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Public Roads - May/June 1998

The ITS Joint Program Office: Structuring The Future

On April 21, 1998, Dr. Christine Johnson, director of the Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (JPO) was interviewed by Bob Bryant, editor of Public Roads.

Public Roads: From the perspective of JPO, what have been the most significant developments in ITS [intelligent transportation systems] over the past year - since the AHS [Automated Highway System] Demonstration in August?

Christine Johnson:

I'm going to categorize the answers into the four program areas. In the vehicular area, as you mentioned, we had a dramatic demonstration of hands-off, feet-off driving with the automated highway system. But more importantly, the AHS demonstrated the technical capability for road-to-vehicle communications. What many people don't know is that, resulting from the demonstration, we began to understand that there are some near-term payoffs for these types of technologies in snow plowing, bus operations, and even commercial vehicles. From that point, we said, "This is a possible future. What does it take to get there?" We began to understand that a more evolutionary approach to these types of technologies needs to be in place to get to that future, including a future that has a safer vehicle. So we said, "Let's combine our forces and launch an intelligent vehicle initiative [IVI]." We now have the management for the IVI in place. It is a brand new approach within DOT [Department of Transportation]; it is co-managed out of NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] and FHWA [Federal Highway Administration], and involves three administrations: FTA [Federal Transit Administration], FHWA, and NHTSA. We are working on multiple platforms - meaning a light vehicle, bus, or truck - and working in partnership with industry to test and evaluate applicable technologies. That process is going on now, and hopefully in the fall, we'll be out with a request for collaboration with industry.

cjohnsonDr. Christine Johnson has been the director of the Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Project Office since 1994. Before coming to DOT, Dr. Johnson was vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff in New York City. From 1990-1993, she was assistant commissioner of policy and planning for New Jersey DOT and she served in several key positions of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 1984 to 1990.

If we move over to the rural arena, I think the infrastructure side is probably where there is the greatest amount of excitement in terms of possibilities. The possibilities are really opening up, and we've awarded some rural operational tests. But probably more importantly, work is going on - totally outside of the ITS program - that is defining the rural landscape for ITS applications. An example is the software architecture that Arizona is making available to other states. It is essentially a statewide software communications system that can integrate O&M [operations and maintenance] functions, as well as road closures, weather, tourism, and traffic information - functions that you probably want information on for yourself and would be great to communicate to the public. So right now, we are in the process of trying to incorporate all of the information we have, from both inside and outside the programs, to define a rural architecture - one that we can recommend with confidence for states to pursue.

Moving over to the metropolitan arena, I think some of the significant accomplishments have been getting a good curriculum in place for training. We also now have several guidance documents available - with more to come. And on the metropolitan side, more than any other place in the program, we are ready to push the leadership of this effort outside the beltway - into the field - and we're beginning to develop the mechanism to do that. We also have the model deployments gearing up and moving into operation, which is a significant development. Essentially, these are three of our strategies for achieving integration: demonstration, training and guidance. Developing standards is another; we should have about 30 draft standards by the end of next year. And then, if we get the legislation [a comprehensive highway bill in 1998], there will be an incentives pot for integrating legacy systems and a policy for architectural consistency [consistency with the National ITS Architecture] of new purchases.

In the commercial vehicle world, we are in the process of finishing up the CVISN [Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks] architecture and developing prototype demonstrations of it in both Virginia and Maryland. And what we see coming down the line is expanding that to about a six- or seven-state network within the next year or so. Ultimately, within five years, we'd like to have about a 20-state network; that's our long-term goal.

johnson2Two big policy items are a focus for us this year. The first is architectural consistency, which we've been out talking about all across the country. Surprisingly, it's been relatively well-received as a sensible approach to ITS planning. It's going to require our field to have a good understanding of [ITS] architecture and to be able to provide support to their partners in developing their own vision of a regional architecture consistent with the National ITS Architecture. Then, sort of coming on the heels of architecture consistency are standards. We're engaged in an active discussion right now on the best way to develop a policy that ensures consistency with national ITS standards.

PR: In the past year or so, has there been any revision in the focus of your effort in JPO?

CJ: We developed for each of the program areas a five-year road map that answers the questions: "Where are we today? Where do we want to be five years from now? And what are the principal means of getting there?" And I'd say that's more a relook at program strategy.

PR: So it's really not a change of vision. It's a change of strategy.

CJ: We've come this far in five years, and we're looking forward toward the next five years. I think the most important things we've developed are some concrete statements of what we want to shoot for within each program area. We want several dozen cities with evidence of integration; a dozen or so states with a statewide rural architecture in place; and 20 states with CVISN in place. So, with some definite targets in mind, we're marching every day, every year, toward these goals.


PR: Could you discuss the road maps a bit more - the focus, some of the near-term objectives, and some of the longer term objectives?

CJ: Let's take the metropolitan one. We've said that in the next five years, we want to see evidence of integration in several dozen metropolitan areas. From a federal perspective, the key way that we can make a difference is to be a catalyst for integration. And so, [to develop the road map] we step back. If integration is what we want, we need to ask ourselves, "What tools do we have now, and what else do we need to do?" We have lots of documents with guidance. We have a good foundation for training. We have policy for architectural consistency. And, we have standards coming online. We have each of these tools in place. Now the issue is making the link to where the delivery is really going to happen - and that's at the field level. How do we bring this host of tools and support to the field and our partners so that the end result is an integrated system? We're looking at a set of tailored service plans that, potentially, our field organization will put together. And we're looking at sending some of the money that we normally have been using at headquarters out to empower our field staff with the resources they need to begin providing the kind of custom-tailored technical assistance they feel they need to provide.

PR: How does the reauthorization legislation affect the ITS program, especially the preliminary work that's already been done?

