Five Ways Technology can Transform Transportation

By Steve Dickerson  

The information technology wave is engulfing nearly all productive activities, based on the ever cheaper and capable power of computing and communications. Transportation modes, too, can benefit from the efficiencies of the technologies of cellular communications with global positioning systems (GPS) and Bluetooth.  

Generally, the only hardware required would be a smart phone such as a BlackBerry or iPhone equipped with GPS and radio frequency (RF) communications, cellular and Bluetooth-type technology. For some applications GPS is not needed; any modern cell phone will do. The other basic assumptions are that shared rides include carpools, vanpools, buses, and rail transit; and shared cars such as ZipCar will be available. Commuters would subscribe to a cellular-based transportation support system much as with their current telephone and energy utilities, running an appropriate transportation application on their phone. What can be accomplished? 

1.      Passengers can know with near certainty the arrival time of a shared vehicle.
2.      Passengers can arrange for a shared ride or car with ease.
3.      High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes can be implemented with little more than marking of lanes as now done for HOV lanes.
4.      All payments for shared rides and cars and tolls can be automated as a utility.
5.      Shared cars can be any personal car.

Knowing vehicle arrival time is the simplest and most obvious. Transit becomes more attractive if master phones report the location of vehicles and travelers know when the vehicle will arrive at their pick-up point.

With shared ride arrangements, the ride capacity of a vehicle could be communicated. Bluetooth enables one master phone to count and actually know whose phones are on board. Cars and vans can become part of the micro-transit system known as “slugging” in some locations. The difference between micro-transit and prearranged pools is that in one case the passengers are known ahead of origination of the vehicle trip, in the other, the vehicle is open to new subscribers as it moves.

Using the technology for HOT lane implementation depends on one additional piece of hardware, machine vision systems that monitor license plates in the HOT lane. That monitoring is not for charging the toll, because that would only require the master phone, but for enforcement. The system compares the read license plates and the time of the read with the information provided through the master cell phone of each vehicle. Those persons not authorized are traffic violators and would usually be issued traffic tickets; another source of revenue. Although differential GPS would be able to determine the lane a cell phone is in, that probably is not necessary because the correlation of trip times and license numbers could be done and billed automatically.

Automated utility-style billing is likely based on Bluetooth determination of who is riding together. The vehicle’s master cell phone determines who is present on a trip by periodic linking of Bluetooth with other cell phones. For all modes, formulas are used to determine the appropriate fares. Of course, certain subsidy and tax issues come into play once one knows who is riding together, when, and where. For example, employers who reduce parking costs for those who don’t use parking every day can charge for actual use.

The technology can also allow any personal vehicle to be a shared car. In the near future, most new cars will add Bluetooth-type communications to the car’s internal information system. A system of personal subscription through a person’s cell phone could enable a car to operate provided the right codes have been transmitted to the cell phone and then to the car. Authority will be granted using the cell phone application to reserve use of the car. The billing system will take care of dollar transfers between car owner and user. The owner is likely to be notified to enable checking for damage. The primary additional issue is the availability of appropriate insurance, both for the owner of the vehicle and users.

Safety, too, can be enhanced by the transportation application as it synchronizes with nearby travelers and allows quick notification of the location of incidents, wrecks and delays.

The mantra is that you can’t build your way out of congestion. Capacity is one need, but clearly, with the advantages of the information age, technology has a huge role in paving the way to congestion relief.

Steve Dickerson, Professor Emeritus at Georgia Tech, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Dickerson founded the Peachtree City Commuter Bus in 1975, which is credited by the U.S. Department of Transportation as the first community vanpool operation in the country. He is an expert in the field of manufacturing automation. Much of the system described above is in his 2004 patent owned by Georgia Tech. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 11, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.