A Roadmap to Transportation Infrastructure Success

A Roadmap to Transportation Infrastructure Success

July 2020:

A Roadmap to Transportation Infrastructure Success

What’s holding smart infrastructure back? The answer goes beyond the obvious.

There is a lot to gain when it comes to smart, connected transportation infrastructure, including better quality of life and safety, as well as enhanced technical efficiency (e.g., reduced travel times) and control (e.g., autonomous infrastructure or infrastructure-related systems like city lighting). Connectivity can also enable realtime decisionmaking and enhance long-term planning in cities and communities. It can even improve a city’s sustainability by reducing its carbon footprint. In fact, it’s safe to say the benefits of transportation infrastructure connectivity transcend a single group of stakeholders, extending not only to citizens and city authorities but also to entire economies and the planet as a whole.

Franklin Moon, a professor in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rutgers University, defines “smart” in the context of infrastructure as the ability to collect data, process data to make a decision, and then act in some way based on that decision. “The biggest benefit is that such systems potentially can allow our infrastructure to operate in a safer, more efficient manner,” Moon says. “Although the ability to reroute traffic away from accidents/congestion is probably the most obvious benefit, the promise of such technologies goes well beyond this.”

For instance, a switch to autonomous vehicles has the potential to reduce the required spacing between vehicles and thus increase the number of people that can be safely transported on our infrastructure. “Instead of rebuilding and/or expanding our infrastructure, which has been the trend over the last half century, I think this source of ‘capacity’ could alleviate one of the biggest challenges facing transportation in this country,” adds Moon.

The prospect is tantalizing. But is the technology ready? For the most part, yes, the technologies needed to connect cities’ transportation infrastructure is already available. So what’s the holdup? There are several roadblocks. Some are predictable, like a lack of standards and overarching privacy concerns. Other roadblocks may not be the first to mind, but are potentially even more debilitating, like a limp business model or even infighting among stakeholders about who’s responsible for making this happen.

The industry needs a roadmap for navigating these hurdles and others—a roadmap that involves piloting and testing, regulation and standardization, and a lot more collaboration. Improved coordination and cooperation among various stakeholders will be particularly key to bringing the benefits of a connected transportation infrastructure to more cities and citizens across the United States.

The ‘Holdup’

Acumen Research and Consulting suggests the global smart transportation market will reach a market value of more than $35 billion by 2026. Other research firms take an even more optimistic view. Global Market Insights, for instance, projects the market will reach $130 billion by 2024. Whichever projection one buys into, the question of how remains. How will the market reach these new heights when there are very real, very pressing hurdles preventing cities from leveraging IoT (Internet of Things) technologies to either upgrade existing transportation infrastructures or build new, smart infrastructure?

Jeff Ban, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, says the benefits of a smarter, more connected infrastructure include more data and better monitoring of system performance. “Only after we know how well the system performs and where the problems are (can) we make informed decisions about what the key problems are and what are the right and most effective solutions,” Ban says. “Smarter and connected infrastructure also enables new solutions to challenging problems such as traffic safety and environmental issues.”

Source: Global Market Insights

Ban sees a big problem, though, particularly for connected and autonomous vehicles and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) technology deployments. “I feel that the lack of a business model—i.e., who pays for the new technologies and systems, (whether it’s) federal, state, the private sector, or users—is the major hurdle,” he explains. “Because we are not clear about where the revenue is coming from, no one is interested in investing to build new or retrofit existing infrastructure, which is currently holding things back. Transportation is a public infrastructure; people (users) like everything to be free or paid by tax dollars. This explains why connected vehicles and V2X are not widely deployed, even though the technology is mature.”

“In general, when it comes to transportation infrastructure, I think vehicle manufacturers, smart infrastructure technology developers, and city officials should be working more closely together to significantly improve transportation systems. At the moment, these three entities seem to be acting somewhat independently, whereas their decisions are heavily interdependent.”

Michael Hyland, University of California, Irvine Institute of Transportation Studies

Terry Yang, assistant professor in the Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah, says the benefits of a smart transportation infrastructure include efficiency, in part because smart infrastructure can perform certain tasks without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction; data gathering that can be used to support future decisionmaking; and more, like new economic development opportunities, better quality of life, and improved transportation mobility systems. In addition to regulatory hurdles, a lack of standards and interoperability, and safety and privacy concerns, additional roadblocks he sees figuring prominently into the equation include a lack of funding and an unclear ROI (return on investment), at least for a while.

“First, there’s a lack of money,” Yang says. “The installation of smart infrastructures could be very expensive and requires a lot of investments. Second, there are minimal benefits at the very beginning. Smart transportation infrastructures can only benefit us if there are many smart vehicles on the streets. However, it is expected that the market penetration rate of smart vehicles could still be very low in the near future. Third, there’s a gap between government and (the) vehicle industry. The communication between transportation infrastructure and vehicles requires (more) collaboration between government and industry.”

Similarly, Michael Hyland, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine Institute of Transportation Studies, says a lack of collaboration is what’s holding the space back. “In general, when it comes to transportation infrastructure, I think vehicle manufacturers, smart infrastructure technology developers, and city officials should be working more closely together to significantly improve transportation systems,” Hyland says. “At the moment, these three entities seem to be acting somewhat independently, whereas their decisions are heavily interdependent.”

