Intelligent Transportation Systems: Linking Vehicles and Infrastructure for a Traffic-Free Future

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Photo: Corbis Images

Rapidly advancing technology during the past few decades has changed how we work, how we entertain ourselves, and how we connect with one another. Now advances in technology promise to improve how we drive.

According to an IBM white paper, titled “The Case for Smarter Transportation,” in 2007 Americans “wasted 4.2 billion hours, 2.8 billion gallons of fuel and $87.2 billion due to traffic congestion.”

Intelligent transportation systems are a vision of a future that integrates existing transportation infrastructure with communication networks in an effort to reduce congestion and travel time. In doing so on a mass scale, the larger effect of intelligent transportation systems is to limit the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, cut back on fuel consumption and improve road safety.

It’s hard to argue technology hasn’t already had an impact. On-board computers maximize engine performance and lead to a safer ride. Hybrid cars have created a new class of vehicle with higher fuel efficiency. GPS systems ensure that passengers get to their destination as efficiently as possible.

But intelligent transportation systems imply improvements not only in vehicle technology but also the creation of an integrated networks linking cars and trucks with roadway infrastructure. Because many of these component technologies are still in their theoretical or experimental phase, there are a range of prescriptions for setting a standard for deploying technological improvements on our nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Although specific applications require research, testing and pilot studies before they could be deployed on a scale large enough to have an impact on urban traffic congestion, different approaches share a combination of high- and low-tech solutions to traffic problems.

Wireless Communication and Data Aggregation

Severe weather, road hazards and accidents can considerably add to the travel times of every driver passing through the same route. Although many newer GPS devices are equipped with traffic information, these devices simply aren’t ubiquitous — or often accurate — enough to make a significant dent in congestion created by these kinds of incidents.

Corbis Images

Cell phones, computers, and tablet devices are already capable of sending and receiving data. So why not cars as well?

Individual cars could essentially act as data points on a network. These kinds of networks could have immediate benefits to drivers, who would be quickly rerouted in the event of a congestion-inducing incident before traffic can build to the point of adding significant delays. These data can also help consumers decide whether driving really is the best option on a given day or if public transportation offers a more efficient means of conveyance.

In the long term, daily commuter information, traffic patterns and incident reports can be used to help transportation officials and city planners determine future roadworks and safety projects.

Low-Tech Solutions

Since no one can expect to see a fully realized and integrated transportation communications network arriving in their neighborhood anytime soon, iterative changes to existing roadways using relatively low-tech alternative could provide an interim solution.

Responsive traffic lights are increasingly common on roadways across the country. Variable speed limits, in which highways permit higher speeds during times when transportation authorities anticipate less traffic, can be another simple improvement for drivers.

Going Forward

Up to $30 trillion will be spent on improvements to our nation’s infrastructure in the next 20 years, according to the same IBM report cited above. So although these roadways of the future will take a significant investment to get off the ground, drivers should begin seeing the benefits coming around the corner soon enough.

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