CJ: Well, the structure in both the House and the Senate is a two-part structure. One is research, and the other is deployment incentives. That's new. Hopefully, what we'll be seeing is funding made available to help people over the hurdle of integrating their legacy systems in metropolitan areas, let's say. If communities are willing to come to an agreement on a regional ITS vision or a regional architecture, then we would provide the funds to help bridge those systems - to integrate those legacy systems. Deployment incentives would also provide funding to implement CVISN and funding to begin experimenting all across the U.S. with rural applications. I anticipate a real explosion of innovation in the rural arena. On the research side, the size of the research pot is open to question. If it is a small pot, I don't think you're going to see much change. We will simply use those funds to focus on finishing up standards, continuing to carry out the crash-avoidance program - that type of thing. If it's the kind of research program that we've envisioned, our hope is to make a major investment in the intelligent vehicle initiative. Just as we have done a lot of research on the infrastructure side, we would now complement that with a major investment on the vehicle side.

PR: Speaking of crash-avoidance, which is primarily a NHTSA function, how do you develop a joint ITS program that gets DOT's modal agencies to work in sync with one another?

CJ: I'm proud [of our joint program]! And I think we have pioneered something great with the management of the intelligent vehicle initiative. In the past, Turner-Fairbank [FHWA's research center] was doing its human factors and its AHS programs. NHTSA was doing its thing. The fact is, safety in the driving experience involves a unique combination of the road, the vehicle, and the driver. You can't divorce them. We now have the opportunity to bring those interests together and to look at the whole and ask what can technology add to make the driving experience safer - whether it's in the infrastructure, the vehicle, or the human factor and how the human interacts with technology.

PR: What really excites you about the future of ITS?

CJ: ITS is an enabling infrastructure to carry out operations. We have been primarily a capital-driven industry that is oriented toward building rail, building highways, and building streets. Then people just use them; they're just out there. ITS is going to bring us into the retail business in that we now have an infrastructure that allows us to manage our highways and transit. Someone will be able to call, if there's a problem, 24 hours a day. Right now, who does one call to fix operational problems? There's no one to call. Operators are not open in the evening. ITS is going to assist in operations - not only transit and traffic operations, but operations for solving weather problems, operations for highway maintenance, and operations for planning. A whole dimension is opening up in terms of operations planning. It's a short-term process of getting an integrated ITS infrastructure, which will then enable a brand new operations and management mission for FHWA, for our state partners, and for our local partners.

demo97PR: What do you see for the future of DOT's relationship with the professional and industrial organizations, such as ITS America? How significant is a continuing partnership with these organizations?

CJ: I think partnership with ITS America is just as important as continuing to partner with the asphalt and concrete industry. Part of our business now is going to ride on communications and information. This industry is going to become a new partner, just as we have had relationships with the asphalt industry and the concrete industry and the construction industry. We need to maintain a relationship with all of them.

PR: How will JPO stay ahead of the power curve and play a roll in this development? How do you keep up with all of the different developments?

CJ: It's a challenge! We should take a look back in history. How did we keep up when the interstate was being developed? I go back to that era when we had to develop the technical engineering capacity within each of the states. The logistics of that were phenomenal. We did it! We can do this too, but it takes a will to do it. And part of it is setting concrete goals and staying aware of what's going on in the developing world of information and communications systems. Keeping up also requires us to constantly keep asking the strategic questions: "Are the goals still valid relative to what is happening in the changing world around us? Are there new approaches that could help us get there faster, or do they change our course?" It's a combination of scanning and strategic planning - and not being confused. We could just keep up and keep up and keep up and never accomplish anything. We must set some goals and stay on target until we have valid information that would say they are no longer goals that we should pursue.

PR: How do you see the federal role developing over the next couple of years.

CJ: We will move from the role of being an architect and a leader to a role of technology transfer, of guidance, of help, and of bringing resources - resources meaning the how-to-do-it resources - to the field, where the electrons meet the wire. It's the process of having established a course through leadership and hopefully setting the broad blueprints that is important from a national perspective. We must recognize when the blueprints and resources are in place and be willing to back away and say we've done enough. Everything else has to be done at the local level. And then, our role becomes one of technology transfer. To me, that's the exciting thing - the thing I would look to if I were in the field. This is a whole new field in transportation. It's a whole new discipline to take on, to learn about, to become expert in, because it's needed. Our partners really need this kind of expertise, and they will turn to us first if we have it. Now if we're not there with the expertise, there are many others who will want to offer it to them.

PR: Who do you mean by others?

CJ: Universities, federal labs, consultants, all the ten thousand places one can turn. My experience in a state organization and what I know today is that there will be a tendency to turn first to FHWA's division office in the state. Our challenge is to be there for them and help prepare them.

PR: Is there anything you'd like to talk about?

CJ: There is one more piece I'd like to convey. There is a natural tendency for folks when they first encounter ITS to say: "Oh gee, it has so many acronyms. And you changed the acronyms from the last time. And why don't you use the words we're familiar with?" We're doing a lot to try to listen, to find the right vocabulary, and the right messages. But, part of what's happening is that we're all going to become students of the information revolution. And becoming a student takes a certain amount of humility; willingness to fail; willingness to say, "I don't know; I didn't get it the first time." And then you may go back and pick up the literature and stare at it and still say, "This doesn't make any sense at all. What are they talking about?" But eventually, you'll catch on. It's an attitude of willingness to learn and willingness to be a fish out of water for a while until you can swim. I'd like to acknowledge that this is a process that is going on, and we are going to feel uncomfortable as we take on this discipline within FHWA and FTA. But let's tolerate the discomfort and be students again - willing to fail and have fun.