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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66 · No. 5 > A Conduit for New Technology

March/April 2003
Vol. 66 · No. 5

A Conduit for New Technology

by Kathleen A. Bergeron

Videoconferencing can be a cheaper, faster, safer way to spread the news about the latest transportation innovations.

Videoconferencing may hold the key to distributing highway innovations and new technology to a much wider audience within the highway community, while significantly reducing costs.

People watching a video conference
Participants from different locations enjoy state-of-the-art videoconferencing.

Each year, millions of dollars are spent on highway-related research. But once an innovation has emerged from that research, how much will it cost to tell the world about it? Surprisingly, holding meetings is one of the largest single expenses in helping new highway-related technology become accepted. How so? Because in order to describe a new technology so that others truly understand it, someone usually has to travel to somewhere else to explain and demonstrate how the technology works. That means airline tickets, hotel rooms, meals, and incidentals. If a conference or seminar is involved, multiply by the number of people attending the event, add in charges for meeting rooms, audio-visual equipment, and so on. The expenses go up dramatically.

Man and woman watching a small videoconference system
A personal-size videoconferencing system can facilitate small meetings. This PicturePhone call in 1964 from Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington, DC, to Dr. Elizabeth Wood and then-Major Robert F. Wagner in New York City shows the possibilities.

Typically, getting the word out is not a matter of just one meeting. The message has to be delivered over and over, to a wide variety of audiences. As the Transportation Research Board report, Managing Technology Transfer, puts it, 'Successful technology transfer programs depend on effectively segmenting user audiences, and tailoring strategies to those audiences and to different stages of the technology development process."

If it were possible to eliminate, or even minimize, such costs, the overall expense of technology transfer could be cut significantly.

Nor is cost the only issue. In many State and local government agencies, employees who want to stay current with new technology have difficulty obtaining approval for traveling outside their jurisdiction. A State department of transportation (DOT) engineer, for example, might be allowed one out-of-state business trip per fiscal year, even if the cost of two trips this year might be less than a single trip last year or even if the cost could be covered by another agency. The quota policy keeps the engineer at home, rather than at a conference learning, for example, a better, cheaper, faster, safer way of building a bridge. So how can this dilemma be solved?

One approach showing great promise is videoconferencing. This approach enables groups or individuals to hold "virtual" meetings, with the attendees either gathered around central monitors or individually using cameras attached to personal computers. Typically, videoconferencing uses the telephone system to carry both oral and visual messages. Such setups are becoming more and more common in corporate America and may prove to be a key tool for transferring highway technology.

Videoconferencing's Predecessors

The idea of using telephone lines to send both audio and video is nothing new. The same year that Lindberg flew the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs—in 1927—the Bell System sent live television images of then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover over telephone lines from Washington, DC, to an auditorium in New York City. In the 1950s, Bell unveiled the first "PicturePhone" and, a decade later, demonstrated consumer versions of the device at the New York World's Fair. Visitors could make a telephone call to a nearby booth and see the people conversing with them on the PicturePhone.

Two people separated by a wall using PicturePhones to meet with each other
These individuals are using PicturePhones for one-on-one meetings.

Meanwhile, the academic world was investigating video images as well. Colleges and universities have been using video technology as an instructional aid since the 1950s, when "educational television," predecessor to what we now call public television, began offering early-morning classes to anyone who was interested. Professors stood in studio representations of classrooms and used chalkboards to explain complex subjects. Educational techniques leapfrogged when producers realized that the new delivery tool would enable teachers to use presentation materials that previously would not have been effective in large, student-filled classrooms, such as detailed photographs, charts, and sound and film recordings.

As demand from adult learners grew for greater convenience in attending classes and as the technology developed for interaction between student and instructor, colleges recognized that video offered even more than simply mass communication. It offered the possibility of a true "virtual" classroom. Many schools throughout the world now offer courses whose students attend either via the Internet or through connections to networks of portals of telephone systems.

San José State University's Norman Y. Mineta International Institute for Transportation Policy Studies (the Mineta Transportation Institute), for example, offers both a Certificate and a Master's of Transportation Management, and the bulk of its students attend via the California Department of Transportation's videoconferencing portal. Some courses require students to form small teams and work together on class projects, and many such teams complete their assignments without ever having physically met together in one location. Comments Dr. Peter Haas, education director for the Mineta Transportation Institute, "Videoconferencing is not only an effective tool, it is at the very core of our education program."

