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Boston Conference: Advancing Future Transportation with Breakthrough Innovations - Summary Report

FHWA Advanced Research Forum
Seaport Hotel and Trade Center
Boston MA,
July 12-13, 2005


Advanced Research Topics

Presentations and Discussions

Closing Discussion

General Observations

1.0 Overview

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) invited a group of stakeholders involved in the future of transportation to a 1.5-day think tank forum, the first of three to be held in 2005. The U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Volpe Center and futurist Glen Hiemstra of provided planning support for the forum. The intent of the forums was to seek ideas to help FHWA establish a strategic agenda for advanced research.

FHWA held the first forum at the Seaport Hotel and Seaport World Trade Center in Boston, MA, in conjunction with the Transportation Research Board (TRB) summer meetings. Approximately 40 participants and expert speakers gathered for this interactive event. Through a series of structured presentations and discussions, the participants explored issues impacting the future of transportation and identified advanced research needs. Then, using a modified version of the nominal group technique (a methodology for maximizing and equalizing individual input within a group process) for group decisionmaking, the participants developed a list of suggested research topics and ranked the priority items.

This summary first lists the outcome of the participants' decisionmaking process and then provides a brief summary of the presentations and discussions that preceded the decisions. Finally, a few comments relevant to the design of the next forums will be made. A summary CD-ROM also is available and includes additional items, such as the meeting agenda, participant list, presentations, and photos taken at the forum.

1.1 Forum Purposes

1. Scan across disciplines, inside and outside the transportation system, to search for promising research and technology that could fundamentally improve the future transportation system and services.

2. Develop a set of recommended areas, topics, or questions for consideration as part of a strategic agenda for advanced research.

2.0 Recommended Advanced Research Agenda Topics

During the Boston forum, participants convened in four groups and worked together to recommend a set of topics or arenas for advanced research. These topics are listed below in decreasing order with the topics at the top receiving the most number of votes.

  • Study the fundamental interactions between humans, vehicles, and infrastructure.
  • Develop and validate comprehensive models of transportation as a CLIOS--a complex, large-scale, interconnected, open, sociotechnical system.
  • Develop the ability to price intermodal networks.
  • Develop enabling technologies such as sensors, simulations, and models.
  • Study the impact of externalities.
  • Investigate viable replacements for the automobile.
  • Understand user receptivity to transportation system changes.
  • Study the evolving transportation needs of demographic cohorts.
  • Develop organizational innovations.
  • Create three-dimensional experiences of transportation events via simulations.
  • Research intelligent infrastructure.
  • Expand international partnerships.
  • Develop regionally scaled institutional design.

3.0 Summary of Presentations and Discussion

A series of presentations by leading transportation experts set the stage for participant discussions. Each presentation is included on the Summary CD-ROM as Microsoft®PowerPoint® slides in Adobe® Acrobat® Portable Document Format (PDF).

3.1 Forum Welcome and Introduction

Dennis Judycki, FHWA's Associate Administrator for Research, Development, and Technology, personally welcomed the attendees and provided background on the advanced research initiative. The FHWA mission includes enhancing mobility through innovation, leadership, and public service. Research and technology activities at FHWA cover many aspects of the innovation process, including development and deployment of new products and services, education, and training. This workshop was the first of three to be held this year; the second was held in Minnesota in September, and the third in California in October. TRB's Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) was briefed on the outcomes of the three advanced research workshops on November 1-2, 2005.

As part of Associate Administrator Judycki's welcome, a video presentation was shown featuring FHWA Acting Administrator J. Richard Capka. The video emphasized the value of the forum activity to FHWA and stressed the need to (1) raise awareness of what is going on in advanced research and (2) reward partnerships with funding.

Associate Administrator Judycki emphasized FHWA's interest in enabling innovations for a better transportation future. He also defined advanced research as exploratory research that draws on basic research to provide a better understanding of phenomena and to develop innovative solutions. He hoped that these forums would identify advanced research theme clusters, with an emphasis on higher risk and long-term issues.

3.2 Table Exercise: What is Your Image of the Future?

What words or pictures come to mind when thinking about the future? This warmup exercise worked with the idea that participants' images of the future play a powerful role in shaping present actions. Change the image of the future, and one begins to change behavior in the present day. Individuals at tables shared their images of the future, and examples were cited for everyone to hear. Sample images of the future articulated by participants include:

  • The future will be crowded and possibly unpleasantly crowded.
  • The future will be complex, but not necessarily complicated.
  • More information will give us more choices to maximize mobility.
  • There will be better materials for infrastructure.
  • There will be uncertainty about what the next generation of fuel or the state of the environment.
  • A world of alternative fuels.
  • A world with no personal drivers.
  • Greater use of wireless communication and ergonomically designed technologies.
  • The transportation system will be "weatherproofed".
  • Scenario planning will dramatically increase and enhance our ability to deal with new and emerging technologies and circumstances.
  • Transportation will be secure, sustainable, and mostly automated.
  • The future will have its share of uncertainty and chaos. We will still not have figured out how to coordinate the multiplicity of institutions involved with transportation. Institutional barriers will continue.