Despite good intentions on both sides, Hyland points to a vicious cycle between cities/city officials (aka public agencies) and smart infrastructure technology developers related to investing in smart transportation infrastructure technology. “On the city side, officials are understandably averse to acquiring and using new, unproven or seemingly unproven technology,” he explains. “This is particularly true when the infrastructure is safety-critical, which is the case for most transportation infrastructure. Additionally, most cities have limited budgets that preclude them from making the large investments needed to acquire various types of smart infrastructure technology. Cities are also averse to allowing technology developers and their support teams to control and manage city infrastructure and information/data. On the technology developer side, due to the aversion of city officials to purchase new technology, the market and incentives to invest in the development of new technology are unclear.”

And here’s yet another rub. At times, it seems technology developers are developing solutions first and then trying to find problems to solve, rather than working with public agencies to properly define problems before developing technology solutions. “Tackling this challenge will be quite difficult,” Hyland says. “To overcome the chicken-and-the-egg problem and the safety concerns, an important component includes setting up testing sites for technology developers to clearly demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of their proposed technologies.”

  • Key Steps for Transportation Infrastructure Success

    1. Establish pilot programs and test beds for technology demonstration and assessment.
    2. Pursue regulation that encourages innovation and reduces barriers to launch while protecting privacy.
    3. Forge collaborations between academia, industry, and public agencies to accelerate smart infrastructure transitions.
    4. Educate drivers and smart infrastructure users of the benefits that can be accrued by their adoption.

Roadmap to Success

Samuel Labi, professor of civil engineering at Purdue University, says cities are realizing that connectivity is a critical thread for intelligent infrastructure, sewing together the various components of the intelligent infrastructure architecture. But aforementioned hurdles—which also include things like identifying the best platform or combination of platforms for connectivity, a lack of standardized protocols and a lack of consistency with legacy systems, and regulatory uncertainties (such as the recently proposed changes in communication frequency allocations to the transportation industry)—stop some cities from pursuing or moving forward with smart transportation infrastructure projects.

In the face of many uncertainties, Labi suggests the following roadmap to transportation infrastructure success:

  • Establish formal new collaborations between stakeholders or support existing ones through forums, conferences, field demonstrations, workshops, and panel discussions.
  • Identify current and expected future use cases and applications of connectivity and recognize/measure their data and connectivity requirements.
  • Create a common taxonomy and data catalog, so that various stakeholders may speak the same language regarding connectivity.
  • Identify the best platform or a set of platforms that are compatible with each other for each application area of connectivity.
  • Develop protocols for data formats, encryption, and transfer. Research will be necessary to ensure interoperability between the various components of the connectivity architecture, regarding both legacy systems and emerging systems. The industry and researchers will need to develop a new generation of flexible intelligent infrastructure architectures that will not only address these issues but also support both mobile and fixed communication networks.
  • Ensure adequate communication frequency bandwidth is allocated to the transportation industry through congressional lobbying and other measures.
  • Establish protocols for data storage and management to handle the explosion of data that will result from infrastructure connectivity capabilities.
  • Make efforts to allay public concerns regarding hacking, data privacy, and physical security.
  • Aggressively pursue public outreach and educational campaigns to increase awareness of the prospective benefits of connectivity and therefore encourage the adoption of connectivity technology in order to increase demand.
Source: Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R) 

“This roadmap could proceed largely in a parallel (fashion) instead of series fashion for two reasons,” Labi adds. “The first is that time is of the essence as the development of connectedness technology continues to outpace the capability of infrastructure agencies, governments, and legislators to provide the needed supporting facilities, regulations, and policies to support connectedness. Second, there is a little interdependence of the roadmap initiatives; therefore, in the foregoing discussion, the sequence of the discussion should not be taken as a series implementation of the initiatives.”

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Eleftheria Kontou, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lays out a similar series of directives that could make up a roadmap for smart transportation infrastructure success. “Key steps would be: (1) establishment of pilot programs and test beds for technology demonstration and assessment, (2) regulation that encourages innovation and reduces barriers to launch while protecting privacy, (3) collaborations between academia, industry, and public agencies to accelerate smart infrastructure transitions, and (4) educating drivers and smart infrastructure users of the benefits that can be accrued by their adoption,” Kontou says.

She adds that the benefits of smart and connected transportation infrastructure include realtime data collection and analysis capabilities that inform well-reasoned decisionmaking in terms of prioritizing maintenance actions and cost-efficient, safer, and environmentally sustainable mobility system operations. Certainly, the potential benefits of smarter, more connected infrastructure are manifold.

UC Irvine’s Hyland adds that with more data coming from connected infrastructure, city officials can make more informed long-term planning decisions in addition to realtime response decisions that improve safer and more environmentally responsible operations. “The data can help city officials better understand who is using the infrastructure, how they are using the infrastructure, and where the infrastructure is deficient,” Hyland says. “Using the data to make informed long-term planning decisions should help cities maintain, rehabilitate, and upgrade infrastructure to improve cities more effectively and cost-efficiently.”


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Read more of our past features in Connected World related to smart homes

In short, smarter, more connected infrastructure can not only benefit today’s cities but also improve future cities, and it can do this in numerous ways. The technology is here now. As to the question, What’s the holdup? The answer is multi-faceted, but one standout hurdle is the need for improved collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders. When everyone involved is batting for the same team, we will we start to see the smart transportation infrastructure market take off like it could.

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