The drive to use technology to improve productivity and efficiency is not limited to factories and offices, nor just to improving energy conservation and gas mileage. In an attempt to use technology as a solution and to squeeze more out of existing systems, intelligent transportation—which includes everything from traffic and transit controls to sophisticated telematic systems for connecting electric vehicles (EVs) to the smart grid—is a quiet but growing industry that is poised for a boom. In fact, industry news and market research outlet GreenBiz projects the industry will grow from $48 billion in revenue in 2009 to $67 billion by 2015 in the United States.


Defining intelligent transportation


According to Paul Feenstra, senior vice president for government and external affairs for the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), Washington, D.C., intelligent transportation systems (ITSs) encompass a broad range of information and technology applications.


“ITS is the application of communication and data systems to a transportation system in order to improve efficiency and safety and to provide a better user experience,” he said.


One of the first ITS applications that was deployed was electronic toll collecting (e.g., E-ZPass), but it has extended to areas including synchronized or adaptive traffic signals (wherein light changes are based on real-time traffic conditions), real-time data on bus and train schedules, crash avoidance systems in vehicles, real-time traffic condition information being sent to smart devices, and increasingly smart parking systems, through which drivers can find parking places and pay for them with their smart devices.


“This utilization of real-time information facilitates better decisions by travelers, as well as by traffic management centers, enabling them to respond to incidents more quickly and efficiently and to dynamically manage both information dissemination and traffic infrastructure,” Feenstra said.


ITSs fall into the two basic categories of vehicle systems and infrastructure, according to Larry Yermack, strategic adviser for Cubic Transportation Systems, San Diego.


“The ITS infrastructure,” he said, “is what detects vehicles and their patterns and then synthesizes and disseminates that data to the transportation systems’ users, such as the public, transit agencies, toll authorities or parking managers, for example.”


The technologies involved in ITSs, Yermack said, include sonar or audio detection systems to determine what is actually occurring on roadways, communication of the detected information to a central command system, software that integrates and synthesizes the detected data, and distribution of the information to all the transportation system users.


“Traffic agencies may have their own information systems or 511 traffic and weather information system for travelers to call, or they may deploy various apps for users to download,” he said.


The transportation modes that an ITS could manage include cars, buses, trains, trucks, and bike-, car- and ride-sharing systems. However, with specific regard to ITS in a rail environment, GPS or other tracking methods are being used to capture updated train location and speed data and to interface with public address and variable message signs, according to Jane McPherson, office manager for Intelligent Systems & Controls Contractors Inc. (iSYS), Canton, Mass.


“This technology provides updated train arrival information to passengers on platforms as well as supplying critical on-time performance data to authorities,” McPherson said.


While ITS applications are being deployed across the country, they are increasingly being tied together in a more integrated system to allow towns and cities to manage multimodal traffic networks more efficiently and give travelers better information on all available transportation alternatives.


Goals, benefits and challenges


The most overarching goal of intelligent transportation is safety, Feenstra said.


“One of the major ITS initiatives is to improve vehicle connectivity through sensors that communicate over dedicated wireless spectrum to tell each other where they are to help avoid accidents and collisions,” he said. 


In addition, sensors at intersections help improve safety for pedestrians and bicycles. 


“Other goals include making the transportation system work more efficiently, easing congestion, and providing users with better information and travel options,” Feenstra said.


Since most of the transportation services in an urban environment are paid services, another goal of an ITS is to bring together payment and information regarding tolls, transit and parking in a way that improves operator efficiency and customer convenience.


“It always comes back to the basic goal of giving the customer enough information to make intelligent decisions about travel,” Yermack said. 


And since we can’t build our way out of congestion, ITS technology provides a high-tech solution in planning the future of transportation and connecting communities, said Habib Shamskhou, transportation practice leader for ITS design at Stantec, Edmonton, Canada.


