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Connected vehicles - potential to transform US transportation

First publishedin ITS International
March April 2013
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Kenneth Leonard
“In my opinion, the connected vehicle research being done by this program and the direction it is taking us is the most cutting edge science being done by the department” Kenneth Leonard

There’s a new face in the driving seat at the US Department of Transport’s ITS Joint Program Office. Fortunately, as Robin Meczes finds out, he’s no learner driver…

Ask Kenneth Leonard why he wanted his new job as director of the ITS Joint Program Office, and his answer comes back without a second’s delay. “The potential to save lives, reduce injuries and help people enjoy a more efficient transportation system is the kind of challenge that makes me want to come to work each morning,” he says. “In my opinion, the connected vehicle research being done by this program and the direction it is taking us is the most cutting edge science being done by the department. Connected vehicles have the potential to transform all aspects of transportation in the US, and I knew my previous experience in transportation research, program management and technology transition would be an asset to the team.”

If that sounds immodest, it’s more a simple statement of fact: Leonard has over 30 years of private and public sector work in transport under his belt.

Incredibly exciting

But Leonard was also attracted to the job by the timing, as it turns out. “This is an incredibly exciting time to be in the ITS sector, because we have just scratched the surface with what we can achieve in safety, mobility and energy efficiency and reducing environmental impact,” he explains. “I think we are on the cusp of a transformation in transportation across the board and that intelligent transportation systems are going to be a key part of that change. The USDOT is focused on safety, and we are working with our industry partners to use ITS to move from crash survival to crash avoidance. That potential payoff in saved lives and avoided injuries is a powerful catalyst in moving ITS forward.”

The JPO program has already made significant progress with its connected vehicle research, of course – in particular in developing connected vehicle applications that will increase mobility and improve the way people travel, as well as easing congestion and minimising the impact on the environment, says Leonard.

Its other accomplishments in recent years, he says, include developing the Vehicle Data Translator (VDT), which captures road weather and maintenance fleet data from two state DOTs to improve winter maintenance operations; the launch of a prototype research data exchange (RDE), providing four well-documented multimodal data sets from San Diego (CA), Portland (OR), Pasadena (CA) and Seattle (WA); and the development of a revised signal phase and timing message set and roadside equipment for the Safety Pilot Model Demonstration.

Looking ahead, we don’t have long to wait for more, either. “This spring, I am looking forward to the launch of the nation’s first integrated corridor management (ICM) systems,” says Leonard. The USDOT’s ICM initiative will demonstrate and evaluate ICM systems at sites along the I-15 corridor in San Diego, California, and along the I-75 corridor in Dallas, Texas in March and April respectively. Both sites plan to use automated decision support systems (DSS) that will process information on transportation network conditions in the corridor and recommend multimodal ICM strategies.

Leonard is adamant that such projects can make a real and lasting difference to safety and efficiency. “In the last five years, the JPO has made significant contributions to safety and mobility,” he says. “The SafeTrip-21 Field Operation Test which took place in California and the I-95 corridor popularised transportation technology by making traffic and transit data available to the public via websites, smartphone apps and other electronic media. The results laid the foundation for real world and commercial products.

“In the coming years, I believe that this research will change the transportation system and make it a better, safer place,” he adds. “Later this year, we are expecting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to make a decision about the future of connected vehicle technology for light vehicles and in 2014, a similar decision will be made for heavy trucks. In 2015, we expect the Federal Highway Administration to issue guidance to state and local transportation agencies to help them effectively deploy the technology.”

Whatever the NHTSA decision, the JPO’s work continues, of course. Most recently, it began formulating a new ITS Strategic Research Plan to outline the main areas of research for 2015-2019. “Stakeholders are encouraged to provide input and share their perspectives on the themes for the next plan,” comments Leonard. “We’ve opened a dialogue and are beginning to receive responses.”

Leonard says he wants to significantly raise the level of stakeholder engagement in future. As part of this, program managers will be making extensive use of webinar interaction, he says, as well as engaging stakeholders through public meetings held in Washington and elsewhere in the US.

Fly in the ointment?

One possible fly in the ointment in terms of future developments, of course, is the recent announcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that up to 195MHz in the 5.9GHz band will be opened up for spectrum sharing – a move that led a prominent group of ITS stakeholders to write to the US National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) in January to ask for a rethink on the basis that this frequency band has so far been dedicated to ITS safety applications. So what’s Leonard’s view about the move?
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Freight Advanced Traveler Information Systems
Freight Advanced Traveler Information Systems (FRATIS) will help guide decision making and raise heavy goods vehicle operating efficiency, suggestsLeonard (Pic: USDOT)
“USDOT is aware of FCC’s proposed action to open up the 5GHz spectrum band to unlicensed wireless users and will review its proposal,” he says. “Our connected vehicle research using the 5.9GHz band is ongoing and we look forward to working with our federal partners, including the NTIA and the FCC, to evaluate the impacts of spectrum sharing on vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.”

Meanwhile, the emphasis of future research will remain just as much on vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) as vehicle to vehicle (V2V) technology, says Leonard.

“V2I is still a very crucial part of our research and we see it moving in parallel with V2V deployment in the United States. The Federal Highway Administration plans to follow up the two NHTSA decisions (2013 on light vehicles and 2014 for heavy vehicles) with guidance for infrastructure in 2015. All of these three major outcomes from the ITS program will utilise information from our ongoing safety pilot. Even as our focus has been on equipping 3000 vehicles for the safety pilot, we have also included roadside equipment. Integrated systems are likely to be more cost-effective than infrastructure-only or vehicle-only solutions,” he says.

