NMA E-Newsletter #175: A Quick Tour of Intelligent Transportation Systems

By John Bowman, NMA Communications Director

An interesting magazine came across my desk the other day. It’s called Thinking Highways, and it covers the fascinating field of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). On its surface, ITS is essentially the endeavor to increase the safety and efficiency of the transportation system by integrating communications, information and logistics technologies.

However, as I started to thumb through it, I got the sense there was more going on. The cover declared this to be “The Hearts and Minds Issue,” followed by, “Is winning over the public the key to mainstream ITS success?” Curious choice of words. Perhaps an acknowledgement that the public may be fearful, or at least skeptical, if it knew what ITS really was?

I opened the front cover. Next to the table of contents I saw a full-page ad for Redflex Traffic Systems, one of the leading purveyors of red-light camera mayhem. Is this what ITS is all about? Surely there’s more to it.

A few more pages in I read a column about Google’s driverless car and the company’s lobbying efforts to pass enabling legislation to get the cars on the road. Pretty compelling stuff.

Next up, a piece from the CEO of a tolling consulting firm, extolling how toll roads can boost economic recovery. Not much to note, but the writer concluded with “… many governments are expanding the opportunity for toll road development whether by the public or private sector.” Thanks for the warning.

I then flipped to a lengthy opinion piece promoting wider deployment of Automated Traffic Management (ATM) systems. These comprise things like metered ramps, variable message signage, dynamic route diversion and variable speed limits. To facilitate more ATM, the writer advocated greater use of data “aggregated from individual vehicles by sampling their locations and speeds either by sampling their GPS equipment, cell phones, or Bluetooth signals.”

The writer also lamented the limited acceptance of ATM in the United States and advocated a tighter focus on marketing and branding to win over the public. Might this explain the earlier hearts and minds reference? Would motorists warmly embrace ATM if they understood the privacy implications of collecting all that information?

A series of three articles within the magazine’s “Innovation” section revealed even more. The titles tipped me off: “Recognition Handbook,” “Altered Images,” “The Science of Seeing.”

All three touted new developments in machine vision, the blanket term for the key components of modern traffic management: cameras, connections, computers and illumination.

To be fair, the authors described the use of machine vision technology in several useful applications including traffic monitoring and control, incident response, and vehicle assistance.

However, the most pervasive theme was the key role machine vision plays in today’s Big Brother style of traffic enforcement:

“For automatic vehicle identification, lane-use and occupancy monitoring, license plate capture, red-light running and speed violation enforcement, video tolling and weigh-in-motion … high resolution cameras consistently return the quality of images needed upon which those applications rely.”

“When a previously recorded (license) plate is seen by any other interconnected camera, the vehicle’s average speed is calculated over the known baseline distance.”

“… high performance machine vision cameras can offer accuracy improvements, especially in high speed ALPR (Automatic License Plate Recognition) applications, while also reducing overall system costs.”

Finally, a few more pages on I found a “case study” titled “Taking Safety as Red,” by Charles Territo, vice president of communications for ticket camera vendor American Traffic Solutions. Standard camera company propaganda but significant by its inclusion in the editorial mix.

Perhaps my perceptions of ITS will evolve as I learn more. For now, ITS appears to be a highly sophisticated, highly technical practice that offers the potential for many beneficial innovations. What’s missing is an acknowledgement that those innovations come at a cost: a loss of control over how we choose to drive and the loss of privacy while we do so.

The impact of ITS on motorists (for better or worse) will only increase. That’s why it’s critical for all of us to become more involved. The NMA’s grassroots lobbying efforts will continue as our primary means of affecting public policy on ITS. That means our email alert system will become more important than ever in mobilizing members to take action at the local and state level.

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