As with any new idea or technology, implementing an ITS presents a number of challenges to the community or the contractor. Typically, the first challenge is integrating the rules and goals of all the federal, state and local agencies and transportation departments involved, according to Fenestra.


Technology is another challenge


“The core competency of many departments of transportation is to maintain the physical infrastructure. In many cases, high-tech ITS technology is new, and the in-house expertise to integrate ITS devices and communication capabilities into current systems still needs to be developed,” Feenstra said.


Funding, as always, is an additional challenge, particularly in tight budget situations.


“It can be difficult to convince jurisdictions to be an early adopter of technology and to invest in reducing congestion and energy consumption, even though an ITS can reduce overall long- and short-term costs,” Feenstra said.


“It can be difficult to demonstrate how important it really is to the economy to have a good transportation infrastructure,” Yermack said.


Another challenge is institutional, Yermack said. It can be difficult to bring together the necessary information from all of the different transportation modes and integrate them into a usable form that enables better decisions concerning how and when to travel.


“The institutional challenges are certainly much harder than the technical ones, such as educating decision-makers on this subject early to help enhance future funding allocation. In Japan and Europe, this education starts in elementary school,” Shamskhou said.


The ITS intersection


ITSs can converge with vehicles, energy, buildings and information technology (IT) in a number of ways. Feenstra said one area of increased intersection of ITS will be the burgeoning transition to EV fleets tapping into the grid to recharge.


“ITS technologies will be required to determine where charging stations are as well as to help manage vehicle performance,” he said.


ITSs also intersect with the energy infrastructure in a way that improves communication. For example, ITSs’ improved communication can be applied to pre-pass truck inspection, where trucks are electronically weighed while in motion and their credentials checked; trucks in compliance don’t need to stop at every weigh station. This would help reduce fuel consumption, eliminate wait time at inspection stations and enable jurisdictions to focus on noncompliant vehicles.


“There is a lot of talk about improving the gas mileage of cars, but fuel consumption and pollution are also reduced with the improved efficiency of the transportation system that ITSs enable,” Feenstra said.


ITSs are also considered a driver of the emergence of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. According to Shamskhou, the navigation systems with the newest sensors now installed on vehicles play an integral role with an ITS.


“One of the key promises of an ITS realized because of this technology is reduced emissions and improved efficiency of the transportation infrastructure through reduced operation and maintenance costs,” Shamskhou said.


ITSs are also intersecting with transportation and building management systems in municipalities’ unified command centers where the transportation management system information is brought together with the police and fire communication systems for improved response.


ECs needed


“As vehicles and the transportation infrastructure become smarter and incorporate new technologies, there will be an increasing need for electrical contractors to integrate and maintain these systems, from video detectors, traffic control devices, and adaptive lighting technologies, to EVs and charging stations,” Feenstra said.


The problem over the years, however, is that there have not been a great number of ECs focused on this industry.


“Integrators need electrical contractor partners that understand the control centers as well as the detection and communication equipment and how they work,” Yermack said.


Contractors interested in joining this technological revolution can research the business and form relationships with organizations such as ITSA, integrators and local departments of transportation and other transportation agencies., Yermack said.


Since ITS elements are typically part of the electrical bid for transportation infrastructure or improvement projects, electrical contractors play a pivotal role in the industry, Shamskhou said.


“Contractors that are not fully up-to-date on the market and technologies may under- or overbid the projects,” he said.


According to a 2010 report by the London School of Economics and the Information and Technology Innovation Foundation (ITTF), investing in ITS technologies creates a network effect throughout the economy and stimulates job creation across multiple sectors. In addition, congressional transportation bills, such as the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21)—which mandates that states and metropolitan areas shift to a more performance-based model that sets goals for improved safety, congestion, and overall system efficiency—will require technology to measure performance and develop strategies for improvement.


“The market, and the electrical contractors that serve it, are at the cusp of a real transition to more technology-based approaches at the state and local levels to deal with infrastructure and transportation issues,” Feenstra concluded.