T he premise of ITS, or intelligent transportation systems, hinges on the desire to optimize transportation efficiency through the use of technology, both existing and evolving. The national Intelligent Transportation System program was started by the U.S. government in the early 1960s to build a focused effort towards intelligent transportation engineering, but the concept is one that had been on the burner for some time prior.

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Some of the most primitive forms of IT, in its broadest sense, are devices which we see and use every day without giving them much thought, like traffic signs and one-way streets. The presence of these very simple tools ensures the smooth flow of traffic, and minimizes congestion and accidents by regulating automobile movement. Though few modern transportation engineers would be willing to include these minimal structures as examples of IT, this example demonstrates that although the term has itself evolved to encompass the constantly evolving nature of technology, the basic premise is still the same. Indeed, years ago, even basic tools could fall under the definition of IT, but as time passes, the instruments that aid in the pursuit of transportation efficiency also reflect substantial advances in engineering and technology as well, and hence, are subject to stricter definitions of IT.

In the early 1960s General Motors began testing on a prototype known as the Firebird III. The sporty looking car, with its numerous fins and bubble-dome cockpit, bore a striking resemblance to the archetypal “car of the future” that always seems to rear its head in sci-fi movies and cartoons like the Jetsons. The vehicle forewent the usual steering wheel/brake pedal/accelerator and utilized what company brochures describe as “tools of the space age” for navigation. The system, dubbed the “Autoglide,” allowed the car to drive itself, provided that it was running on a specially constructed roadway, fitted with a powered cable that guided the car along the way. This car was essentially the first road vehicle that did not require any steering guidance from its user. Subsequent ideas for the intelligent highway include vehicles guided by magnets imbedded in the roadway and in-car computers with cameras to identify road markings. In addition to being able to drive hands-free, Automated Highway Systems allow for platooning, thus saving room on the highway and saving fuel for all cars in each platoon -- including the lead car.

Though the concept was novel, and GM had primed the car as the automobile of the future, the car never made it from the prototype to the production line— largely because the vehicle demanded that the nation’s highway infrastructure be changed to accommodate the one feature that made the vehicle so revolutionary to begin with. Regardless, it remained a benchmark for other IT projects by the company in the future.

Another illustrious vehicle from the same era was the Self Transit Road and Rail Car, also known as the StarrCar. The car was developed by a Massachusetts engineer who envisioned a small vehicle to be owned by municipalities, available for rent to local residents. While the car would be primarily employed for use on short local trips, narrow two-lane highways would be constructed for longer distance drives. Here, the car would run under electric power between other cars of identical size, until the operator of the vehicle indicated a desire to depart at a designated exit-point. In essence, the idea was that once the vehicle entered the special highway, its movement and speed could be automated to minimize human error and alleviate any factors that could potentially cause accidents or hold up traffic. While the idea sounded good on paper, again the fact that it would require a complete overhauling of the national highway system was a serious hurdle, one which it never overcame.

When computers were eventually employed for IT purposes a few years after the transistor’s invention in 1947, revolutionary new uses of IT began to surface, uses that not only made travel quicker and more efficient, but also offered convenience to motorists through features like dynamic real-time calculations, route guidance, and traffic analysis.

The late 1960s saw the development of the Electronic Route Guidance System, or ERGS, which hoped to provide drivers with route guidance information based on real-time traffic analysis and conditions. The first IT system based on computers, ERGS reduced congestion and stress on the nation’s roads by offering motorists the ability to optimize their travel paths and navigate themselves easily with assistance from an in-vehicle console. The system’s functionality came from special hardware located at various intersections across the road network, an on-board 2-way device in the vehicle that would form the hub of communication between the driver and the ERGS system, and a central computer system that processed the information received from the remote systems. An offshoot of ERGS was ARCS, or the Automatic Route Control System, which made its debut in the early 1970s. This system was the first automated system that not only provided route guidance, but also interactive digital maps, capable of supplying drivers with visual information regarding location and routing. Both systems have yet to come into widespread use at this writing, possibly because of the expense and the need for an extensive network of nodes, but the conceptual foundation behind them is one that many higher-end car manufacturers continue to toy with.

Another vital development in the world of IT that came in the 1970s was the urban traffic control system, or UTCS, which was the predecessor to the modern traffic light control system. The system connected individual traffic signals to a central control mainframe, and by referring to predetermined timing patterns accounting for various traffic conditions, would direct the behavior of traffic lights. Real-time traffic conditions were accessed by a series of loop traffic detectors that could indicate to the computer what particular set of conditions would be applicable at any particular time.

A more recent use of IT that many Bay Area residents may be familiar with is the FasTrak electronic toll collection system. The system is based on an identifying transponder that is placed on a FasTrak user’s windshield. When the motorist approaches a designated FasTrak lane, a scanning device at the toll booth reads information from the transponder and logs its use in a database. The toll is deducted from a pre-paid balance maintained by the user. With the toll bridges of the area frequently clogged with commuters and travelers, the implementation of FasTrak not only expedites travel for those using it, it also helps alleviate overall congestion by routing through FasTrak users—many of whom are commuters and frequent users of the bridge.

Already we have cars with intelligent cruise control systems that automatically keep a safe distance between the vehicle and the car ahead of it and automobiles that can engage in the often nerve-wracking task of parallel parking (currently available only in Japan). There are many other such ideas in our future and many of these are in their testing stages today. With the nature of technology being the way it is, today’s army of IT gadgets, contraptions, and accessories may very well be tomorrow’s standard equipment — or not; there is any number of nebulous factors that can determine whether a technology will eventually be implemented on a large scale.

Regardless of the direction IT eventually takes, the fact remains that further research into Intelligent Transportation is needed now more than ever. The nation’s level of traffic congestion continues to increase, the resulting air pollution becomes more of an environmental and health threat, and the demand for faster transportation becomes more apparent. Even changing the way vehicles operate in existing infrastructure could make all the difference to a society that is increasingly dependent on reliable transportation for even its most basic workings to continue.

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Sources

  • Intelligent Transportation Primer. U.S. Department of Transportation and Institute of Transportation Engineers Washington, D.C. 2000.
  • Lay, Max G. The Past and Future of Intelligent Transport Systems. http://www.sciencevictoria.org.au/ord497.htm
  • Richards, Brian. Future Transportation in Cities. New York, NY. 2001.
  • Inacantalupo, Tony. Toyota adds parallel parking system to Prius sold in Japan Monterrey Herald; September 9, 2003; http://www.bayarea.com/mld/montereyherald/2003/09/09/living/6727954.htm
  • General Motors. Firebird III : Summary of Styling Features
  • Fastrak California Department of Transportation; http://www.dot.ca.gov/fastrak/
  • Shladover, Steven P. E-mail message to Seyem Petrites, Feb. 11, 2005.