In the second of his six-part blog series on “melting the glacier” of traffic technology adoption, which outlines the five major ways transportation agencies are increasingly embracing so many of the life-saving, mobility-improving strategies that are available today, Iteris’ Mark Nogaki focuses on how evolutions in baseline technologies are making an impact.
In the first blog in this series, I highlighted baseline technology as one of the drivers of the change being seen in the traffic management space. How technology drives change is a dynamic and highly complex topic, but I want to take things from just a very basic perspective of the “stuff” from which you build traffic management equipment: electronic components.
Just about everything in a traffic cabinet – from the controller to the detection equipment to the monitors – is built up from a set of electronic components, no different than our children’s video games and that smart watch you might be wearing.
The Sustaining Impact of Moore’s Law
Having spent the bulk of my professional career in the high-tech space, a good deal of which was during the heyday of Silicon Valley at the epicenter of semiconductor engineering and manufacturing, Moore’s Law was something people talked about every day. And in the decades since the Intel founder posited his law – which stated that the number of transistors you can put on a given piece of silicon doubles every two years – its impact has had a profound effect on humanity. It is because of Moore’s Law that my son’s iPhone has more computing horsepower and memory than my first laptop, and that companies can afford to freely hand out multi-gigabyte memory sticks to tradeshow passers-by. And, going back to the world of traffic, it is Moore’s Law that quite rightly dictates that most equipment used in our streets today will one day become obsolete.
The Moore’s Law Effect on Traffic Technology
As I mentioned in the first part of this series, there are probably 50-year-old traffic controllers still being used in parts of the country that couldn’t easily be built today. The reasoning is simple: no one makes the electrical parts to reproduce the device and there is no money in it because the demand for such product is minuscule. There are companies that still build vintage electronic parts, but they are few and far between, and companies trying to source older components find themselves dealing with brokers and second-hand components.
But what about a device from 20 years ago? The likelihood is that it would still be challenging to replicate. Why? Because of Moore’s Law. Maybe you can scrape around and find a low-power CPU running an antiquated operating system and processing code burned onto a PROM, but good luck finding parts.
Looking Beyond the Intersection
Compared with any other mainstream electronics market – such as smartphones, cameras, wearable technology and so on – where consumption is measured in the millions per day, the traffic technology market has markedly lower consumption. There are around 400,000 signalized intersections in the United States and with one intersection using equipment that typically lasts upwards of 10-15 years, the demand for parts to feed the industry simply isn’t that big.
Fortunately, however, there are some trend-setting manufacturers, like the one I work for, that are actively embracing the reality of this economy, which forces us to innovate newer and better products for the future that take intelligence from the intersection and disseminate it throughout the transportation network. Because processing horsepower is growing exponentially, you can do a whole lot more at the same price, so now we can talk about layering more functionality through firmware and software, and taking artificial intelligence and machine learning out of R&D and deploying them into the traffic infrastructure, which is becoming increasingly interconnected thanks in no small part to the kind of vehicle-to-infrastructure communications technologies currently being developed.
It is why my own company is maneuvering its resources into a platform-based roadmap that focuses less on engineering the next best thing for intersection-specific application and more on developing products that start at the intersection but operate within the framework of a broader, fully connected roadway technology ecosystem.
And this gets me excited.
Embracing Technology Benefits Us All
For the wider industry, there is the challenge of taking and leveraging this technology to improve public safety, increase mobility, and greatly enhance our ability to future proof our roads and highways for the future. With much hype around connected and automated vehicles, we know that our roads and highways will need to accommodate future generations of vehicles, as well as the pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders and other more vulnerable road users who will share the space occupied by motor vehicles. Thus, safety will always be a concern, and how we detect and react to changing situations will be a challenge.
This is why it is incumbent upon our industry to learn, experiment with and adopt smart mobility technologies. It is good for the industry and the traveling public. That is the message I preach to my customers and ultimately is my mission: embrace and adopt technological advancement – real advancement – for the benefit of those who will be using the roads in the future.
The alternative is to be left in the dust pile of obsolescence.
About the Author:
Mark Nogaki is vice president, sales and customer success, Roadway Sensors at Iteris.
Connect with Mark on LinkedIn.