ITS: Impressions from day one of the ITS America Annual Meeting & Expo

The message is that we’re all in this together, but are those in the know listening?

June 01, 2015

Day one of the 25th Annual ITS America Meeting & Expo in the bridgetopia of Pittsburgh, Pa., has come to close, and while the concurrence of many of the sessions—a bit of sticking point for those in attendance who were hoping to broaden their knowledge on topics both within and outside their wheelhouse—precludes a comprehensive report, what I was exposed to did leave a few impressions—one or two of them indelible.

The opening plenary session featured several speakers, primary of which was meant to be Chris Urmson, director of Google[x]’s self-driving cars initiative. But while Urmson did of course speak, and was funny and spry in his delineation of the past, present and future of autonomous vehicle development, the real highlights came from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Perduto—whose crack about how if Frick and Carnegie had not loathed one another we’d be sending our kids to "Carnegie Frick & Mellon" got the biggest laugh—and newly installed ITS America president and CEO, Regina Hopper.

Ms. Hopper spoke with casual elegance about the necessity of those in attendance finding some common ground in our universal striding toward what is basically a common goal—to develop smarter, safer modes of transportation. In short, to save lives. This seemed to be an obvious fact, until I realized that in the crunch to develop technology newer, faster, and even faster yet, the simple theme of why such work is taking place at all might be easily lost. Still, I found myself wondering whether truly transparent information-sharing is possible when everyone concerned has, for lack of a better way to put it, something to sell, a product they’ve developed which they feel is the solution. Nonetheless, the crowd, which did not seem to share my misgivings, exited the plenary session with enormous, seemingly positive chatter.

Being of relative restlessness, I popped in and out of several executive sessions and “town halls,” less from waning interest in any given one of them than a desire to taste at least some of what each had to offer. [Recall my earlier remark about concurrence; honestly, you missed five things by choosing one.]

The question of whether automated vehicles should be connected vehicles was discussed, though I wondered why, as it would seem obvious that yes, they should be connected. That the real issue is the absence of exterior infrastructure to support such vehicles. The operations, safety and maintenance of ITS bridge applications was also presented, and several salient points were made about making sure the correct form of ITS is being applied based on what information is needed for a respective bridge; to wit: very high bridges will require wind and weather sensors that lower, smaller bridges will not, though those bridges might do well to monitor water levels or the superstructural effects of traffic levels and weight.

Funding and financing were also discussed—often at length and at least mentioned in those ancillary speeches I witnessed—but I ignored much of it, frankly, because despite the general nod toward acknowledging the issue, folks here just really wanted to focus on the future, on progress, on coming up with drastic and wonderful ideas and putting them into play, and I wanted to be on board with that.

Shared mobility trends was also a big topic, along with developing intelligent service modes, and featured conversations with reps from Zipcar, RideScout, Social Bicycles and others—and even Uber, the event’s major sponsor, got in on the conversation, though what I wonder about them is when UberDelivery and UberPickup are going to start dropping localized bombs on Peapod and its brethren … .

The afternoon sessions caroused through a history of automated transit systems, from all the way back to Morgantown, Va., while in other rooms sustainability was addressed with regard to more than just fuel savings but making sure ITS development is performed in a sustainable way, by means worthy of maintenance that will bear viability 50-plus years after they are put in place.

The exhibition floor was packed and veritably glowing with bold signage and all manner of gadgets and LCD-screened demonstration models, but honestly, I’m saving that for tomorrow, when the producers have allowed Monday to iron out the wrinkles in their pitches and stump speeches, and everyone has allowed the first day of really quite engaging networking activity to bolster their resolve.

As I left for the day, I found myself wondering whether a situation might ever arise that push comes to shove and a decision has to be made about what gets more funding, what is more worthy of development and investment: ITS development for modes of public transit or automated/autonomous vehicle development and implementation. Because there won’t be enough money to go around. There never is. And this is not small potatoes; it’s a question that perhaps pits serviceability to community against a broader, grander vision of a mobile future centered around the individual.

If we are indeed all in this together, well … perhaps this is already a moot hypothetical. Perhaps when push comes to shove, like all of America ever has, we’ll just go ahead and try to have it all.

Until tomorrow …

Brian W. Budzynski

Brian W. Budzynski is the managing editor of Roads & Bridges and its quarterly supplement, Transportation Management & Engineering (TM&E).

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