I’ll bet that many TTI readers were among the more than 9,000 people that attended the ITS World Congress in Detroit. It was impressive in size, but even more so in how far we have come. It brought to mind the old ad for Virginia Slims cigarettes: “You’ve come a long way baby.” Indeed we have.
While the metrics were impressive and not to be disparaged, since ITS America depends financially on the success of the triannual event, what was more impressive was the spirit and technological drive. To understand this, allow me to flash back to both the early as well as middle years of ITSA, because I have been a witness and participant since the very first ITSA meeting, as well as the first World Congress in Paris in 1994. So here are some reflections…
The excitement level was high in the early 1990s; after all, we were creating our generation’s interstate system. The ability to combine mini-computers with telecommunication opened up the potential to monitor and control the transportation infrastructure. It was only a generation earlier that traffic signals were electromechanical and traffic control was a police officer. We were creating an entirely new systematic approach to surface transportation. The problem was that we didn’t have any customers yet. The DOTs were deep into asphalt and building new capacity or rehabilitating existing facilities. We even had the car companies as charter members of ITSA, although they were to drop away after a few years. This period might be characterized as a solution seeking a problem.
The middle years were even more problematic. It seemed as if the intellectual level was stagnant. After all, a minor improvement to an ATMS was not going to excite us. Architectural diagrams and new communication protocols were not bringing in new people. There was less and less reason to go to the annual meeting, and it was easy enough to go to a state chapters meeting. On a national level, the car companies drifted away. They were here for a 1996 test of the Automated Highway, but when that funding ended, their participation waned.
Then along came the successor to the automated highway: the connected car. It has had lots of names, but at its core is the idea that vehicles can communicate with one another to dramatically increase the power to monitor and manage the infrastructure. Thank you, USDOT, for seeing this and providing ongoing funding and guidance.
Now the car companies are back and we were treated in Detroit to talks from the chief executives of Ford Motor Company and General Motors. We’ve never had that high level participation before in our more than 20-year history.
It means that the vision of an intelligent approach to surface transportation now encompasses not only public infrastructure, but also the automotive industry – that’s an order of magnitude bigger, but it means so much more. We have come of age as an industry, moving from trade publications like this one to the main news sections of the daily press. People are paying attention; now its time to show them our A game.