USA Banner

Official US Government Icon

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure Site Icon

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - July/August 2017

July/August 2017
Issue No:
Vol. 81 No. 1
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

ITS Is Changing The World

by Egan Smith

Transportation is at a crossroads, and U.S. roads will never be the same again. As this technology advances, connected and automated vehicles will become a part of everyday life. Here's how it all came about.


Increasingly, transportation users and infrastructure are connected to one another wirelessly through technology. ITS is the backbone of this connected transportation infrastructure environment, which continues to evolve through the interplay of technology, industry, and government, and the ever-changing needs of transportation users. These technologies are being implemented globally to improve safety and reduce congestion and travel time.


At this moment, the Nation stands at the cusp of some of the most revolutionary changes to its transportation system in decades. Connected and automated vehicles are closer than ever to being part of the everyday world of U.S. roadway users, and decisions made regarding these and other advanced technologies could affect the future of transportation profoundly.

With the United States moving toward an intelligent and connected transportation system, come along for a few minutes to reflect on the history of the field, recognize lessons learned, identify trends and their historical implications, and acknowledge both the successes and the missteps that have led to this point in the evolution of intelligent transportation systems (ITS). These systems advance transportation safety and mobility and enhance U.S. productivity by integrating advanced communications technologies into transportation infrastructure and vehicles. For a fuller discussion, see the History of Intelligent Transportation Systems, which this article summarizes. The publication was produced by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office.

The benefits of ITS technologies are wide ranging and apply to both urban and rural populations; commuters as well as commercial truck drivers; and pedestrians, bicyclists, and users of public transportation. Building on decades of ITS research and deployments, the very near future will likely include vehicles that can talk to one another and to roadside infrastructure to avoid collisions, reduce congestion, and alleviate environmental impacts. In fact, ITS will enable automated vehicles to interact with the transportation system—a concept that has captured the human imagination for decades and is closer than ever to widespread deployment.

Already, ITS technology has had a significant effect on the current transportation environment. In fact, the Nation is now on the verge of even greater benefits and impacts due to advances in this technology. For example, research on connected vehicles indicates that vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) safety systems may cut up to 80 percent of those collisions that involve no driver impairment.

In addition, ITS technology is a key component of the movement toward connected and smart communities. Smart communities incorporate connected transportation to ensure that data, technologies, and applications—as well as connected travelers—are fully integrated with other systems across a community.

“As research, development, and deployment progress,” says Ken Leonard, director of the USDOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, “these advanced solutions will increasingly yield even more benefits—beyond safety, mobility, and an improved environment—to include overall livability.”

Roots in the Early History

In 1956, Congress passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which led to the creation of the U.S. interstate network. The 41,000-mile (66,000-kilometer) system was planned to reach every metropolitan area with a population larger than 100,000.


Shown is an aerial photograph of the I–25 cloverleaf interchange to Speer Boulevard, a principal artery to downtown Denver, CO, in 1958.


Over the ensuing decades, as speed on the interstates and congestion on urban interstates increased, so did the prevalence and severity of collisions. Safety had been a recognized automotive issue since the mid-1920s; however, government agencies did not begin setting vehicle and highway safety standards until the 1960s. Seatbelts, padded dashboards, standard bumper heights, and dual braking systems became mandatory for new cars in 1967.

The year before, on October 15, 1966, an act of Congress established the USDOT. Prior to this legislation, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Transportation administered many of the functions that are now associated with USDOT. Then the Highway Safety Act of 1970 established the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

During this early period, the roots of ITS can be seen in research initiatives and deployments undertaken by States and regions, academic institutions, and the automotive industry. Safety, decreased congestion, and improved mobility were the key driving forces.

Historically, the public sector has focused mostly on safety and environmental benefits. Private sector research and development, particularly during the early years, concentrated more on convenience and mobility. While coming at these various issues and technologies from different places, over time the two sectors have often converged in their approaches, resulting in joint projects and investments that have provided a variety of benefits.

Key Research and Technology Developments

In the 1960s, the public sector developed traffic management centers and ramp management techniques, and deployed dynamic message signs. Private manufacturers, such as General Motors through its Driver Aided Information and Routing System, conducted research on navigation and mapping techniques for motor vehicles. These efforts were followed closely, in the late 1960s, by the Electronic Route Guidance System developed by the Bureau of Public Roads (FHWA’s predecessor), which provided navigation by transmitting radio communications between vehicles and roadside units.


