Intelligent Transportation Careers
By John R. Platt
My father thought it was the
coolest thing in the world the first time he got
a car with cruise control. It was the mid-1970s
and the height of the oil crisis. Cruise control
allowed him to drive down the highway at one
consistent speed without worry, and probably
save gasoline in the process.
Well it is now a few decades
later and cruise control has come a long way.
Today's modern systems know enough to slow you
down if you get too close to a vehicle on front
of you — or even hit the brakes for you in order
to avoid a collision. The next generation of
these adaptive cruise control systems will go
even further by helping to keep you within your
lane if your car starts to drift to either side.
IEEE’s research on self-driving cars was
just featured in a question on the
popular U.S. television game show, "Who
Wants to Be a Millionaire." Watch the
page and see if you know
the answer to the question, "With
self-driving cars expected to become the
norm, IEEE predicts that by 2040,
drivers will no longer need what?" The
IEEE-related segment begins at 0:49.
Adaptive cruise control is just
one of a wave of new technologies hitting the
automotive market as part of the growing field
of intelligent transportation. It's a field that
promises to change everything we know about
driving, although the full effect of the
technologies being developed today might not be
known for another two or three decades. But
along the way the incremental changes being
developed by the industry will change the way
our vehicles operate, one component at a time.
"It's not a revolution but an
evolution," says Christoph Stiller, president of
IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society
(IEEE ITSS) and a professor at the Karlsruhe
Institute of Technology in Germany.
Although fully autonomous and
automated vehicles are still many years away —
the recent Google "self-driving" car
notwithstanding — the intelligent transportation
field is growing rapidly. A study published last
year by the research firm MarketsandMarkets
predicted that the market for intelligent
transportation technologies would grow to
$24.75 billion in 2017. That's just the
beginning for an industry that is expected to
eventually revolutionize nearly all travel.
Three Driving Factors
Safety is the primary factor
driving the intelligent transportation systems
field, says Stiller. "Today we have 1 million
dead people in traffic every year around the
world. About 35,000 of these are in the United
and about the same amount in Europe."
"Car crashes happen far too
often," says Matthew Barth, president-elect of
IEEE ITSS and a professor at the University of
California, Riverside. "We need to reduce that
as much as possible."
The technologies already being
rolled out are helping to improve safety, but
taking things to the next level will be
difficult. The safety of an entirely automated
system will be very hard to prove, Stiller says.
"Right now I believe nobody has a path toward
proving that an automated transportation system
is safe, even if we had that technology." He
points out that under current ISO standards, some
50 billion experimental miles would need to be
driven to demonstrate the reliability of an
automated vehicle. "That's one of those reasons
why we need so many years, because we need to go
step by step."
The second concern dominating
the field's approach is mobility. As Barth puts
it, "Everybody hates being stuck in congestion."
Automated systems will eventually allow vehicles
to pass smoothly through intersections, perhaps
without the assistance of the currently
ubiquitous traffic light. Getting to that point
is going to take some work to accomplish,
though. "How do you negotiate a good trajectory
for your vehicle that doesn't interfere with
others' trajectories but is efficient for all,"
Stiller asks. "There has to be some method for
determining how you are cooperating with others
so the overall traffic is optimized."
Beyond that, improving energy
efficiency and reducing emissions are growing
factors that the industry has embraced over the
past five or so years, Barth says. Lessening
traffic congestion will be a big part of this —
idling vehicles are a major source of greenhouse
gas emissions and particulate pollution,
according to the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. Other benefits will come from greater
operating efficiency. "Improved communication
systems will allow vehicles to have a faster
reaction time than a human," Stiller says. "That
will allow them to drive with more fuel
A Field of Many Fields
transportation technologies requires a wide
range of people from a wide range of fields,
including electrical engineering,
communications, sensors, systems engineering,
software, and even non-technology fields such as
psychology. The people working on these
technologies, meanwhile, can be found around the
world in corporations, academic labs,
cooperatives, standards-setting bodies and
government regulatory agencies. "The conferences
in this field are incredibly diverse," says
Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate
professor in the Computer Systems Engineering
Department at the University of Alaska,
Unlike a lot of other fields,
the people working in intelligent transportation
might not be devoting 100 percent of their
efforts to automotive issues and are rarely
working on entire systems. Instead, they might
be working on pieces of it, such as the wireless
communication aspects, or the sensors, or the
software, or any number of other components. "A
lot of the work they do is for use on vehicles,"
Miller says, "but they just don't have the broad
skills or full range of resources to put an
entire vehicle together by themselves."
The breadth and depth of fields
working in intelligent transportation requires
highly collaborative teams, says Pradip Mistry,
V.P. of engineering for Cubic Transportation
Systems. "The technical skills remain important,
but the soft skills of being able to interact
with people, collaborate with a team and
communicate are invaluable in this industry."
Quite a few hurdles must be
overcome before autonomous or automated vehicles
become the norm, experts say.
Some of these are technological.
Miller points out that the hardware on many
current test vehicles adds up to as much as
$250,000. "This is okay for a handful of
vehicles but it is not sustainable. We're going
to need these prices to come down substantially
for this to be a workable system."
In addition, communication
technologies must be improved, standardized and
made completely reliable. "Communication systems
need to be compatible between all types of
vehicles and infrastructures," Stiller says.
"These systems must be very safe." Sensors,
software, control systems and other components
must all reach the next level in order to
optimize safety and operation.
Other roadblocks will come from
the legal and regulatory arenas. Most states
currently do not allow driverless vehicles, not
even for testing. Once the vehicles finally do
get on the road, even the best intelligent
vehicles will still get into occasional
accidents. Miller recalls an interview he
conducted with a law professor who asked, "If
one of these driverless vehicles gets into an
accident, who's responsible?" Will it be the
owner, the auto manufacturer, or the company
that designed the software? "This is something
the courts are probably going to have to work
out after it happens," Miller says.
But even with those challenges,
the next few years will be, as Mistry puts it,
"exciting and challenging times" for the
industry. It's also a perfect field for
engineers who want to be working on cutting-edge
technologies that will save lives and eventually
change the way society interacts with its
transportation. "It's a huge field, and engineers
who have skills in any of these technologies
fields are desperately sought," Stiller says.
"We have the opportunity and the excitement to
conduct research in this field and that's marvelous."
John R. Platt is a freelance
writer and entrepreneur, as well as a frequent
contributor to Today's Engineer,
Scientific American, Mother Nature
Network and other publications.