Direct route Featured

10:01am EDT July 22, 2002

Technology has become almost invisible. Microchips and interconnectivity have been incorporated into so many different products that most people don't even think twice about it.

One exception is on the roadways. Your car may be able to create climate control for both the driver and passenger or tell you the back left door isn't all the way shut, but when it comes to navigation, there's a lot left to be desired. Sure, some high-end models now have satellite navigation systems that help you find your way, but the majority of people are still looking for a sign nailed to a post that tells them where to go. And even on-board navigation can't tell you there's a wreck ahead that has traffic stopped. Not yet, anyway.

That's where Intelligent Transportation Systems come into play. These technologies, which run the gamut from the mundane to extreme high tech, are making transportation networks more efficient.

"ITS is people using technology in transportation to save lives, save time and save money," says John Collins, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a public-private partnership dedicated to fostering the use of advanced technologies in transportation systems. "There are two perspectives that apply to small businesses: What opportunities do they have to be vendors in the ITS world, and what opportunities do they have as potential consumers to differentiate themselves from competitors."

Smart selling

The selling opportunities in ITS are many for small businesses. Creative entrepreneurs don't even need to make the actual products.

One small business in Virginia simply integrated three existing technologies to sell as an integrated product. It took an electronic message board, a road sensor and cellular technology and packaged it together to produce a state-of-the-art traffic device. When the sensor detects slow or stopped traffic, a message is relayed to the police department and back to the message board, which displays a warning message to other motorists.

"The company doesn't make signs or cell phones, they just stitched the three parts together to create an integrated system," notes Collins.

Another company incorporated the use of light emitting diodes into traffic lights. LEDs are more reliable and have a higher light output than traditional bulbs.

"That's the lower end of high technology, but they took an existing product and found a new application for it," says Collins. "There is an immense opportunity out there for people who take applications that are well understood and apply them in new ways."

Smart buying

ITS also provides ways to gain an advantage over the competition, or at the very least, improve your efficiency.

Several cities are developing sophisticated congestion reporting systems that are accessible to the public.

"The idea is, someone in the courier business who knew this was out there, could more efficiently dispatch their vehicles," says Collins.

The concept of routing vehicles along the quickest route as they travel is known as "dynamic scheduling," and can vary from city to city, depending on how the technology is set up. Some allow for pagers to be tied into a particular traffic route, with messages being issued when that route is congested, while more advanced concepts go even further. One example is a sort of mini-computer like a PalmPilot that not only shows a map of the area, but notes construction and current traffic backups.

Transportation technology has been most evident in vehicles themselves, and will continue to become more prominent. General Motors is introducing night vision that allows you to see beyond what the headlights illuminate. Common technologies such as cruise control are also being improved.

"If you set cruise control for 60 miles per hour, it will drive you 60 miles per hour into an accident," says Collins. "Freightliner right now offers an adaption of cruise control that ties in with radar that slows down as you approach traffic."

Trucks are also available with side-looking radar. Because of their size, trucks have large blind spots. The radar gives a warning if a vehicle is in one of the blind spots.

Public transit is also taking advantage of technology. Buses in Seattle have their exact locations shown on the transit system's Web page. Someone taking the bus could check the Web site in the morning to find out how far away the bus is before going out to stand in the rain or snow.

Some buses in Pittsburgh were having problems with vehicles running into the back of them. A radar unit tied into a small warning sign has been installed in some buses. When a car approaches the rear of a stopped bus, a stop sign begins to flash. If it continues to approach, a warning horn sounds.

"The message is to look at real problems in transportation, look at where someone is losing money and efficiency, and see if there is technology that will fix the problem," says Collins.

What is ITS?

Intelligent Transportation Systems make use of technology to improve the movement of people and goods in America. The goal is safer, quicker travel. Benefits that are available now include:

  • Better travel information. Information centers provide up-to-date, real-time details on bus, transit and train arrivals and other travel information through cable television in the home, kiosks in the workplace and electronic messages at the bus stop.

  • Quicker emergency response. Electronic accident detection allows trained operators to locate and judge the nature of an accident so they can quickly dispatch and guide the right emergency personnel and equipment to the site.

  • Easier, safer travel. Navigation systems in cars and trucks tell drivers exactly how to get to their destination. Intelligent cruise control will automatically adjust a vehicle's speed when in traffic, reducing rear-end collisions and lowering vehicle emissions. "Mayday" systems inside vehicles which automatically alert police, fire and other emergency personnel of an accident will become widely available.

  • Improved traffic flow. Drivers with a toll debit card attached to their vehicles can travel through toll plazas without stopping. Toll charges are deducted automatically from a prepaid account. Other travel fare collection systems, such as smart cards, allow subway fares, transfers and other fees to be charged to one card.

  • Fewer traffic jams. Traffic management centers reduce traffic jams and speed travel by continuously monitoring current conditions and adjusting speed limits, traffic signals and roadway ramp access.

  • Improved fleet management. Bus, freight and emergency vehicle tracking systems allow supervisors to track vehicles and to communicate directly with drivers.

  • Faster freight deliveries. ITS provides for electronic weighing and inspection of commercial vehicles while in motion, electronic issuing and monitoring of transportation permits and automatic tracking of containers.

Innovations both inside and outside the vehicle will improve safety by checking a driver's vision and motor skills, providing on-board road sign and vision enhancements, warning of vehicles and other obstacles in a blind spot and preventing vehicles from hitting other objects on the road through vehicle control and warning systems.

  • Improved safety. ITS technologies warn drivers they are too close to a car in the next lane or are in danger of running off the edge of the road.

New traffic control systems can reduce the number of vehicle stops, minimize changes in vehicle speeds and improve traffic flow-all of which reduce accidents.