Seattle DOT

Integrated traffic management centers, such as the one shown here, are the center of most modern freeway management systems.


Early mobile robotics research also began in the late 1960s, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded a project at the Stanford Research Institute to create the first mobile robot with the ability to perceive and reason about its own actions. At the time, the project was considered a failure for never reaching autonomous operation; nevertheless, the work established functional and performance baselines for mobile robots. Today, the navigation, sensory, and exploration functions used by mobile robots have been transferred to connected and automated vehicles.

The 1970s were a period of refinement of the research done in the 1960s, including development of map-matching algorithms that supplemented existing technology in early navigation systems and a modest USDOT-funded research program on automated vehicle highway systems.

The 1980s

Socioeconomic Environment. Gas shortages in the 1970s led to a congressional mandate that required new vehicles to achieve a minimum number of miles per gallon in fuel efficiency. In addition, widespread concern about air pollution and the environment led Congress to start regulating automobile emissions. During the 1980s, environmental concerns became the increasing focus of transportation policy. Safety was the other major focus as 51,091 fatalities occurred on the Nation’s highways at the beginning of the decade.



In 1981, the first commercial car navigation system, the Honda Electro Gyrocator (illustrated here), was made available.


In the midst of safety and environmental concerns, technology became cheaper and smarter—and technologies supporting improved traffic management emerged. Government agencies saw new possibilities for these emerging technologies to solve the environmental and safety problems associated with transportation.

At the same time, the transportation industry recognized new highway infrastructure-based technologies as a competitive business opportunity that could add value to their products. New technological developments with direct transportation implications were emerging—microprocessors, computers, sensors, and new communications technologies.

This decade coined the phrase intelligent vehicle highway system (IVHS), which described a group of technologies (including information processing, communications, control, and electronics) that connect vehicles to infrastructure to improve the safety and efficiency of transportation systems. During this decade, no formal national IVHS program emerged. However, much of the work in the 1980s set the stage for the current and future state and evolution of ITS, and facilitated the development and implementation of advanced technologies across transportation areas in subsequent decades.

Policy and Programs. During the 1980s, USDOT funded a modest program of university and in-house research on automated vehicle highway systems. The Department’s Traffic Systems Division collaborated with several universities to conduct small-scale exploratory projects in freeway management, advanced traffic control, computer simulation, and driver information systems.

In parts of the country, pioneer applications emerged in arterial traffic control, information sharing on traffic conditions, and electronic tolling. In 1989, an advocacy group called Mobility 2000 formed to represent the new technology perspective. Mobility 2000 was essential in mobilizing support for a national IVHS effort, determining a conceptual definition for IVHS, and promoting the formation of IVHS America (now called the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, or ITS America), a Utilized Federal Advisory Committee to USDOT.

Key Research and Technology Developments. In the 1980s, the public sector developed and deployed weigh-in-motion technology. This technology enables quick identification and weighing of commercial vehicles while they are moving rather than stopped at weighing stations. Today, weigh-in-motion systems are widely used throughout the United States, saving commercial truck companies time and money, while also allowing inspectors to focus their efforts on high-risk carriers.


Key Milestones in the History of Intelligent Transportation Systems

Source: USDOT


The 1990s

Socioeconomic Environment. In 1990, rapidly improving sensing and computing technologies suggested new possibilities for a safer and more efficient transportation system. Dialogue among committed transportation champions and stakeholders brought the concept of IVHS into the mainstream of transportation policy discussions. In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) was signed into law, reauthorizing the Federal-Aid Highway Program. ISTEA made a significant public commitment to institutionalize IVHS, establishing the foundation for the Federal-aid ITS program and the public-private partnerships that have continued to this day.


This graphic shows a truck moving through a screening site with an electronic license plate reader and automated vehicle identification technology. The Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate (HELP) program has been developing a similar system that inspectors can use to screen trucks as they pull into weigh stations.


Policy and Programs. ISTEA established policies that recognized the shift in focus from the building of a surface transportation system to the operational management and maintenance of that system. With this shift, ISTEA encouraged the development and application of ITS technologies.

Also in 1991, USDOT established the IVHS Joint Program Office (JPO) to coordinate intermodal policy in the implementation of the IVHS program. With policy direction from the Office of the Secretary and modal administrators, USDOT located the IVHS JPO within FHWA. In fall 1994, USDOT renamed the national IVHS program as the ITS Joint Program Office to clarify the multimodal intent.