Universities are not confining the tool simply to student instruction. For the past 7 years, the University of Queensland in Australia has offered remote researchers the opportunity to schedule video sessions on the school's electron microscope. Called "CyberSTEM," the system allows remote users to look through the microscope while interacting with microscope operators by telephone, e-mail, or chat room.

Woman at table watching class via videoconference
A student enrolled in San José State University's Master's of Transportation Management program attends class via videoconference.

Federal Use of Videoconferencing

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with its many ties to academia, uses video for distance learning in a number of ways. Perhaps most dramatic is the cameras carried along as a part of virtually every major space flight in recent years. Through the magic of video, virtually anyone in the world with a television set can participate in the exploration of other worlds, from watching Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface in 1969 to recent unmanned probes to Mars.

In addition to such headline makers, the agency also uses video technology in several less-heralded ways. One is its "electronic field trips" or "NASA Virtual Visits," which are videoconferencing connections linking teachers and students in their home classrooms with NASA's Glenn Research Center scientists, engineers, researchers, and education specialists.

NASA's Ultra-Efficient Engine Technology (UEET) Program Office has implemented a desktop videoconferencing capability with the National Technology Transfer Center (NTTC) in Wheeling, WV. According to UEET, "This capability will enable the program to establish frequent contact with a key partner and facilitate the transfer of technology developed in the program."

NASA also is developing a remote consultation, diagnosis, treatment planning, and simulation program linking physicians with remote patients.

FHWA Uses Videoconferencing

Video camera mounted to wall near ceiling
A student enrolled in San José State University's Master's of Transportation Management program attends class via videoconference.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is now on its third generation of videoconferencing equipment. A good indicator of the agency's commitment to the technology is the current renovation to the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center's largest conference room. The room is undergoing major modifications to accommodate state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment.

"We recognized the benefits of videoconferencing in getting innovations and technology to the folks who need it, so it only made sense for Turner-Fairbank—the hub of highway research—to be appropriately equipped," says Denny Judycki, associate administrator of Research, Development and Technology for FHWA.

Videoconferencing is a popular technology in FHWA's field offices as well. According to Idaho District Administrator Steve Moreno, "Folks are very positive about it, and there's definitely a great cost saving that we're gaining from using videoconferencing, whether it's for a 1-day or a 1-hour meeting."

Moreno chaired a committee that looked at several communications tools being used by the agency. "When we asked people for specifics on how they used this particular tool," he says, "several people cited the periodic LAWG [Legislative Advisory Working Group] videoconferences."

Similarly, FHWA's Office of Infrastructure has employed the technology on numerous occasions—for everything from job interviews to short meetings with FHWA's metropolitan offices to meetings on specific projects such as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. According to Cynthia Mitchell of the Office of Infrastructure, "Videoconferencing offers the agency an untraditional approach to program management, which has proven beneficial by reducing funding expenses and increasing efficiency."

The Office of Infrastructure also sponsors a program called "90 Minutes with Pavements." Byron Lord of that office noted that staff members produce the program about once every 6 months. 'We can feed it to only about 20 sites at a time," says Lord, "so we run two sessions, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon." He adds that it has invaluable benefits. "My whole experience has been that the return on investment is incredible. I find that, as an agency, and as a group, our thinking is much more "corporate" as a result of using this technology, because there is a more common voice on the issues because of it. The only way we're going to think and act more corporately is if we all have a common vision, and the only way we can have that common vision is if we can find ways to share it. Videoconferencing is one tool that helps us to do that."

Highway Industry's Use

How is the transportation industry using videoconferencing as a tool? In 1998, Engineering News-Record surveyed 270 engineering companies, consulting firms, and general and specialty contractors regarding their use of technology for training. An article describing the research noted, "Only one in seven firms say they use state-of-the-art training tools such as videoconferencing and 'online' classes."

In 1984, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) held an experimental videoconferencing session in which 180 respondents at four active sites and 186 respondents at six passive sites were surveyed to assess the effectiveness of the medium. TRB's conclusion was that videoconferencing definitely has a place in technology transfer activities and should be incorporated into appropriate areas to improve communication. TRB now broadcasts its annual meeting throughout the country via videoconferencing.

