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Home >Opinion >Intelligent Transportation Systems demystified

As Peter Drucker argues in The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society, the industrial and productivity revolutions have influenced society significantly. During the industrial revolution, technology helped automate systems by replacing manpower with machine power, thereby augmenting system capacity. The productivity revolution applied management science principles to increase productivity (predominantly of manual labour). Today, the third revolution, management revolution, seeks to enhance the productivity of non-manual resources to improve quality of life and generate wealth. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) is an illustration of this management revolution.

ITS visualizes information and communication technology and advanced vehicular technologies helping mobile vehicles and infrastructure communicate on a real-time basis. It involves the application of operations research models and management principles to distribute traffic demands evenly within existing capacity and to help users and traffic controllers make informed decisions on mobility choices.

ITS evolved as a response to the problems arising from the rapid development of surface transportation. The Americas invested heavily in conventional transportation infrastructure, whereas western European and Asian countries such as Japan developed new surface transportation technologies.

These new technologies provided unprecedented mobility, but problems such as traffic delays, congestion and safety continued to persist. In addition, the need for better transportation systems was becoming more critical by the day, because conventional infrastructure was failing to meet emerging needs, livelihoods were becoming more expensive, domestic productivity depended on wider and better transportation choices, international competitiveness was linked to local mobility, and shortage of land severely restricted new infrastructure development.

The obvious solution was to integrate technological advancements with infrastructure development.

ITS has three facets: technology, systems and institutions. Technological developments such as computational solutions, communications networks, advanced mathematical models and sensors can help integrate transportation, communication and inter-modalism on a regional scale. This would make possible sensing multi-modular vehicles on a real-time basis, communicating vehicular movements in large volumes reliably in real-time, processing large volumes of data using computational and communication networks, and applying the processed information to achieve better coordination of transportation networks.

ITS is essentially multi-disciplinary and cross-functional, and involves the following systems:

Advanced traffic management systems (ATMS): Dynamic integration and management of transportation operations to prioritize movements, alleviate congestion and ensure network efficiency and safety.

Advanced traveller information systems (ATIS): Real-time and dynamic information dissemination to end-users so that informed mobility choices can be made.

Advanced vehicle control systems (AVCS): Computational and communication systems inside the transit vehicles that ensure passenger safety by employing sensory controls and abort mechanisms to help internal systems coordinate with external infrastructure and other mobile systems.

Commercial vehicle operations (CVO): Operations control, monitoring, and productivity enhancement of private commercial fleets.

Advanced public transportation systems (APTS): Systems that enhance the availability and utilization of public transportation.

Advanced rural transportation systems (ARTS): Systems that facilitate adequacy of transportation services in sparsely populated regions, while fulfilling economic considerations.

Who shall plan, design, develop, operate, maintain, manage and regulate ITS? Institutions are required to formulate consistent policies that ensure systems safety and sustainability. They need to develop regulatory control mechanisms to facilitate mobility in the short term and energy-efficient measures to protect the environment in the long term. However, each department or institutional entity within ITS has its own perspective, based on its background and expertise; the situation is akin to that depicted in the well-known tale of six visually-handicapped persons describing an elephant.

Bringing together these multiple and, often conflicting, perspectives into an integrated ITS management system is a task for governments. ITS is a globally relevant phenomena. There is growing awareness about its importance. Every country holds certain advantages with respect to some aspects of ITS, and is disadvantaged with respect to others.

Developed countries have good transportation infrastructure, and have either developed or procured advanced technologies to operate ITS. Yet, they struggle to create standards and regulatory policies that can protect the safety needs of all ITS stake-holders. Several European countries suffer from an inability to develop proper cost and levy structures for ITS administration. Developing countries are generally disadvantaged by huge transportation demand, limited land availability and sub-standard project execution.

No country is too far ahead or too far behind in the race to develop impeccable intelligent transport systems. The market for ITS is everywhere. Although ITS is no doubt globally relevant, the issues that affect it are usually unique and specific to local conditions. This limits the replication or adoption of pre-developed systems. The key, given the multi-faceted nature of ITS, is to develop institutions and multi-disciplinary human talent pools everywhere.

Sundaravalli Narayanaswami (PhD, IIT Bombay) is a faculty member in the Public Systems Group at IIM Ahmedabad. Her research interests are quantitative approaches for urban mobility and intelligent transportation systems.

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