In the first of his six-part blog series on “melting the glacier” of traffic technology adoption, Iteris’ Mark Nogaki outlines the five major ways transportation agencies are increasingly embracing so many of the life-saving, mobility-improving strategies that are available today.
Despite being a relative newbie to the world of traffic technology, having come out of the mainstream semiconductors, analytics and software industries, I didn’t find adapting to the world of traffic and transportation technology insurmountable. After all, technology is something I’ve experienced for practically my entire life and simply putting business context around it wasn’t too far a reach, especially given my background in engineering.
When I first entered the world of traffic engineering and technology, I was told that things moved very slowly and that my customers would be somewhat averse to change. “Glacial” was a term that I found apropos to describe the rate of change. And I initially found, on the surface, that characterization to be the case. Traffic agencies invested in hardware and software that was built to last and it isn’t uncommon, even today, to find equipment in the streets whose age can be measured by decades. So, while the world of traffic seems to move like a glacier – usually moving, albeit almost imperceptibly – glaciers do melt, and the glacier that is traffic technology is melting faster than ever before.
If we accept that the traffic technology ecosystem is changing, then it begs the questions of “why?” and “how?” What mechanisms are impacting the world of traffic? As ever in the broad spectrum of transportation, the answers are multifaceted, but let’s narrow down what forces are driving the increased adoption of smart mobility technology and we’ll discuss each element in future blog postings.
1. Baseline technologies have evolved
By baseline technology I am referring to the fundamental building blocks of engineered products. If you look at the architecture of a traffic controller from 50 years ago, you might find a box constructed from a heavy metal chassis, into which electromechanical timers, high-power relays, and an array of transistors and passive components are installed. In contrast, today’s traffic controllers are architected around a powerful Linux-based CPU that drives all of the other logic components. This is an example of how the baseline technology has driven the design of the controller. But try to build a controller today using components from 50 years ago and it would likely be difficult. Why? Because of the scarcity of the components needed to build that sort of controller: the baseline technology is simply not there.
2. Connectivity has increased exponentially
Anyone who is in the traffic industry has heard terms like “connected vehicle” and “smart cities” for many years, but the notion of connectivity is more relevant than ever and its impact on traffic technology is being felt more each day. While some cities are still working to network their traffic infrastructure together, others are architecting ways to transition their infrastructure into a new paradigm of smart connectivity. In a day and age where even home appliances are becoming network compatible, the traffic infrastructure is quickly moving in that direction.
3. Legacy compatibility is an ongoing concern
Even though we don’t have 50-year-old traffic controllers any more – although there are cities that have some outdated equipment – we do have 50-year-old cars in the streets. So despite those who say that traffic lights will one day disappear and give way to autonomous vehicles that self-arbitrate their way through intersections, there will also be a need for instrumented streets and road networks that provide safe passage for older vehicles.
4. Data is the new currency
I spent a bit of time in the financial services industry – primarily in analytics software and data exchanges – and, like most people, I just assumed that banking was just about money. And while the base metrics of banking and commerce are indeed measured in cash denominations, I couldn’t help but remember the words of a very senior banking executive at one of the largest banks in the nation, who said: “Banking isn’t about the money anymore, it’s about the data”. In our world of traffic, it would be just as accurate to replace the word “banking” with “traffic management”. We’ll get more into that later, but suffice to say, data is a huge factor driving the changes in traffic technology.
5. The awareness factor
Traffic management isn’t just about arbitrating the movement of cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians, it’s about safety and mobility. Finding that balance is a matter of situational awareness: knowing what’s going on around you and then responding to it with the appropriate actions. Awareness amounts to being able to replicate our senses and then reacting to it, and this is where technological innovations are driving so much of our capabilities in traffic management.
This will be a fun discussion to have.
Look out for part two of the Melting the Glacier blog series, which will focus on the concept of baseline technology.
About the Author:
Mark Nogaki is vice president, sales and customer success, Roadway Sensors at Iteris.
Connect with Mark on LinkedIn.