US DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx Visit Explores Role of Technology in Transportation

Monday, May 18, 2015

Americans love the romantic vision of a Corvette on the open road and a single-commuter car at the whim of its driver. But with traffic jams and fatal accidents increasing, how will Americans face the reality of transportation’s future and take action to get traffic moving?

Last month, WNCG and the Center for Transportation Research (CTR) hosted U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on his national tour of University Transportation Centers. The visit opened with a roundtable discussion focused on the roles of research, technology and government in America’s future transportation infrastructure. 

“We need to be thinking about the future—about how technology plays a role in transportation—and that kind of thought process is happening right here [at UT],” Foxx stated. The UT program, Foxx continued, serves as a model for the rest of the country. 

The April 24th visit included WNCG and CTR faculty, researchers and graduate students, who together form the Data-Supported Transportation Operations and Planning Center (D-STOP). Other attendees included members of the Texas Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and leaders from industry.

Fueled by a multidisciplinary research team and top-notch facilities, D-STOP works at the cutting edge of wireless communications and networking, computer and data sciences and transportation. D-STOP’s research outcomes will contribute to applications such as blind spot elimination, lane change aiding, control loss and forward collision warnings, electronic emergency brake lights, intersection movement, traveler information systems and congestion detection.

“The secretary wants to see a revolution in transportation,” WNCG Prof. Todd Humphreys stated. “His blueprint going forward contrasts two competing visions. In one, we fall behind the world in transportation. We end up the last to modernize while Asia and Europe leap-frog ahead. In the other vision, we capture the moment and stay ahead of the curve. We of course want the latter vision.”

According to Prof. Humphreys, to make this vision possible, good protocols and government standards are essential. Good standards, Prof. Humphreys continues, will allow cars to maintain their current longevity.

“How do we ensure that autonomous vehicles don’t end up in the garbage after a few years?” Prof. Humphreys questioned. “Things don’t have to be discardable. Good standards have a longer life than that. If you make a car modular you can refresh its technology after a few years. You do this by building software into the system so mobile protocols can be swapped out through software rather than hardware.” 

Aside from issues of obsolescence and longevity for transportation solutions and autonomous vehicles, Secretary Foxx’s visit also explored public policy issues. In particular, discussions sought to determine sources of funding to support future transportation solutions.

According to Prof. Humphreys, the government could enable the private sector to make the transportation revolution happen faster, safer and more reliably, if government changes transportation infrastructure in inexpensive ways that allow autonomous vehicles to react more safely to their environment.

Ultimately though, Prof. Humphreys mentions, the American consumer’s mentality will have to change before any transportation revolution can occur.

“We used to have a sparsely populated segment of the country, so we paved it with roads,” Prof. Humphreys states. “The Europeans and Asians have no such luxury. They have very high density. They had to go over ground and underground to make high-density transportation. We have to face the reality that we simply can’t get from here to there on a paved road anymore.”