Standards issues

Whatever the outcome of the NHTSA’s decisions about the future of connected vehicle technology in the US, there is also the tricky issue of international cooperation and standardisation to deal with.

On this score, Leonard is quite clear. “We need to continue to work together with international counterparts on both our research activities and our standardisation processes,” he says. “Recognising that transportation is a global industry - especially vehicle manufacturing - we should take advantage of the benefits of harmonised standards, which enable the use of common hardware in multiple regions and result in reduced cost and time-to-market. Sharing our data and knowledge on important issues like safety, mobility and environmental applications, spectrum and other key policy issues allows us to collectively get the most out of independent investments.

“We are progressing in our international standards harmonisation program. We have had recent successes in harmonising the US and EU core safety message sets, and we are working to harmonise standards when it is in the public interest to do so. We have a cooperative agreement with the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and also cooperate with both the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) on ITS standards work.”

In terms of getting ITS out into the real world, he believes vehicle manufacturers have a big role to play, since these days, they are as much systems integrators as they are assemblers of steel and rubber and operate in a truly global marketplace.

“We have strong partners in the auto industry, as evidenced by their commitment to the Safety Pilot. They see the promise for this technology and that’s why they are devoting their resources to its development,” he says. “I had the opportunity to meet with OEM leaders recently and they are very excited about ITS and the pending NHTSA decision. Their ability to offer customers added value through the use of ITS technology will go a long way to making deployed ITS capabilities real for the driving public.

Broadening the scope

ITS research and development isn’t just about private cars, naturally – it’s just as important to consider both freight operations and multimodal transport, Leonard points out, highlighting the ongoing development of both Integrated Dynamic Transit Operations (IDTO) and the Freight Advanced Traveler Information Systems (FRATIS) by way of example.
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Connected vehicle program
Connected vehicle program could transform transportation in the US, believes Leonard – especially in terms of safety. (Pic: USDOT)
“ITS is not just about cars talking to each other, or even infrastructure,” he confirms. “Our dynamic mobility team is developing six bundles of connected vehicle applications that can be used in cars, trucks, transit vehicles, motorcycles and on handheld devices for pedestrians and cyclists. Each is a combination of several individual applications that work together.”

When completed, the IDTO application will enable transit systems to provide better information to travellers and increase quality of service, which should help lead to increased use of public transit and contribute to USDOT’s goals for improving the environment and increasing mobility, he suggests.

“ITS goes beyond cars, trucks and buses. It’s really about using technology and innovation and developing the smartest, most efficient means of moving people and goods safely,” he says. “We’re conducting some research on rail infrastructure and would like to expand the range of light rail research we are conducting. As we formulate our new strategic plan, we are looking across all modes to find research opportunities that make sense for JPO involvement.”

In terms of freight vehicles, meanwhile, the FRATIS bundle of applications allows for the use of several levels of real-time information to guide adaptive and effective decision-making and raise operating efficiency.

Ad hoc fashion

“Currently, freight routing, scheduling and dispatch decisions are sometimes made in an ad hoc fashion, with inadequate data to make fully informed decisions,” he comments. “This is particularly the case for small to medium-sized firms that may not be able to invest in information technologies and systems at the level of larger firms. While much of that data is already available, FRATIS seeks to integrate existing data sources in a manner and with a quality that is oriented toward freight’s unique operational characteristics, which require different data, methods and timeframes for information delivery. The FRATIS applications will be developed in a manner that leverages new connected vehicle data,” he says.

“Three integrated safety trucks are already participating in the Safety Pilot in Ann Arbor, along with eight retrofit safety devices. Additionally we are working to prototype a V2I truck application called Smart Roadside which will test integrated information about the unique truck identity, virtual weight, wireless roadside inspections and truck parking,” he adds.

It goes without saying that researching and developing the kind of technology the JPO is looking into doesn’t come cheap – and with pressure on budgets bound to be increased by the recent ‘fiscal cliff’ the US has so recently thrown itself over, it seems only natural to ask whether that funding may be about to run dry.

The response from Leonard’s office on this question is a firm “no comment”, but for now, at least, he seems happy enough with the level of funding at his disposal.

“Under the MAP-21 legislation, the ITS budget is currently $100m a year - a slight decrease from our previous funding level of $110m under SAFTEA-LU,” he admits. “The current funding is adequate to execute the program goals defined by the MAP-21 legislation, and to complete the research that is currently outlined in our strategic plan.

“Clearly, with more funding, the ITS program would be able to expand or accelerate our research scope,” he adds, “but we are already resourced to have a strong program. My goal is to make sure we use every dollar effectively and get the most out of the resources we have.”

Kenneth Leonard: a brief history

Leonard, who took up his new role as director of the ITS Joint Program Office (JPO) in December, has over three decades of Federal government and private sector experience, working in transportation, energy, environment, defence, regulatory affairs and information systems.

Immediately prior to joining the JPO, he was at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) where he served as senior policy advisor and director of the Office of Analysis, Research and Technology.  

Previously, he served with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as director of the Aviation Weather Office, as well as heading up the FAA’s Technology Development Office. His work at the FAA included helping to advance cornerstone aviation weather enterprise systems and emerging technologies in support of USDOT’s Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) initiatives.

His private sector experience includes working as program manager with Advanced Management Technology, providing management oversight of complex research and development programs involving multibillion dollar contracts. He also worked to improve standard business practice and reduce program costs.

Leonard is a graduate of the George Washington University School of Public and International Affairs with a Bachelor’s Degree in international economics along with graduate level studies in economics and finance.

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Federal Highway Administration
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

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