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Reporting on the direction of the US's ITS research effort

First publishedin ITS International
January February 2011
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James Pol
"We need to look at the casual factors of variance across the US of deployment and benefits, and to work at better ways of stitching together the deployment 'mosaic' which exists across the country"

The US ITS Joint Program Office has been working with industry stakeholders to help define the form of future research projects. Here, the Office's James Pol discusses progress and future goals

The US ITS Joint Program Office (JPO) has continued its efforts towards more open government with publication of the report, 'ITS technology adoption and observed market trends from ITS deployment tracking'. The rather self-explanatory title describes one of an increasing number of surveys conducted by both the public and private sectors in order to ascertain the true 'face' of ITS. In the JPO's case, however, there was also an element of internal housekeeping designed, says James Pol, team lead, project management and evaluation, to gain a better perspective of where the US's ITS research effort is headed.

"The report was put together by team from the Volpe National Transportation Center with a number of purposes in mind," he says. "First of all, with the aim of achieving more effective practices of project management we wanted to understand the opportunities and advantages for better alignment of projects. There's an increasingly complex picture, especially as we move towards connectivity of the vehicle with the communications environment, and we need to move away from a situation of having many different projects all working independently.

"We wanted to see what opportunities there are for better informing the projects within our portfolio. Then there's that commitment to openness; the report, which is online and open source, gives the public a better understanding of how we're defining and developing ITS research." At present there are no direct mechanisms for readers of the report to provide feedback, although Pol notes that there are initiatives afoot within the US Government to make that possible in the future.

"We didn't want to wait for those mechanisms to be in place, however. We wanted to give the wider community an idea of the real progress which has been made," he continues.

The report was prepared, in part at least, to help the JPO define its 2010 ITS Deployment Tracking Survey.

Pol: "When we started to think about questions for the 2010 survey, we were concerned with two main themes: first of all, simply finding out what's out there; secondly, we wanted to assess the capability of public-sector bodies to adapt to new technologies - including the concept of connectivity. We have information on ITS deployment going all the way back to the first such survey in 1996 and it's important to understand how things have evolved since. There are a lot of gaps that we can uncover by taking a look over our shoulder."

Past ITS Deployment Surveys and results are available at http://www.itsdeployment.its.dot.gov/.

The timing of the report, then, is coincidental to the current economic situation - Pol says that there was no economic 'build case' behind it. It did, though, throw up a variety of different things - both successes and failures "Across a country this large there are always going to be some fascinating comparisons to be drawn. I think though that there's a lot to be optimistic about ITS deployment in spite of economic conditions and political concerns over how the community continues with deployment. More detailed analysis will follow in the spring but it's clear that there is continued interest from the deployment community." In what is largely a qualitative comparison, three key technologies were analysed in concert with various stakeholders: Electronic Toll Collection (ETC); highway data collection; and arterial technologies. Both opportunities for future research and the benefits of deployment were assessed.

Market dynamics

In terms of research, Pol says that there is value in looking at how the dynamics of the current market can be shifted.

"Looking across the three technology areas, there is a broad interest among deployers in better understanding their market power," he continues. "The deployment community is actually a very small one. At the same time it's matched to a relatively limited supplier community, although the latter tends to dominate. The public agencies are very interested in how they can maximise their power to ensure interoperability and value for money.

"But at the same time they're interested in entrance into information provision entities that weren't even considered a decade ago. For example, Google offers a huge array of highly personalised information. There's a need to better understand how this is energising travellers and how the public sector can tap into this.

"Clearly connectivity of the vehicle to the array of wireless communications retains a high level of interest. There's also a great deal of interest in seeing it deployed qualitatively." The report is structured such that each section provides a summary of market insights followed by the various market opportunities. Pol notes that as standard the JPO continually realigns its research efforts over time and that this format allows readers to see where the organisation is heading. There is also another goal: to stimulate research interest among other entities. He voices particular interest in engaging with the academic community, which tends to have a big influence on local deployment bodies.

The benefits of deployment

In terms of ascertaining the benefits of deployment, a total of 80 documents were quantitatively analysed. These were concerned with six key topics: ETC; ramp metering; red light enforcement cameras; traffic signals coordination; transit signal prioritisation; and traveller information systems. The analyses were broken down into four areas: mobility; the environment; fuel costs; and safety.

"The idea was to explore the question: 'We have a history of ITS deployment but what can we determine?' - the deployment community has made substantial investments in ITS over the last two decades so it's important to understand the value we're extracting," Pol says.

"In many respects, we found what we expected: that there's a greater need for more well-defined benefits calculation across the whole ITS community. There's a real opportunity there.

"At the same time, the biggest surprise was that there's a broad range of annual, nationwide benefits that can be gleaned from already existing research. We need though to look at the causal factors of variance across the US of deployment and benefits. We also need to work at better ways of stitching together the deployment 'mosaic' which exists across the country. Better econometric ways of doing that are the subject of ongoing research." That taps another global trend: the desire for better mechanisms and coordination of efforts to understand just what ITS delivers. Governmental and public-sector bodies have given greater emphasis to this in recent years, perhaps spurred by recession, but the reality is that while many organisations are now calling for the same things they are still doing it independent of each other.

Providing proof

"My personal view is that it is both reasonable and appropriate to cast a benefits/cost view over all of this, to look at our deployments and the value they provide. As time marches forward and we deal with a more technology-savvy public, we simply have to," continues Pol.

"This report is a step towards that. It effectively states, 'This is what we can understand about how effective the ITS deployment programme has been.' "Clearly, the federal ITS deployment programme has provided benefit to the public. But we need to come up with reasonable and meaningful expressions of that which the public can understand and appreciate. Consider, for example, the many thousands of miles of guardrail which have been constructed along our various agencies' roads. Millions of dollars have been spent there and no-one questions that cost, yet ITS greatly surpasses guardrail's capabilities - especially in terms of preventing actions that can take a life.

"We've proven over and over that this technology is of value to the public at large. We're looking at how to shape future research to maintain and increase that value. At the same time, there are lots of hidden and difficult questions which we need to tease out that will allow us to convey that value to individuals, cities and states in a meaningful sense." The 2010 ITS Deployment Tracking Survey, which this report provided feedstock for, was wrapped up at the end of last year. One survey theme was to ask respondents to lay out their deployment expectations by 2013 - the time of the next survey. Detailed results will follow in the spring.
ntl.bts.gov/lib/34000/34900/34991/ ITS_Deployment_Tracking_FINAL_508C_101210.pdf

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