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EU aims to turn ITS theory into practice

First publishedin ITS International
March April 2016
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Intelligent transport systems important role for europe

Gareth Horton explains how the European Commission’s Transport Research and Innovation Portal can help expedite research and turn theory into practice.

Over the next few years Europe’s transport systems face a number of challenges, such as improving urban mobility while at the same time protecting population health and accommodating the accessibility needs of an ageing but active population. The rise of e-commerce, with its associated impact on urban freight transport, is also a prevailing topic, as is the perennial need to reduce traffic congestion and accidents. In the latter area, the European Commission (EC) has set an ambitious target to halve the number of road fatalities in the EU from 31,500 per year in 2010 to 15,750 in 2020.

However, with 70% of the EU population now living in urban areas, meeting the need for safer, more sustainable and higher performance transport is a complex task. Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) have been identified as essential tools to increase the capacity for urban mobility while reducing congestion - combining transport and communication technology to help drivers predict, and avoid, incidents while allowing traffic control centres to optimise infrastructure use. Governments and organisations in Europe are encouraging ITS research. However, projects vary significantly across the region in terms of their approach, development and implementation.

To help support investment in European transport, the European Commission’s Transport Research Innovation Portal (TRIP) provides a platform for policy-makers and researchers to access the findings from over 7,700 past and ongoing transport research programmes. As part of this work, TRIP produces reports on transport research across a number of policy themes in order to summarise work to date and identify research gaps and needs. This article presents some of the key findings and trends observed in contemporary EU transport projects tackling urban mobility and explores the scientific and policy developments that will underpin success in urban ITS.

Direction of travel

Over the past decade, innovation in integrating information and communications technology with transport infrastructure, vehicles and users has matured to a point where ITS systems are becoming a feasible and practicable solution in urban environments. Moreover, the political will for ITS, and transport innovation in general, is gathering momentum. As part of the European Commission’s recent Urban Mobility Analysis Report, 20 such ITS projects were analysed of which 19 were financed by various EU programmes and the other by a Member State national programme. The projects were selected from those submitted to the TRIP platform by the site’s 60,000 active users from across Europe.

It is clear from TRIP’s review that the role of ITS in logistics, haulage and environmental monitoring is increasing. However, the overwhelming need in the road transport sector remains the development and implementation of systems to reduce accidents and congestion, with vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communication systems a key focus. Many projects have developed forward-looking incident warning and infrastructure condition communication systems, which can warn road users equipped with the necessary technology of impending incidents or unsafe situations. 

As this technology develops, much of the emphasis for research is turning to the definition of data and communication protocols for V2V and V2I communications, and there have been parallel national endeavours to advance the application of this technology. These include traffic management centres using floating car data to measure and curb congestion and inform traffic management decisions. Meanwhile information on traffic density and vehicle type can be used to help to control the environmental impacts, including NOx, particulates, ozone and traffic noise. However, TRIP’s latest analysis has revealed a reduction in research intensity in both V2V and V2I, possibly due to more cost effective alternatives for communication technology provided by modern mobile broadband and video surveillance.

Although still in relative infancy, advances in on-board sensor technologies and computing power are providing a platform to develop autonomous systems and the recent review reveals that developed prototypes for highly automated cars and trucks are performing well in real world situations. Now research is beginning to move towards developing communication protocols, driving algorithms and creating traffic control centres for dense traffic conditions. Other projects are focussing on enhancing road safety through intelligent mapping systems for vehicles with a degree of automation. Merging these advancements in driverless vehicles and driver assistance systems has been identified as a key step for the future of ITS.

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Geographic spread of TRIP active users from across europe

Much of this research is being carried out for applications in road transport but it also offers smarter user services and more efficient and intelligent ways to develop and operate public transport and multi-modal systems. Numerous national standards and implementations have been developed for interoperable transport systems, however, the gaps to be filled by future research and policy actions are much greater than those in the road sector alone. The improvements seen in ticketing and communications resulting from a widespread implementation of ITS in public transport and multi-modal systems would greatly simplify the use of cross-border public transport.

Research into reality

Analysing these projects gives a snapshot of the direction of ITS research, but more importantly helps to define the steps in technology and policy development required to support ITS innovation.

One shared theme across ITS applications is the inability to provide personalised and meaningful information to end users. Users’ behaviours during travel vary considerably and these variations need to be addressed in different ways. Respective psychological research to understand how to tailor information provision to the particular user – such as in combination with response to hazardous events that could lead to an accident (e.g. vehicles exiting from blind junctions) - is an important area for future studies.

It is also clear that for the implementation of ITS  to be successful there must be suitable business models for providing this information at a competitive price. Despite consumer demand for more personalised information, willingness to pay for the service is extremely limited. For this reason the Commission’s Urban ITS Expert Group is recommending that where a viable business model is not available for the private sector, the public sector should implement multimodal ITS information services.

In terms of commerce, many studies have proposed smart urban logistics concepts with freight distribution centres, however to date their impact on real life freight services in agglomerations has been limited. Research therefore needs to focus on the business drivers, barriers and models, that will foster inter-company co-operation on urban territories.

For public transport, where the gaps in capacity are arguably most prominent, it is necessary to investigate a common European standard for ITS to replace the numerous national standards currently governing the sector. The data privacy aspects, payment allocations and the role of organising bodies in relation to international use of public transport needs to be clarified. This area of research needs to cover customer satisfaction and equity as well as institutional and market organisation aspects, rather than purely technical or economic issues.

Similarly, it is clear that Europe needs to develop a shared system to support ITS, both for personal and public transport. Political initiatives focussed on wider pan-European regulation are recommended to overcome the discrepant and diverging national approaches in the enforcement of ITS standards. Bridging standards at an EU level would ease the use of public transport and multi-modal transport systems for domestic and international travellers alike. For example, a standardised e-ticket system would allow passengers to travel between and within cities both domestically and in different countries, using a single, personal ticket.

Overall, TRIP’s research suggests that the problems in implementing ITS are often organisational and institutional, rather than technical. Research should therefore explore how to foster cooperation between various bodies in urban areas – and sharing project information and data is a critical part of this process.

Cooperation in Europe

Transforming ITS research into reality will require the coming together of various innovations in technology, policy and infrastructure. Initiatives such as the Transport Research and Innovation Portal enable the free exchange of ideas, news and research results required to break down the silos between academia, public and private sector innovation. Only through this closer collaboration will researchers, government and the general public secure Europe’s goal for better performing and safer transport systems. About the Author: Gareth Horton is research theme analysis leader for the European Commission’s Transport Research and Innovation Portal http://www.transport-research.info/

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