The past, present, and future of ITS


For those of us that attend the numerous conferences and webinars in the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) industry, we’re used to hearing a very familiar message:

 “The ITS industry is going through a period of unprecedented change.”

Of course, the current moment is particularly dynamic for ITS. Not only do we see a period of rapid technical advancement, but our work is also heavily influenced by social and political change. However, when I look back over the past 20 years, it becomes clear that the change we’re observing didn’t just emerge recently. A longer, quieter evolution has taken place over the past two decades and led us to where we are today.

What did ITS look like in 2000? Perhaps the most obvious factor is how we accessed and used information. Less than half of all households in the UK owned a mobile phone in 2000. Today, more than 80% of UK residents own a smartphone capable of answering every question imaginable and providing accurate real-time information about the space around them. Over the same period, broadband coverage has increased dramatically; 4G wireless is available in approximately 91% of the country. The future deployment of 5G will deliver comprehensive connectivity across the nation.

Two decades ago, the ITS industry operated in the shadow of the dot-com bubble, with the failure of many leading companies leading to a decreased appetite for technology risk. However, companies like Amazon and Google recovered quickly to become technology giants, and there is now a much broader acceptance for risk and the increased investments those risks require. While innovations previously evolved over a few years, they can now be developed, tested, and deployed in months or even weeks.

Present: Social responsibility and data-driven decisions

Our present work in ITS is motivated not just by a drive for innovation but also by social influences. While worldwide protest actions inspire us to create more equitable transportation experiences, we are also guided by movements to address climate change and its effects on public health. The 2019 Clean Air Strategy aims to reduce people’s exposure to particulate matter, building on a government commitment to reduce the number of people living in areas breaching World Health Organization guidelines by 2025. Councils throughout the UK have taken it upon themselves to declare climate emergencies, doubling down on their efforts to achieve carbon neutrality.

For our customers, the modern transportation experience is shaped by our ability to collect and process information in real-time. Artificial intelligence, data analysis algorithms, and the personalisation of data and services allow us to provide tailored services to each user. At the same time, recently-developed mobile applications and cloud-based solutions make it easier for travellers to plan and pay for their journeys. These comprehensive systems enable users to transition smoothly between public and private transport providers, as data collected and displayed in real-time help inform route planning and decision-making.

Future: EVs and active travel

As we look ahead to the next two decades for ITS, it’s clear that our work will be led by government and industry initiatives to tackle climate change and the socio-economic changes to the High Street and work patterns. Congestion remains a significant contributor to air pollution, evidenced by air quality gains from changes to travel patterns due to COVID-19. However, technology has advanced and become cheaper, making the adoption and use of electric vehicles (EVs) more accessible to the average consumer. With clean air policies and congestion charge zones, EVs could help turn the tide against climate change and leave a cleaner world for the next generations. The future of ITS will require a greater emphasis on traffic management systems which will help to maintain the efficiency of the whole of the transport network while reducing emissions.

Active travel will also play a growing role in the future of ITS. In July 2020, Boris Johnson announced £2 billion of funding to support active travel, while cities across the country follow the example of the London Cycle Hire scheme to deliver active travel benefits in their areas. Those who manage our transport networks will be tasked with integrating these new initiatives and keeping pace with new technologies and social pressures that emerge rapidly and often without warning.

We each have our part in providing an ecosystem that helps address these challenges as an industry. Whether it’s using technology to provide the best solution to a problem, offering evidence and data to support public decision-making, or simply ensuring a safe environment for our workforce. We must all do our part to support the next two decades of successful outcomes, sustainability, and innovation.

When we look back on the changes of the last 20 years, and as we meet and make plans for the next 20, it may be safer to change our messaging:

“The Intelligent Transportation Systems industry has already been through a period of unprecedented change and isn’t likely to stop changing any time soon. As an industry, we must continue to work together to make people’s lives and journeys safer, simpler, and more flexible.”

David Powell is Business Development Director at Cubic Transportation Systems

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