During the 1990s, one key activity of the ITS JPO was to establish a standards program to encourage the widespread use of ITS technologies in the Nation’s surface transportation systems. These standards define how intelligent transportation components and systems interconnect and exchange information to deliver ITS services within a multimodal network. The consistent and widespread use of ITS standards will permit the sharing of data and information among public agencies and private organizations. Currently, nearly 100 standards have been published and are ready to use in ITS deployments.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), passed in 1997, retained ISTEA’s essential features while boosting investments in highway construction. TEA-21 transformed USDOT’s ITS program from a moderate research program to one that both researches and deploys ITS technologies.

Today, ITS research and deployment focuses heavily on connected and automated vehicles. This focus is rooted in a range of activities that occurred in the mid-1990s:

  • ISTEA mandated the development of an automated highway system to serve as the prototype for a fully automated IVHS in the future. USDOT carried out this ambitious program by sponsoring a competitive process to form the National Automated Highway System Consortium in late 1994. The consortium’s work culminated in Demo ’97, where more than 20 fully automated vehicles operated on I–15 in San Diego, CA. This project is an important ancestor of today’s focus on automated and connected vehicles.
  • Another key step toward making connected and automated vehicles a reality was a proposal by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate 75 megahertz of spectrum for transportation services that improve highway safety and efficiency. The FCC allocated the 5.850- to 5.925-gigahertz band for a variety of dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) used as part of the national ITS program. DSRC systems provide a wireless link to transfer information between vehicles and roadside systems. The allocation of bandwidth for DSRC catalyzed the ITS JPO’s focus on connected vehicle research. DSRC is essential in many present-day research initiatives with the goals of improving traveler safety, decreasing traffic congestion, and facilitating environmental benefits, such as the reduction of air pollution and increased fuel efficiency.

Key Research and Technology Developments. Electronic toll collection, a system that debits registered car owners’ accounts electronically without requiring them to stop, was introduced in Europe in the late 1980s. The United States followed suit shortly after. In 1991, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority’s Pikepass became the first electronic toll collection system in the United States. Since then, electronic tolling has become widespread across the country, saving drivers time and decreasing congestion near toll plazas. The systems also can help decrease emissions and provide savings in equipment, annual operations, and maintenance costs.

The global positioning system (GPS), a network of satellites that beam down signals to GPS receivers, was developed originally during the Cold War for military and intelligence purposes. Only in the 1980s, however, was GPS released for use in civilian applications; then it became more readily available and affordable in the 1990s. Its more widespread availability and use opened up possibilities for data communications between equipped vehicles and transportation management centers, enabling a future of improved transportation management and efficiency.


Fletcher6, Wikimedia Commons

The E-ZPass lane shown here is an electronic toll collection system, which saves drivers time, reduces pollution, and costs less to operate and maintain than manual and coin tollbooths.


Today, millions of users rely on GPS to navigate with great accuracy, whether on land, in the air, or at sea. Drivers can use in-vehicle portable navigation devices to determine the most efficient routes, find detours around traffic, and even receive traffic alerts or warnings regarding the locations of various safety cameras, such as fixed and red-light speed cameras. GPS is an essential element in the future of ITS because it offers increased efficiencies and safety on highways, streets, and mass transit systems. Many new capabilities are possible because of GPS, such as carpools that enable riders to be matched instantly with a nearby vehicle.

The first speed cameras were introduced in the United States in Paradise Valley, AZ. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, increasing numbers of State and local jurisdictions adopted speed cameras. Their use is now widespread throughout many parts of the United States, and research consistently demonstrates that this technology has positive safety benefits.

The 2000s

Socioeconomic Environment. The first decade of the 21st century saw significant growth in communication technologies. Cellular technology spread, and the number and speed of Wi-Fi networks grew immensely. Cloud technology became more prevalent during this decade. The term “the cloud” first popped up in technology circles in the mid-1990s to describe a third-party system that houses digital information on remote servers. However, during the 2000s, cloud computing became more streamlined, widespread, and affordable, enabling the collection and analysis of significantly larger datasets.


© John A. Rizzo,

This man in a wheelchair is able to access a public bus thanks to the Mobility Services for All Americans initiative. Launched by ITS JPO, the initiative is a coordinated effort to apply technological solutions to barriers to accessibility and mobility for the transportation disadvantaged.


Technological innovations that occurred during this decade have propelled ITS forward by assessing demand, automating and connecting technologies, and increasing opportunities for travelers along the entire trip chain to gather transportation information through social networking and smartphone applications.