3.3 Presentations: The World and Transportation in 2050

In two presentations, Mark Safford from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center and Glen Hiemstra reviewed future demographic, socioeconomic, energy and environment, and technology global trends that could potentially impact the future of transportation. These presentations provided a framework and context for envisioning probable, possible, and desirable futures and for feedback in group discussions.

3.4 Breakthrough Innovation Expert Roundtables: Table Discussions

Following each round of speakers, table groups discussed their impressions, and then general comments were made to the whole group.

The following is a list of some of the participants' comments following presentations by Tom Sheridan, Senior Transportation Fellow in Human Systems at the Volpe Center and Ford Professor of Engineering and Applied Psychology Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Professor Joseph Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab and of University Transportation Center-Region 1 on evolving demographics, aging, and human factors in transportation:

  • Do not just build a "thing" - build a relationship between the "thing" and the person.
  • Computer control is here and happening.
  • Without tighter controls over qualifying and training drivers (as with airplane pilots), we cannot expect them to perform better than they do today.
  • Driverless automation systems can be monitored centrally. Humans, however, are poor monitors of automation, and therefore, less likely to detect a problem in time to take over control of a system.
  • An increasing body of evidence is demonstrating the role of cognitive distraction in crashes. This means, for example, that hands-free cell phones are not the answer because the conversation itself is still distracting.
  • Actual crashes are relatively rare; there are many more close calls or near misses. Studying these close calls can be productive.
  • Technology is going too fast; political science and social science are not keeping pace.
  • Insurance companies are forcing technology to meet the social/political sciences head on. Canada, for example, is investing in highway safety, but the government owns the insurance companies.
  • We should properly study critical dynamic driving decisions with "moving [motion]-based, human-in-the-loop simulators" using a new approach of combining computer-generated virtual reality with reality called "augmented reality."
  • Age by itself does not cause crashes, but health issues related to aging do.
  • Surveys by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) show that very little is being done or planned for aging populations in the field of transportation, even though transportation issues are high priorities for many people.
  • The only event that typically pushes the solution to such a problem/issue (e.g., age-related crashes) is a disaster.
  • We do not have the information we need to solve problems. We need to do our homework and get necessary information.
  • There are no statutory regulations and/or money for the MPOs to do anything on this topic.
  • Perhaps resources should be focused on where naturally occurring retirement communities will be.
  • FHWA should act as a clearinghouse for needed information and for what is being done. FHWA should then identify gaps and develop a roadmap(s) for what is needed.

The following is a list of some of the participants' comments following presentations by Director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems at New York University Rae Zimmerman and Duquesne Light Professor and Chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University Chris T. Hendrickson on future threats to transportation and on green design:

  • We need to increase telecommuting and make it culturally acceptable.
  • How do we decentralize public transportation?
  • Some transportation objectives are inherently in conflict; we need to define critical elements to determine solutions.
  • Transportation is comparable to the Internet; we need redundancy and diversity.
  • Better information on travel choices also is necessary so people can make better and more informed decisions.
  • We do not understand, nor do we consider interdependencies; we need one entity to do this because what is being done now is fragmented into separate segments.
  • The objective is complicated when taken as a whole with all its nuances, but it is actually pretty simple. We need to enhance our ability to perform large-scale system assessments that incorporate multiple goals and objectives. We also should improve our knowledge of the underlying laws of complex systems, such as transportation systems.
  • We also must apply the life cycle approach to other key sectors of the economy.
  • The U.S. Congress killed the Office of Technology Assessment because the office was looking at systems too broadly, which is exactly what we seem to be moving to here.
  • Several improvements currently are technologically possible, but perhaps not practical or feasible from a public policy perspective. We need a public policy approach from the top down that can reconcile divergent issues and viewpoints.

The following is a list of some of the participants' comments that followed presentations by MIT Professor Joseph Sussman and Boston University Professor and Director of the Center for Transportation Studies T.R. Lakshmanan on intelligent transportation systems and technological innovations in the 21st century:

  • We must consider social aspects and individual choices when thinking of future transportation systems.
  • Privatization needs overall coordination or it can collapse.
  • The market can take care of some priced externalities, but not all of them. We, therefore, need institutional changes in the way we think about and do transportation.
  • We have not made a distinction between transporting people and transporting goods; they are very different and the criteria for each are very different. We have been able to automate moving freight, but not moving people. We need to try to apply more technologies and more innovation to moving people.
  • Congestion pricing encourages sprawl.
  • Are there any countries that have a broad-based research program? Yes, there are. Each nation develops a research agenda that mirrors its own conditions and experience. However, there is a tendency in most nations to use their research agenda to support their strongest transportation-related industries.
  • There are three phases of innovation. In the third phase, the core system adapts around the innovation to make the system operate more effectively. This is happening now with transportation adapting around the latest information and communications technologies.
  • We must look at how others do things, but keep in mind that cultural differences restrict what works where.

