Technology topics dominate discussion at IBTTA’s Managed Lanes, AET & Technology Tolling Summit

Mobility-as-a-service, technology, infrastructure and safety key topics discussed

Some of the top transportation and tolling agencies in the world descended upon Charlotte earlier this week to attend the Managed Lanes, AET & Technology Summit by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (IBTTA).  During the conference, thought leaders discussed some interesting topics including mobility-as-a-service, infrastructure, safety technology and more. One thing was clear: there is a drastic shift happening in the world of transportation, mostly driven by technological advances and increased connectivity. The question is “what are agencies doing to keep up?” Here are some of the top topics of discussion during the conference:

Many agency leaders feel that technology is evolving very quickly, making it challenging to keep up. At the same time, their customers, drivers who use their roads on a daily basis, are very tech-savvy and have come to expect and prefer technology-driven solutions over traditional solutions. “Our customers demand technology … but we as agencies often can’t keep up with consumer attitudes and expectations.” One of the most profound examples is the use of Waze vs. the traditional 511 system. When Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC) CEO Mark Compton asked the audience how many of them have used Waze recently, almost everyone’s hands went up.  The opposite was true when he asked the same question about how many of them have used the 511 system in the past year. The truth is we live in a mobile-driven, real-time world and our transportation infrastructure needs to catch up.

One of the top frustrations among leaders in the industry that was mentioned throughout the conference, was their agencies’ challenges in procuring new technologies fast enough. It can take upwards of 9 months to procure for a mobile app project, which is the same time that it may take someone to build that app. Agencies will need to adjust their procurement processes in order to leverage advanced technologies to their full extent.

In addition to adjusting their internal processes, many agency leaders expressed concern about how their job have shifted from managing traditional physical infrastructure projects to now having to manage technology projects. It is a shift in their core responsibilities and their position that can be challenging to adapt to. How are agencies hiring and retaining the right people, competing with the likes of Google and other tech giants for top talent? How are they training their employees to help them be successful in this world of technology?

According to McKinsey & Company, “up to 15 percent of new cars sold in 2030 could be fully autonomous.” Additionally, most recently, large scale manufacturers such as Toyota, have introduced connected vehicle technology such as Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC), which will be included in all of their vehicles sold starting in 2021 in order to enable a safer and more efficient driving ecosystem. According to PTC CEO Mark Compton, on average vehicles on Pennsylvania’s toll roads tend to be 8 years newer than the general population of vehicles, therefore making toll roads the most likely place to find autonomous and connected cars in the near future. So how can agencies leverage this technology to communicate better with their drivers that makes their experience better and their roads safer?

Tolling, autonomous vehicles predictions.

Autonomous vehicles projections by McKinsey as it relates to tolling.

Many agencies are already dipping their toes in this arena:

  • The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority launched a demo of its connected vehicle technology in late 2017, which started coming to life as a pilot in early April. “The project involves outfitting a fleet of 1,600 privately owned vehicles with technology that will communicate with roadways and other cars in order to receive various warnings and alerts about roadway conditions, speed limit changes, dangers and more.” The project will also feature connected buses, street cars and traffic lights to help prioritize public transportation movements as well as an app for pedestrian testers that will issue alerts in real time.
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), PTC and Penn State University (PSU) are collaborating to create PennSTART, a “state-of-the-art training and testing facility to address the transportation safety and operational needs of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic Region. PennSTART will address safety training and research needs in six key areas: traffic incident management (TIM); tolling and intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technology; work zones; commercial vehicles; transit vehicles; and connected and automated vehicles.”

There is a general desire among agencies to connect more data points from different systems in order to draw more insights and a better overview of their cities’ transportation systems. Currently, systems tend to be in disparate locations, often times not connected to a back office in real time. Data from different systems is also often ingested in piecemeal fashion, without the ability to connect different points of view of the same challenges or issues. How is demand affected by fluctuations in traffic? Do weather patterns have an effect on toll road demand? How can systems work together to notify emergency services of accidents or other issues on the roads so they can be more proactive? How much revenue comes into the agency from transponders vs. mobile apps vs. cash? Can we forecast where our cash flow will be in the next three to six months based on real-time data feeds of payment information? These are all questions that are top of mind but can only be answered with robust and connected systems that many agencies do not have currently.

From finance to operations leaders within tolling agencies, reporting and access to data is extremely important — and it all comes together in a back office system that is supported through a layer of APIs that feeds real-time data into it. Many of them shared that their current providers, who tend to be large scale enterprises that grew up in the world of costly hardware systems, are not nimble enough to meet their demands. They often are not able to adjust their product to meet the agencies’ needs, and when they do, it comes in a complicated, lengthy and costly process. Agencies need to be able to integrate their different systems as interoperability will play a key role in their future success.

One thing is clear when speaking to any tolling agency operator: safety is of the utmost concern. Many agencies and cities align themselves to Vision Zero, an initiative that aims to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, which closely aligns with implementing infrastructure and technologies to meet that goal. Studies have shown that toll roads, tunnels and bridges have lower mortality rates compared to non-tolled roads. This is attributed to the way that tolling agencies carefully manage traffic, lanes and overall safety in their day-to-day operations. But as drivers’ attention spans continue to decrease, and they become more and more distracted by mobile devices or other distractions in their cars, the agencies are continuously challenged to maintain their safety records. Many of them have turned to technology to achieve that. For example, the PTC is experimenting with incorporating Waze incident reports into a predictive safety system that helps alert the operations teams of potentially unsafe situations. According to the agency, Wazers often report incidents about 10 minutes before the first emergency call comes in, meaning that emergency services can get to the scene of accidents faster and save more lives in cases of emergencies.

“Any type of incident on the roadway we’ll be able to pump that feed to Waze and we can post it on their app,” said Tim Scanlon, Pa. Turnpike Director of Traffic Engineering.

But physical safety is only one component of the equation. Agencies are also considering cyber security and privacy concerns especially as they use advanced technologies to drive efficiencies within their organizations. One operator mentioned that his agency is starting to use infrared scanning technology to verify the number of occupants within vehicles that enter high occupancy vehicle lanes. However, the immediate concern this raises is that of privacy of drivers. Other agency leaders mentioned that maintaining payment compliance (e.g. PCI-DSS) when implementing mobile cashless tolling solutions is top of mind as well as protecting their customers personal information in their systems.  

As technology takes us into unchartered territories, the possibilities are endless for improving agencies’ operations and offering better driving experiences but that brings a slew of other challenges that agencies have not faced before. The way that agencies are able to adapt their processes and operations to this new reality will determine who will come out successful and will be able to realize all the benefits of this new era.

One speaker said “We keep a Beta tape in our office to remind us how Beta was displaced by VHS, by DVDs, and now by streaming video. We know this industry will continue to change rapidly.”