InTransition Magazine
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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Insider Insight

7 Steps DOTs Must Take Now to Prepare for Technology's Impact

Connectedness, Big Data and Automation to Fundamentally Change How We Travel

By Don Hunt

Don Hunt recently retired as executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation.


As the world changes with the rapid advancement of connected devices and technologies, so must the transportation industry. In a business area where change is sluggish, DOTs across the country must adapt quickly to the evolving technologies that are going to impact their operations and budgets. They must identify critical areas where long-term investments will become priority and simultaneously decelerate programs that will become ineffective when planning far into the horizon.


A U.S. Department of Transportation illustration shows how vehicles

and mobile devices will be able to talk to each other in the future.

There are at least three technologies that will have an immense impact over the next two decades on how we travel, and how state transportation departments react to provide mobility—connectedness, big data and automation.

Whether it’s high-speed cellular technology, the growing connectivity of physical objects, or GPS/cellular location services, the ability to directly connect vehicles to a variety of information services is here. As an example, very soon vehicles will house electronics that will directly communicate with similarly equipped vehicles within 300 meters, promising improvements in safety and efficiency.

At the same time, big data is the end result of connectedness. Every time we log on to the Internet or use our smartphones, huge amounts of data are being generated and analyzed regarding our behaviors. Location reports monitor the millions of smartphones moving along in vehicles. Companies utilize this location data to provide real-time speed maps of the entire U.S. roadway system, as well as to identify accidents or other roadway incidents. As data analytics improve, these data sets will be able to provide new ways for DOTs to look at project planning, and better ways to identify not just speed, but real-time analytics to better manage the highway system and respond to incidents.

Automation and robotic technologies, while historically slower to evolve to impact transportation than personal devices, have still played a significant role in auto safety improvements on the highways. Electronic systems have resulted in much improved vehicle efficiency, including automation-enabled technologies such as air bags, electronic stability control and anti-lock braking.

The next generation of automation is coming of age very soon, as auto manufacturers are rapidly advancing and testing the ability of vehicles that can drive themselves under certain conditions, such as in stop-and-go congestion and on freeways. This incremental march is moving toward a fully self-driving car in the next decade or two. While the near-term impact on DOTs is not large, the multiple decade influences of self-driving vehicles on auto ownership, travel mode, parking, land use and other dimensions are open to broad speculation.

What should DOTs do now?

Decline in per capita driving, emerging travel alternatives such as Internet-enabled ride share options, and widespread funding uncertainty make this moment in the transportation industry difficult to navigate for DOT executives. Still, there are activities DOTs should implement now to begin preparing for the new future of transportation.

1) Establish partner relationships with transportation data/trip information companies.
Extend public-private relationships with a new industry sector—traffic data companies. Companies like INRIX compile data from consumer and fleet vehicles, as well as mobile devices, and provide real-time data services to public agencies.

2) Determine what data the DOT is responsible for, and make it public. While transportation data companies will provide big data and analytics, DOTs will still be uniquely responsible for certain types of information. One of the most beneficial areas of reporting improvement for transportation agencies is maintenance and construction lane closures. DOTs must remember that their data is not a profit center. The trend in government is to make public data sets readily available for general benefit. The more transparent and usable these data sources are, the better that public and private partners will be able to make beneficial use of the data.

3) Develop departmental Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSM&O), active traffic management and integrated corridor management capabilities. As feedback on system performance becomes more available from big data analytics, the ability of agencies to actively manage the highway system will grow. Active traffic management capabilities are emerging to smooth system flow and increase reliability, such as integrated ramp metering, variable speed limits, lane control for incidents, peak period shoulder lanes, and congestion-priced managed lanes.

4) Partner in the development of cellular and fiber communications in transportation corridors. Almost all DOTs have implemented fiber backbone systems as part of their ITS investments over the last two decades. Many departments have extended their reach through public-private partnerships, trading right of way permits for the right to use a few strands in a privately owned fiber bundle. In the future, this backbone could be critical in the capture of connected vehicle short range data, providing vehicle communications to fixed infrastructure like traffic signals, and providing data for better active traffic management.

5) Determine how to engage the emerging technology of connected vehicles. The USDOT will likely require all new vehicles to incorporate Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) capability by the end of the decade. Each car equipped with DSRC will immediately have the capability to communicate with roadway infrastructure, provided the infrastructure is equipped with DSRC.

6) Make friends with the DMV, especially if it happens to be in your DOT. DMVs have a large role as vehicles become more automated because DMVs license vehicles and vehicle operators.

7) Plan for the DOT workforce of the future. In a time of change, it’s difficult to think about how an organization needs to evolve to continue to be successful. There are plenty of examples in the private sector of companies that could not adapt their organization, products and services to changing needs: Kodak, Palm, Blockbuster, AOL. Adaptation for a private company is about survival. For a government entity, it’s about relevance and public trust. Consider engaging human resource experts to develop alternative workforce skill scenarios for 10 years out, to 2025.

State DOTs are facing their biggest mission challenge since the Interstate Highway Program in the 1950s. Increasingly, rapid technological change is about to affect transportation in the same way it has changed other industries—financial services, retailing and media. Connectivity, big data and automation will bring new efficiencies to the transportation system if state DOTs can understand the potentials that new technologies will unlock. Organizations that can find the common threads leading to the future will best serve their residents and customers. 

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