Policy and Programs. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) was signed into law in 2005. SAFETEA-LU affirmed the growing return on ITS investment and contained provisions to embed ITS into the mainstream of transportation planning and deployment processes, and to increase general awareness of improved operations brought about by the adoption of ITS applications.

In 2003, USDOT launched the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration project, whose mission was to use wireless communications between vehicles to achieve dramatic safety and mobility improvements. In 2006, USDOT collaborated with the Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership (CAMP) to develop and test prototype V2V safety applications. Sound, robust data, such as that generated from CAMP’s research, was required for NHTSA to make an informed decision on the future of V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) safety communications systems. The empirical data that this effort produced was critical to supporting NHTSA’s decision to go forward with vehicle communications for safety.

An executive order established the Mobility Services for All Americans (MSAA) initiative in 2005. The aim was to improve transportation services and access to employment, healthcare, education, and other community activities through a coordinated effort enabled by various ITS technologies and applications. The MSAA initiative was built on several past and current USDOT-led activities to increase mobility and accessibility for the transportation disadvantaged and for the rest of the public, and to achieve more efficient use of Federal funding resources through technology integration and service coordination.

In 2008, the ITS World Congress in New York featured two test beds that demonstrated the integration of vehicle and infrastructure technologies. Applications included travel time information, intersection safety, transit signal priority, congestion pricing, electronic toll collection, and emergency vehicle preemption.

Key Research and Technology Developments. USDOT’s Intelligent Vehicle Initiative, established in 1998, aimed to help reduce the number and severity of U.S. highway crashes through the development and commercialization of assistance products that warn drivers of dangerous situations, recommend actions, and even assume partial control of vehicles to avoid collisions. Also, USDOT established the Integrated Vehicle-Based Safety Systems (IVBSS) initiative to develop and test integrated safety systems on both light vehicles and commercial trucks through partnerships with private vehicle industries. Under the IVBSS initiative, in 2005, USDOT entered into a cooperative research agreement with a private consortium to build and test integrated safety systems designed to prevent rear-end, lane change, and run-off-road crashes. This initiative directly led to the collision warning and driver assistance systems that appear today on a wide range of vehicles. These features include lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring, and collision avoidance systems. Beginning around 2007, manufacturers introduced the features on luxury cars and have now expanded to mainstream vehicles. In 2014, based on the promising results of this research, NHTSA mandated rearview video systems, also known as back-up cameras in all vehicles built starting in May 2018.

In 1999, USDOT petitioned the FCC to designate a nationwide three-digit telephone number for traveler information. On July 21, 2000, the FCC designated 511 as the single traffic information telephone number to be made available to States and local jurisdictions across the country. In the first 5 years after 511 was launched, more than 50 million 511 calls were made. The unexpected invention and growth of smartphones and traveler information apps eventually inhibited the relevance and long-term popularity of 511. However, the 511 coalition was categorically successful in encouraging States to establish collaborative working relationships with an eye toward technology deployment.



This roadside sign advertises the availability of 511 traveler information services.


Although high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes were introduced in the United States as early as the 1970s, the SAFETEA-LU law of 2005 mainstreamed the authority to create HOV lanes, with the primary purpose of increasing the total number of people moved through congested corridors. Since then, HOV lanes have become more widespread across the country. Today, there are nearly two dozen States that have some type of HOV, high-occupancy toll, or express lanes, many of which use some type of electronic toll collection for users.

The Present Day (After 2010)

Socioeconomic Environment. A variety of forces have shaped the present state of ITS technology. The economic downturn in the 2000s focused increased attention on making the most efficient use of the highway system and vehicle fleet. At the same time, communications and information technology evolved at a rapid rate. These factors ultimately led to innovative research initiatives and an explosion of new transportation apps.

Increasingly, ITS applications are considered in two contexts—for automated purposes or for connected vehicle purposes, or both. Automated vehicles are those in which at least some aspect of a safety-critical control function (for example, steering, throttle, or braking) occurs without direct driver input. Automated vehicles may be autonomous (that is, use only vehicle sensors) or may be connected. Connected vehicles use wireless technology to connect vehicle information and location to other vehicles (V2V), to infrastructure (V2I), or to other modes, such as internet clouds, pedestrians, and bicyclists (V2X). The wireless technology typically used for connected vehicles is DSRC, but some functions may use cellular or other types of communications.

