The Three Ages of ITS

A while back, I worked with two of my colleagues (Greg Hatcher and Carolina Burnier, both of Noblis) to write an article for Thinking Highways magazine on the past 10 years of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) developments in the U.S. In developing that article, it occurred to me that at the risk of oversimplification, one could roughly categorize ITS in the U.S. into three ages: The Fruits of Mobility 2000, Rise of the Smartphones, and Connected Automation & Grand Convergence.

ITS 1.0: The Fruits of Mobility 2000

ITS really got started in the U.S. through the Mobility 2000 initiative, although there is certainly a “pre-history” of ITS, including the introduction of ramp metering in 1963 and the Urban Traffic Control System (UTCS) Project developed between 1967 and 1972. In the mid to late 1980s transportation officials from Federal and State governments, the private sector, and universities began a series of informal meetings discussing the future of transportation. This included meetings held by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in October 1986 to discuss technology applied to future advanced highways.[1] In June 1988 in Washington, DC, the group formalized its structure and chose the name Mobility 2000. This ad hoc working group laid out an initial structure for the development of ITS that holds up very well almost 30 years later:

  • Advanced Traffic Management Systems (ATMS),
  • Advanced Traveler Information Systems (original Advanced Driver Information Systems before being broadened to incorporate additional modes)
  • Commercial Vehicle Operations (CVO)
  • Advanced Vehicle Control Systems (AVCS), including vehicle automation
  • Advanced Public Transportation Systems (APTS), which was not part of the original four but was soon added to recognize the importance of transit

The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) was a direct outgrowth of the Mobility 2000 initiative. In addition, the contents of the Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS) Act of 1991 followed many of the recommendations of Mobility 2000.[2]

The IVHS Act formally established and funded a national, USDOT-led ITS program. It followed a plan that is still used today: applied research, followed by field tests of promising technologies and applications, then outreach, training, and hand-off from the ITS Joint Program Office to other organizations to mainstream the deployment of systems who’s success has been demonstrated in the field. Some of the accomplishment of this first age in include the deployment of the first electronic toll collection in 1989, PrePass, a public-private partnership program providing pre-screening and weigh station bypass for trucks, and the adoption of 511 as a unified national phone number for traveler information. By 2011, 511 was implemented in 38 states covering 70% of the U.S. population.

In the critical area of safety, by 2007, 18 states had deployed core Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks (CVISN) program functions, with 27 states in the process of deployment, and the remaining 5 in the planning stages. At the same time, cooperative research between USDOT and the auto industry on In-Vehicle Based Safety Systems helped lead to the deployment of todays pioneered forward collision warning, automated braking, lane departure warning, and blind spot monitoring systems.

ITS 2.0: Rise of the Smartphones

The first widely adopted smartphone in the U.S., the iPhone, was introduced in 2007, bringing dramatic and unforeseen changes to many fields, including ITS. Smart phones have, to a large extent, replaced dedicated in-car navigation devices. However they have done much more. Because of the huge volume of production, they have brought down the cost of sensors by many orders of magnitude, including accelerometers and solid state camera components used for automated driving.

Rather than simply replacing navigation devices as consumers of inbound traffic information, smartphones now turn cars into mobile probes, providing traffic flow and incident data on more roads and at less cost than would ever have been possible through the deployment of roadway sensors. This is already providing a revolution in the volume of data available to transportation planners and operators, ushering in the eras of Big Data and machine learning. In addition, Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft would not exist without smartphones, and future visions of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) would not be practical.

ITS 3.0: Connected Automation & Grand Convergence

While there have been many changes and many accomplishments over the 25 year history of the ITS program, rather than slowing, the pace of change has accelerated over just the past several years. ITS adopts technologies developed in other fields and also reflects changes in broader society. These include big data, the move to the cloud for information processing, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The convergence of these developments are making feasible concepts that were science fiction when the ITS program began.

Vehicle automation began to make huge leaps forward in part due to the DARPA Grand Challenges. Vehicle automation is dependent on big data, suites of affordable sensors, and artificial intelligence. We are already seeing commercial sales of partially automated vehicles and pilot deployments of low-speed fully automated vehicles in restricted environments. However an automated vehicle that cannot communicate is, in many ways, crippled. It cannot see beyond its own sensor range, so it would have no way of knowing, for example, about an incident 5 miles ahead on the freeway that makes an alternate route more viable. The future is in connected automation, whether that connection is made over cellular or a future combination of cellular and Dedicated Short Range Communications.

At the beginning of ITS, Mobility 2000 defined five broad areas of ITS, but moving forward, much of the focus is on integrating these areas together, adapting signal systems, for example, to smooth truck movements into and out of ports, or communicating signal status to both traveler information and vehicle automation systems. This same integration, along with the adoption of the same technology developments, is taking place in other areas of urban planning and management, enabling smart cities. Both ITS and smart cities apply the same concepts of utilizing advanced sensor, communications, and information processing technologies to improve safety, value and efficiency while reducing environmental impacts. Similarly, ITS converges with other city services, including public safety, smart payments, telecommunications, energy, and public services to implement truly smart cities that are run more efficiently and provide their residents with increased safety and benefits.

For additional information on the history of ITS, see our article A History of ITS: What a Long, Strange Trip it’s been as well as the USDOT’s official History of Intelligent Transportation Systems.

  1. Lyle Saxton, one of the visionaries involved in Mobility 2000, has written an excellent history of the organization, Mobility 2000 and the Roots of IVHS.
  2. The U.S. program was originally called Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems. This was later changed to Intelligent Transportation Systems to reflect the increased recognition of multiple transit modes.