3.5 Partnership Panel Presentations

A panel hosted by Professor C. Michael Walton from the University of Texas at Austin examined the important role of partnerships in undertaking advanced research for breakthrough innovations. Discussion afterward focused on several issues, including the earmarking of funds is an impediment to partnerships.

When research centers develop specific partnerships with universities, both partners get what they want.

Can the TRB Innovations Deserving Exploratory Analysis (IDEA) program address broader issues than just the technology? IDEA people are not usually policy people. The technology is easier to "get around."

3.6 Closing Discussion Highlights

The think tanks led to several revelations. First, there was a sense that the think tank process and outcomes emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the forums. The discussions were customer-oriented rather than technology-focused, and service-orientedrather than infrastructure-oriented. Because transportation issues are extremely complex, solutions will require public-private collaborations. Associate Administrator Judycki made several observations:

  • Partnerships are important.
  • There is an opportunity to take the research agenda beyond FHWA's core mission.
  • We need to find out what is out there already and what is underway, and then identify and fill the gaps in that picture. Fortunately, FHWA has developed 60 R&T roadmaps to assist with this effort.
  • Eighty percent of the $30 billion per year spent from the Highway Trust Fund is on infrastructure and operations, yet many of the ideas discussed at the workshop transcend these areas.
  • What is the best way for us to take this to the next step?

Priscilla Nelson noted that the new pressures on transportation include aging, human factors, information overload, and the rapidity of technology change. She asked, "What are the things we cannot ignore any longer?" and stated that "if technological change is driving things, we need to catch up with them." Sussman argued that we are adding to and expanding our concept of "transportation" beyond vehicles and infrastructure to include externalities, institutions, and methods.

Walton wondered, "How do you put all of this in context?" Walton suggested that we think of an overarching process to bring this into focus, such as the Shell scenario-planning model. He argued for performing sensitivity testing of the interrelationships using that methodology.

Associate Administrator Judycki responded that he sees it as a peer process. Scenario planning might work. Advanced research does not have a fixed future time frame. We also want to "pick the low-hanging fruit." FHWA would have to hand off research and development (R&D) in some areas, such as vehicles and fuels, to someone else.

TRB's Director of Special Programs Neil Hawks suggested that the timeframe for advanced research should extend beyond the next 5 years: "The nearest we should be thinking is 50 years!" He noted that even the relatively simple Superpave® program took 20 years to implement from needs identification to completed implementation. Sussman added that Superpave was not an advanced research topic, yet it took a long time to develop and deploy.

Professor William "Bill" Moomaw, senior director of the Tufts Institute of the Environment, noted that the process of disseminating new technologies is accelerating. The next generation of advances will spread even faster. Sheridan asked how much time and money it would take to get to a new innovation, and how much better off would we be because of it? Getting those answers is not easy, but it is the way to determine whether to pursue the innovation. Moomaw added that in the past, we did not consider the consequences to others of what we do, but now equity requires such consideration. In a closing comment, Thomas E. Marchessault of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration suggested that "safety" is missing as a separate item on our final list of research agenda items. Other participants agreed that the master list of topics does substantially contribute to improved safety.

4.0 General Observations

There was an apparent consensus on the observation that technology was not the limiting factor in improving transportation. Instead, the limiting factors are the institutional structures and a lack of coherent mechanisms that enable various key players to work together smoothly. Thus, the group needs to focus as much on the institutional and policy considerations as on hardware. In particular, the group needs to improve its ability to facilitate the successful deployment of technology improvements into transportation.

The participants' comments reflected a mixture of both optimism about the future and concern that we may not find it possible to make the changes needed to ensure that transportation improvements continue. Other concerns included the inability to make the necessary institutional improvements and policy changes; being overwhelmed by environmental concerns; uncertainty over transportation's energy sources in the future; and continuing to "muddle along" without a sustained or focused improvement campaign.

The choice of specific workshop speakers and topics may have limited the potential list of advanced research agenda items by giving those topics an advantage in people's minds. This is a good reason for including presenters and topics from other areas in the Minnesota and California workshops. For example, physical infrastructure research and technology was underrepresented at the Boston workshop.

The recommended research topics produced in this session tended to emphasize systems research and integration. Future forums will be asked to translate research areas into more specific questions and to match research areas to the five-point set of strategic priorities for FHWA's advanced research:

  • Human performance and safety.
  • Physical performance and infrastructure.
  • Technical performance and mobility.
  • Energy and environmental sustainability.
  • Institutional performance.

The next two forums will benefit from more interaction time for fleshing out and sharpening research recommendations. These recommendations should suggest more specific research topics and questions rather than only broad categories. A greater emphasis on breakthrough innovations also should be encouraged.

This summary report was prepared by Glen Hiemstra,; Mark Safford, Judith Yahoodik, and Aviva Brecher, Volpe Center Project Team; and Ariam Asmerom, FHWA Office of Corporate Research and Technology.

Last updated: Monday, December 2, 2019