Policy and Programs. In July 2012, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) was signed into law. MAP-21 funded surface transportation programs at more than $105 billion for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, and created a performance-based surface transportation program. In addition, MAP-21 continued support for ITS by restoring its research budget to $100 million per year and establishing the Technology and Innovation Deployment Program for $62.5 million per year. Finally, MAP-21 changed the focus of ITS activities by directing the Secretary of Transportation to encourage deployment of ITS technologies that will improve the performance of the national highway system.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed into law in December 2015, continues the ITS program’s emphasis on research, development, and operational testing of ITS aimed at solving congestion and safety problems, improving operating efficiencies in transit and commercial vehicles, and reducing the environmental impact of growing travel demand. Guided by the 5-year ITS strategic plan required by the FAST Act, the program currently focuses on significantly reducing crashes through advanced safety systems based on interoperable wireless communications among surface transportation vehicles of all types, traffic signals, other infrastructure systems, pedestrians, wireless devices, and automated vehicle systems.

The FAST Act contains many provisions to encourage innovation and accelerate the research and deployment of ITS technology, with an expanded role to enhance the national freight system and assist in developing cybersecurity standards.



Automated vehicles will enable drivers to become passengers and engage in other activities while commuting, such as reading or catching up on work assignments.


In 2011, USDOT held the first public connected vehicle demonstration at the 18th ITS World Congress in Orlando, FL. This demonstration was followed by the 2012–2013 Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment in Ann Arbor, MI. This real-world test of connected vehicle technology included more than 2,700 participating vehicles using wireless safety technology to help everyday drivers avoid crashes as they traveled along their normal routes. After analyzing data from the pilot program, NHTSA estimated that V2V technology could prevent more than half a million crashes and save more than 1,000 lives each year if implemented across the United States. This success prompted further USDOT actions and decisions. In December 2016, NHTSA released a notice of proposed rulemaking to enable V2V communications technology on all new light-duty vehicles.

Key Research and Technology Developments. Beginning around 2010, crowdsourcing commercial applications based on geolocation and cell phones, such as Waze and Uber, became available. These apps are influencing the ITS market and are part of a larger trend of shared mobility.

In recent years, both privately and publicly funded automated vehicle research and development have been moving swiftly forward. Private companies investing in automation technologies vary greatly in both their background and their approach to automation. In the race to automation, traditional automobile companies are joined by tech giants like Google and Apple and less traditional auto companies like Tesla.

Successful integration of these technologies depends on partnerships with multiple stakeholders, including these private companies, as well as research and academic institutions.

The Future

Technology has changed just about every aspect of Americans’ day-to-day lives—including how they do business, keep up with current events, and connect with friends and family. Although billions of devices are now connected to wireless networks, the industry is still just scratching the surface of what is possible. In the future, widespread deployment of connected vehicles will increase traveler safety, while alleviating congestion issues. Partially and fully automated vehicles will become available to the public, further increasing mobility for road users. Furthermore, ITS technology applications, such as traveler information or traffic and demand management, will decrease burdens on roadways.

USDOT seeks to spur adoption of technology and help stakeholders and localities deploy maturing ITS systems. In 2015, USDOT awarded funding to the New York City Department of Transportation, Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, and Wyoming/ICF for pilots of next-generation connected vehicle technology. The three sites have developed comprehensive deployment plans and are going through a design-build-test phase before running an operational environment. The pilots are expected to be operational by the end of 2018.

In 2016, Columbus, OH, won USDOT’s Smart City Challenge, a national competition to implement bold, data-driven ideas that demonstrate the use of advanced data systems and ITS to make transportation safer, easier, and more reliable. As the winner of the challenge, Columbus will receive up to $40 million from USDOT to demonstrate innovative ways to connect cities and their cars and streets using advanced technologies. SmartColumbus is expected to be operational in 2019.

“The future of ITS will not be a one-size-fits-all solution,” says USDOT’s Leonard. “Transportation systems will need to be interoperable and yet allow local communities to tailor the service and applications capabilities they deploy to solve regional and local issues.”

Egan Smith is the managing director of the ITS JPO. He has decades of professional experience in ITS and transportation management and planning. Smith is a registered professional engineer, professional traffic operations engineer, and professional transportation planner. He has a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering from the University of the West Indies, a master of engineering degree in traffic engineering and operations research from Howard University, and a master of science degree in technology management from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.

For a more detailed report on ITS history, visit http// or contact Mike Pina at 202–366–3700 or