Always one of the most anticipated weeks of the year for anyone in the transportation industry, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting brings together transportation thought leaders in a cornucopia of technical presentations, committee meetings, and business opportunities. The 2015 Annual Meeting, held in January in Washington, D.C., marked the event’s 94th anniversary, where the cutting edge of transportation technology is showcased and future research directions are negotiated year after year.
The information-packed program of the January TRB Annual Meeting attracted more than 12,000 transportation professionals from around the world to Washington, D.C. The TRB Annual Meeting program covers all transportation modes, with more than 5,000 presentations in nearly 750 sessions and workshops addressing topics of interest to all attendees-policy-makers, administrators, practitioners, researchers, and representatives of government, industry and academic institutions. For many, this is the best opportunity to meet with other transportation professionals to discuss current and future research needs and activities.
Each year, TRB highlights emerging trends through a Hot Topic theme. The Hot Topic this year was Connected-Automated Vehicles (CV/AV). CV/AV technology describes vehicles that utilize sensors and data communication with other vehicles and physical or virtual infrastructure to enable decision-making and control of the vehicle.
The CV/AV space is rapidly evolving as technology is moving forward at an unprecedented rate: Audi recently completed the first transcontinental trip of the U.S. with an automobile in autonomous mode 99% of the time, including roundabouts and construction zones. Industry is beginning to capture the value generated by these technologies, which have the potential to reduce more than 80 percent of vehicle accidents, double the capacity of roadways, and present a variety of new consumer services and marketing opportunities.
TRB’s sessions on CV/AV were mostly led by two standing TRB committees: Intelligent Transportation Systems, chaired by Jane Lappin of U.S. DOT’s VOLPE center; and Vehicle-Highway Automation, chaired by Steve Shladover of Berkley’s PATH program. These committees do an impressive job of organizing technical presentations and running workshops and committee meetings ” never an easy task with such a sizeable and diverse group as the CV/AV community.
As we get closer to self-driving cars day-by-day, a number of technical and policy hurdles still remain, especially in the public sector. For example, I attended a workshop on CV/AV human factors that highlighted the design challenges associated with human-machine interaction, especially related to human re-engagement with driving tasks and non-visual interfaces. Many participants shared the sentiment that most of the technical challenges will be solved by the private sector but that CV/AV technologies will impact a number of public policies, such as distracted driving laws, liability litigation, and assuring a minimum level of performance.
The role of the public sector also includes capturing societal benefits that the private sector is not incentivized or able to pursue, such as emissions reduction, congestion mitigation and city planning. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is leading the charge in this effort, spending over $100 million dollars per year on technical and policy research, and getting a $58 million boost in the President’s FY2016 Budget Proposal. State and local transportation agencies will benefit from adapting to these technologies, but are currently spending very little to do so with only about 10 pilot projects in place theUnited States, funded in large part by U.S. DOT. Many participants at this year’s TRB conference were busy forming teams for the next round of connected vehicle pilot projects, ranging from $2-15 million. Other international leaders in CV/AV technology include Japan, Germany, and now Sweden has partnered with Volvo to put 100 autonomous cars on the streets of Gothenburg.
The next five years will be interesting to watch as the various players in the CV/AV space compete for dominant roles in a market that is unanimously seen as having an exponentially growing revenue stream.
In addition to autonomous ground vehicles, there were several sessions on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), which can be a valuable technology for transportation and infrastructure. UAS are useful for applications such as bridge and pipeline inspection, geospatial mapping, and freight movement. Integration of commercial UAS into the national airspace remains a considerable challenge for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is manually approving each commercial UAS company’s application for a 333 Exemption to fly UAS. Interestingly, public agencies like State DOTs do not need a 333 Exemption to fly, putting them in a unique position to take advantage of UAS technology. However, Ohio and Wyoming are the only DOTs to my knowledge using UAS. Look to Congress’s reauthorization of FAA to provide further guidance and/or pressure for UAS integration. NASA’s Universal Traffic Management (UTM) proposal would create geo-fenced corridors and right-of-way rules, similar to roadways for vehicles, for structuring UAS airspace. A great deal more research is needed to develop UTM, but it is one of the leading solutions being offered.
TRB organizes the Annual Meeting as one of the major thrusts in completing their mission to promote innovation and progress in transportation through research. TRB is one of six major divisions of the National Research Council -a private, nonprofit institution that is the principal operating agency of the National Academies in providing services to the government, the public and the scientific and engineering communities. TRB is supported by state transportation departments, federal agencies ( including the component administrations of the U.S. DOT), and other organizations and individuals interested in the development of transportation. As an IEEE Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow, I can speak to the remarkable respect that Congress has for TRB, as Congress looks to TRB to conduct, review and prioritize research. The federal government entrusts tens of millions of dollars to TRB each year to conduct research via such programs as the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), and the second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2). In fulfilling its mission, TRB engages more than 7,000 engineers, scientists and other transportation researchers and practitioners from the public and private sectors and academia, all of whom contribute their expertise in the public interest by participating on TRB committees, panels and task forces.
TRB is making a point to identify opportunities for collaboration across the National Academies in order to leverage the diverse expertise and talent that exist in its many branches. The IEEE community is well positioned to participate in such collaborative opportunities, and may find opportunities by engaging with TRB standing committees.
I would be remiss not to mention the change in leadership at TRB. After 30 years of exceptional service to the National Academies, Robert Skinner is retiring from the Executive Director position. Neil Pedersen is taking up the reigns as the next executive director. Pedersen brings a wealth of experience from being a research director at TRB and a leader at Maryland DOT for many years.
As with years before, the TRB Annual Meeting delivered an exceptional breadth of high-quality technical presentations, research meetings and business opportunities. The Hot Topic theme of CV/AV vehicles was especially interesting because these technologies have potential to change the way we understand mobility. I would recommend attending the TRB Annual Meeting to anyone interested in the transportation research space.
Shawn Kimmel is 2014-2015 IEEE Congressional Science and Engineering Fellow, appointed to the office of Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.-3rd).