Cars, highways and intersections across the United States are developing minds of their own.
Indeed, the entire transportation network is getting smarter and learning to communicate so that people in increasingly congested cities can get where they need to go faster.
These expanding "intelligent transportation systems" (ITS) encompass a new variety of technologies that boost safety, productivity and environmental protection by marrying communications-based hardware and software with transportation infrastructure and vehicles.
In Portland, Ore., synchronized traffic lights, one of the most fundamental intelligent transportation solutions, reduced congestion at 17 major intersections by 15 to 20 percent and cut down the amount of global warming emissions by the equivalent of taking 30,000 cars off the road.
"Intelligence is about safety and sustainability. It is most significantly about the transportation systems and the users of that system and having more efficient ways for people to go about their lives," said Ursula Burns, chairwoman and CEO of Xerox Corp., at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's (ITSA) annual meeting and exposition last month in National Harbor, Md.
Connected vehicle technology showcased by the Department of Transportation was a highlight of the event. The Internet-based vehicle-to-vehicle communication system, which completed its first round of pilot testing earlier this year, helps avoid 80 percent of crash scenarios by alerting drivers with lights, alarms and seat vibrations. The technology is widely used as a way to reduce accidents resulting from congestion.
"This adds up to safer roads, less congestion, reduced environmental impact and greater efficiency," said Gregory Winfree, acting administrator of the DOT Research and Innovative Technology Administration. "It's about bringing America's transportation system into the 21st century using state-of-the-art innovations and proven technologies."
Unjamming roads rather than building more
Intelligent transportation has existed in one form or other since the late 1980s. Over the decades, it has expanded from traffic management systems that use computer programs, sensors and signs to a variety of real-time data collection devices and now phone-based applications.
Today, the products and services that make up ITS fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Once integrated, the various systems constitute a sort of electronic superhighway designed to reduce congestion, improve mobility and cut down greenhouse gas emissions without having to lay down an inch of pavement.
Xerox, for instance, is expected to roll out a system in Los Angeles this month that allows people driving alone to enter underused high-occupancy vehicle lanes with the flip of a transponder switch, which electronically accepts a user fee based on congestion levels.
"If we can get ... a small amount more of throughput on the current roads that we have without having to build another lane by using technology, that is an upside," Burns said. "[It's] a big opportunity that we should be taking advantage of."
"Traffic volumes are increasing," said Patrick McGowan, president of Telvent Transportation North America, an information technology company and subsidiary of Schneider Electric SA. "But we can never build our way out of congestion."
Telvent created the SmartMobility Road Suite, which can be used to manage parking facilities, run toll roads and bridges, monitor critical road infrastructures, and control intersections and freeways.
Using sensors strategically set up around intersections, Telvent's traffic control program can track vehicle speed and the number of cars on the road and automatically adjust the stoplights to reduce congestion and accidents. The additional TRACE application allows city planners to also receive data on air pollution, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone emissions. With all systems in place, traffic operators can both ensure better throughput and monitor the environmental benefits.
The system has been in place in Pinellas County, Fla., since 2005, and research shows the adaptive system has reduced average travel times by 7.5 percent, saved drivers $1 million in fuel costs and produced an 11 to 17 percent improvement in carbon monoxide and particulate emissions.
Synchronizing drivers with stoplights
ITS has also revitalized the concept of "ecodriving," or the more efficient use of vehicles based on driver behavior.
Using a high-speed Internet connection to relay information between a vehicle and a traffic light, BMW has developed a display that tells drivers how fast to travel in order to make a green light.
In pilot testing, the technology boosted vehicle fuel efficiency by 13.6 percent by maintaining a higher average speed through the intersection and avoiding unnecessary stops. In cases where the traffic light also received information on how fast the car was traveling, the fuel savings rose to 28 percent.
Smartphone applications also help drivers modify their behavior to maximize fuel economy. For instance, the iPhone program Drivee allows drivers to track the fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions associated with a given trip, as well as how many trees would have to be planted to offset that journey.
Siemens AG's phone application project with California-based Streetline finds available parking spaces and prices in real time so drivers can choose a spot faster and cut down on the 30 percent of urban emissions from cars circling to park.
The entire suite of smart transportation technologies is gaining traction, in part because technologies are getting cheaper and in part because governments are running out of money for big infrastructure projects, said Gerry Mooney, vice president of IBM's Smarter Cities program and ITSA board member.
"I think there's a perfect set of things that are coming together with the economy, with the inability to continue to build out the physical infrastructure and with the pervasiveness of the technology getting to a price point where it can be deployed at scale," he said.
'Free money' for strapped cities
Xerox's Burns called technology-based solutions to transportation issues "free money" because they can boost the productivity of the nation's roadways at far below the cost of building new ones.
Cities and states have an increasingly limited ability to upgrade their transportation networks with public coffers running toward empty and federal transportation and infrastructure legislation still up in the air.
As their options dwindle, most states are not waiting for bills to pass in order to tackle their transportation issues, said Allen Biehler, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
"There are very few states who are thinking that they're in good shape financially and finally can expand their system accordingly. There are lots that are so far behind in terms of fixing their infrastructure, they've got huge bond debt that's just killing them," Biehler said. "The ITS approach is their only way of addressing it at this point."