Bill Malkes is part of a rare breed in the intelligent transportation industry. As he heads to Australia for the 23rd World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in Melbourne this October 10-14, he will share the story of GRIDSMART, the company he co-founded in 2007 with a core philosophy: Simple, Flexible and Transparent. At a time when ITS technologies were becoming increasingly complex, Malkes and his team focused on simplicity for the end user, developing a cloud-based, single-camera intersection management system that can do almost anything a traffic manager could want.
As he prepares to travel to the ITS World Congress, Malkes says in-person meetings are critical to his company’s success. “You can always come up with better solutions when you’re face to face,” he says. “It definitely generates revenue. There’s transaction-based companies and there’s relationship-based companies. You can’t have a relationship over Skype. It’s a great tool, but your relationships are forged face to face...there’s something you can get with body language and demeanor to give a customer confidence. The world is flat in a lot of ways, but all business is still local.”
With the accelerating globalization of traffic management solutions, Malkes is excited about the international market and the potential for intelligent transportation to make a difference in the lives of residents across the globe. “The whole focus of our company was to bring smart solutions to everybody. It’s not great technology unless it’s accessible to everybody. The small- and medium-sized town needs ITS as much the big town…there’s people all over the world that benefit from it,” he says. “I read a research report in the United States that made a parallel between congestion in Birmingham, Ala., today and Atlanta, Ga. It was something like in the next 12 years, the city’s congestion in Birmingham would be parallel to what Atlanta is today. There are Birmingham, Alabamas all over the world. As long as the country has an open policy and lets everybody play fairly, and Australia does, then there’s opportunity there.” In Malkes’ view, the ITS World Congress represents an opportunity to understand the mindset, the needs and the applications of traffic engineers from around the world. “You see other companies, other participants, other speakers who may be local to that area, who maybe you haven’t seen. You get a whole different perspective,” he says. “We’re starting to realize the importance of the world platform.” Malkes is blunt in his assessment of organizations choosing not to participate in international ITS World Congresses. “If you’re not making that trip in some form or another, you’re probably not an innovator in this industry.”
At this critical time in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X) communication, Malkes is bullish about the industry’s short-term future. “I think what’s really exciting about this World Congress and in ITS in general right now is we’re going through this transition period that’s greater than anything we’ve ever seen. The idea of being able to use the concrete more efficiently because you have vehicles talking to the infrastructure and to each other is just an amazing thing. It’s going to just accelerate.”
Acknowledging that important issues still remain, Malkes believes a critical element in ITS is not getting enough attention. He says effectively communicating the safety benefits of intelligent transportation to the public and shifting perception from cynicism to desire will be a major step moving forward. “I think that’s what’s lagging. At the World Congress, we have the platform to get those messages out, but I don’t think we as an industry have done a good job of reporting the safety benefits of what we do. We talk about efficiency and that’s outstanding, and we talk about getting more use out of our roads and that’s an important part too, and we kind of gloss over safety.”
In Melbourne, Malkes is particularly interested in the opportunity to talk with other innovators. “What I’m really looking forward to seeing the most is the innovations in Australian transportation…I want to see first-hand some of the things they’re doing that do and don’t apply to us. There are things that are outside our sweet spot that, just as a scientist, I’m interested in seeing how they come together. It’s a world away, but it’s right next to us.”
And he’ll get the chance to do just that with some 300 organizations and businesses in the World Congress Exhibition center, including Australian, Asia-Pacific and global brands specializing in IoT, autonomous and connected vehicles, and transport technology infrastructure.
With more than 900 plenary, executive, special-interest and technical sessions at the award-winning Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, technical tours and live demonstrations, the World Congress will give Malkes the opportunity to meet up with governments, academics, entrepreneurs and innovators in the recently voted world’s most livable city.
After the World Congress, when he returns home to GRIDSMART’s Tennessee headquarters, Malkes’ global perspective on ITS will certainly influence his company’s direction, a view he believes places GRIDSMART squarely in the center. “I see GRIDSMART in the heart of everything two or three years from now,” he says. “We think we’re well positioned to be sitting right in the middle of everything that’s happening, helping everybody make things a little bit better.”