Every annual gathering of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America is an excellent opportunity to engage in a condensed forum with a wide swathe of technological and operational issues and challenges related to developing smarter and safer modes of transportation. This year’s schedule is no exception—yet, ironically, this is where much of the frustration enters.
Throughout the day, across six unique discursive tracts, were nine concurrent series of technical and specialized sessions. Meaning that in order to attend one thing, you had to forgo eight other potentially informative and interesting alternatives. I have often wondered, in all of the various conferences I attend, why this format persists. Why miss so much more you could possibly take in? This concurrence of sessions has once again created myriad tough choices. There were four session runs yesterday; I missed 28 individual panels, just to sit in on four. Considering the complexity of the issues on the docket and the growing prevalence of specialized programs at state DOTs, one must wonder why the organizing body—which actively advocates for more (and more pervasive) direct application of ITS on public roadways—does not simply either extend the meeting another day, in order to loosen things up, or reduce the number of panels—offer only the cream and no more. I suspect that a result of either alternative, there would be even more information sharing and a wider breadth of knowledge not only taken away from the meeting as a whole, but applied practically, since attendees would have room to breathe, to think things through more thoroughly as they occur, and perhaps steel themselves (and thus their agencies) for more direct, positive change.
This is my lone grumble, and it is not one exclusive to this particular conference; yet ITSA would, in my opinion, do well to consider a format revision for next year.
Sessions opened in the morning, and the keynote, provided by NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator Heidi King, did not take place until late in the afternoon; three hours later, the expo floor finally opened. A jumbled timeframe that resulted in more than a third of the seats in the Grand Ballroom to remain vacant.
ITSA President Shailen Bhatt opened the keynote with some brief but encouraging remarks, including a sop toward the Mobility on Demand Alliance that will crest later in 2018.
Ms. King spoke at great length about the importance of supporting ITS at all levels of government, but I was left to wonder why NHTSA only supports a voluntary program of safety self-assessments for companies making, marketing, and testing automated and autonomous tech on our public roadways. “Technology does not stay in its lane,” she said—a rather awkward metaphor, considering that if a CAV does not stay in its lane, the usual result is paid bodily. Is it not contradictory, I wondered as she spoke, to say you put safety first but not place uniform reins on allowing unperfected tech onto public roadways? Why not make safety self-assessment mandatory? Oh, because you can trust a corporation—a fact we should all take comfort in given the example set in the recent past by the banking industry.
Thus far NHTSA has only two assessments in its banks. “NHTSA believes AVs can increase safety and save lives,” she said. Perhaps they will. I certainly hope they do. But if that belief is honest, then the agency needs to back it up with more skin in the game. As I have said in previous writings, don’t give companies a choice. If they have the skill to play the game, make then prove it before letting it out in the open.
As for the tract sessions themselves, I found much of interest, and also much I already pretty much knew, but that did not it make any less encouraging to hear it spoken of.
Maryland DOT’s Joe Sagal described its CAV Working Group and progress being made in building a statewide strategic plan. Faisal Saleen, from the Maicopa County DOT, focused on signal ops and arterial traffic management successes in Arizona, and suggested that pilot work already done has made for a solid foundation for large-scale deployment, which is right on the horizon.
3M was on hand to discuss its work with improving daytime pavement marking detection with “machine vision” cameras, as well as enhancing road sign readability.
Shared mobility was also a big topic, one on which several state DOTs are both struggling with and hopeful for. Sabrina Sussman of Zipcar said, “Adult humans are not very good at sharing. Kindergarten is sort of peak human sharing time in life.” It was a solid joke, and a true one. And it kicked off a lively chat that included the NYC DOT and rep from the Detroit mayor’s office as to what a city—what any community, really—can do to foster and support shared mobility.
Cordell Schachter of the New York City DOT called sharing a “civilization-level imperative,” going on to say that it is crucial not only to the transportation segment, but the urban development and sustainability overall. This view was supported by Detroit’s Garry Bullock, who said changing the perception of transit reality is an absolute must if mass transit is really going to be an integral part of city planning (and funding allocation). John Perrachio, conversely, cited the failure of Virginia’s I-66 tolled lanes to get folks to start sharing rides with one another; he talked about first/last mile needs and how what generates revenue does not necessarily engender mobility, and this above all must be understood in order to really get shared mobility going in a widespread way. As Schachter concluded, “Sharing should promote and build equity in any community,” a point Perrachio quickly hailed: “Technology should be used to help the disadvantaged and to enhance the transportation experience. Otherwise, the notion of sharing is just that, a notion.”
As for the expo hall floor, I got only the briefest of walk-arounds. Hopefully, tomorrow will yield some interest new tech. Until then …