is customer feedback influencing programming?

A lot of people are saying, “I would love to take a bus, but I just can’t get there. It’s too far away, I’m getting too old or I can’t walk that far. Or when I drive my car to take BART, the parking lots are full, so I have to drive to San Francisco.” What we’re trying to do is come up with a subscription-based shared autonomous vehicle feeder system. We just signed an exclusive agreement with a company for North America called EasyMile — it’s a joint venture between Ligier Motors and Robosoft, a software company. Ligier Motors makes the car. This EZ10 is being rolled out in five other countries, and we have the exclusive agreement for North America. We’re going to be the first to roll out a shared autonomous vehicle to provide that first- and last-mile connectivity.

We’ve already ordered two vehicles, and hopefully we’re going to get them in July. Then we’ll start doing all the testing protocols for software/hardware, sensor interface, make sure the maps are correct and then run it throughout GoMentum Station [the autonomous vehicle test site in Concord, Calif., pictured at left] to make sure it follows the map, it knows where it is, it can work at night and it can work during the day. If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to approve the self-driving vehicle, we’ll have them do that, and then once we’re satisfied we’re going to roll it out at Bishop Ranch [a 585-acre business park in Contra Costa County] sometime early in 2017 if all goes well. And then we’ll run it in two parking lots.

Q: Tell me about the smart corridor project on Interstate 80.

It’s the worst commute in the Bay Area, westbound, going to the Bay Bridge and San Francisco. It’s a mess. You can’t widen that roadway because you’ve got water on the right and big housing complexes on the left. So how do you make the traffic work better and how do you make the transportation system more effective? The idea was to put together a technology-based project to help provide enough information ahead of time to smooth out the roadway. It’s ultimately going to be metered onramps and gantries [overhead signage] across the roadways with big red X’s. If you’re in lane #2 and there’s an accident ahead, you’ll see a big red X, so you can get off the freeway or change lanes. People that decide to change lanes will merge over and go around the blockage. Or if you see two or three X’s, you try to get off the freeway. And then wayfinding signs on local roads tell you when to get back on I-80 to get around that incident. Signal lights will also change on local roads to help flush the traffic out and put it back on I-80 after the incident.

They are now testing those electronic signs — they call it the “burn-in period.” The turn-on date is July 2016. We like this idea so much, we made an application to the U.S. DOT and were one of 13 grantees in the U.S. for State Route 4, which is going to be the next smart corridor project in the Bay Area. 

Q: How did GoMentum Station come about? 

When I first started at CCTA about five years ago, Assemblymember Susan Bonilla [she was supervisor at the time], asked me to go out and take a look at the Concord Naval Weapons Station to find a way to create smart jobs for the community when it was deeded over to the city of Concord. It’s got the infrastructure in place, it’s got a mini-city, it’s got a long straightaway where you can get up to higher speeds and test vehicles. And the only way I know how to create smart jobs is to create a test center.

So we worked with the U.S. Navy and the city, as well as Stantec, our consultant, and got a license and agreement to test autonomous and connected vehicles at the Naval Weapons Station. We have a license to test on 2,100 of the 5,000 acres. There are twin tunnels that are 1,400 feet long, 16 feet in diameter, you’ve got under crossings, bridges, guardrail, signs, curved gutter sidewalk, buildings — a perfect place to test. We signed Honda as our first car manufacturer partner, and we also have agreements with a couple other car manufacturers. There’s a lot of other vendors that also want to start testing their signal lights, controllers and car-to-infrastructure communication.


Q: How different will our roadways and transit systems look in the future? 

It depends on how autonomous vehicle technology matures. The way I look at the infrastructure, the roadways will be the same. You may be using shoulders; you may be using more of the pavement than you used to or you may have dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles.

You’ll have better, more consistent striping because that’s one of the things that autonomous vehicles guide off of. In California we use Botts’ dots, the raised pavement markers. In Kansas where it snows, they can’t have raised pavement markers because the snowplows will knock those right off after the first snow.

The maps may be smarter, meaning that speed zones are embedded in the maps so the vehicle knows how fast it’s supposed to go, like when you come to a curve warning, where you have the yellow signs that say 45 mph when you come off the off-ramp. Autonomous vehicles have base maps, and they use GPS to coordinate where they are in the world with that base map — it would have speed zones and signing in it, so you won’t have to sign that off-ramp. The car knows that it’s a 45 mph off-ramp and it’s going to go that fast, but there’s no sign to knock down. So the owners are saving money, there’s not all this tort because the sign is down and somebody didn’t see it and they went 55 and got in an accident. All those kinds of things may get cleaned up with autonomous vehicles.

I also see fewer tolling gantries because you can provide information using wireless communication through your infotainment system or navigation unit in your car.

Q: Why all the attention on and investment in smarter transportation infrastructure?

About 41,000 people were killed on our roadways and highways in the U.S. in 2015, and about 60,000 people died in the Vietnam War over a decade and people used to protest that war. In a year and a half, you lose more people on the roadways and highways in this country than you did in the Vietnam War. We have to do something, and as cars get more automated, you can eliminate about 80 to 90 percent of the causes of accidents — human error. If you could automate that using technology, just the safety piece of it alone would help guarantee that your friends and family get home safely to have dinner with you. That’s really what gets to folks in my business, because everybody in transportation, their top priority is safety, saving people’s lives.