In September 2000, a 10-month study of the Arizona Department of Transportation's (ADOT) potential use of videoconferencing concluded that the technology offers tremendous potential benefits for the agency. The report noted, "Lightly used as ADOT's videoconferencing facilities were during the pilot test, data from the 305 persons who did use the equipment indicates that there is a substantial potential for saving money by an effective videoconferencing program." The report added that videoconferencing technology "especially benefits...[those] who have no or little chance to attend meetings or have little or no chance to have further training...."

The ADOT study further noted "differences in the use of this technology among businesses and organizations of various sizes, and these differences are likely to continue in future years. Generally, large organizations will find tremendous savings with videoconferencing technology, and will easily find the money to install it. States [that] are large or widely separated geographically from locations with which they frequently do business have a stronger tendency to install videoconferencing technology than those which are smaller or closer to those with which they do business."

WASHTO-X

In 2001 the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (WASHTO) established a 2-year pooled fund research study, WASHTO-X, whose goal is to see if videoconferencing is an idea whose time has finally come for the transportation industry. The study is providing State DOTs within the 18-State area of WASHTO and the associated field offices of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) with an opportunity to conduct informal information exchanges through telecommunications. Currently, 11 States are participating in the program, and more are showing interest all the time.

Sample Cost Savings from Videoconferencing

In December 2002, Caltrans in Sacramento hosted a meeting on the WASHTO-X videoconferencing system, focused on Highway Safety Programs. The meeting included 23 individuals from Arizona, California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. A conservative cost estimate for those same individuals meeting for a face-to-face meeting in Sacramento would include the following:

Airline tickets for 21 people and rental cars for 2 individuals from CA
$6,029
Per diem for 2 days for 22 people at $125/person
5,500
Total
$11,529

Not included are estimates on savings in efficiency gained by having participants spend 2 hours in the meeting when held via videoconferencing versus 2 days or more when travel is involved. As the number of people attending a meeting goes up, the difference between the cost of meeting electronically versus the face-to-face cost likewise increases.

The study is patterned after the TEL-8 Transportation Communication Network that currently is sponsored by five core WASHTO State DOTs and four State universities. The WASHTO-X study expands on TEL-8 in that its principal goal is to provide low-cost opportunities for other WASHTO State DOTs and FHWA field offices to participate in an expanded telecommunications program. While the TEL-8 bridge originally was used to tie all the sites together, FHWA offered the use of its bridge, and the result was a less costly, more modern system.

Says WASHTO-X Coordinator Doyt Bolling, "One of the key things FHWA has been famous for is bringing people within the transportation community together. This is another outstanding case where FHWA has used its resources to enhance delivery of technology."

Doyt Bolling using a videoconference system to meet with Dan Harris (on tv screen)
Doyt Bolling, director of the Utah LTAP Center and coordinator of the WASHTO-X program, uses a videoconferencing system for a one-on-one meeting with Dan Harris, an environmental specialists in the National Resource Center — San Francisco.

Bolling brings a lot to the WASHTO-X table, having retired after a 32-year career with FHWA and 8 years as director of the Utah Technology Transfer Center, one of a network of similar centers throughout the country.

The Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), financed by FHWA, State DOTs, and local transportation agencies, provides new technology and training to local transportation agencies. A tool like WASHTO-X offers exciting opportunities for such organizations. LTAP is focused on three types of sessions: peer exchanges (sessions based on specific work activities or issues), program exchanges (sessions focused on transportation policies, programs, and procedural policies), and focus exchanges (which look at new initiatives and trends in transportation).

The WASHTO-X sessions basically consist of presentations on a particular topic from one or more States, followed by a roundtable discussion. Outside speakers often are brought in for the sessions, and, again, such speakers can make their presentations at a location that may be more convenient to them than physically attending a conference.

Twice a year, Bolling issues a request for topics to each participating agency. The list of responses is collected and posted on the WASHTO-X Web site (www.washto-x.org), and each agency is asked to rank the topics, noting the ones for which they would be willing to serve as discussion leader and host. A 6-month schedule is developed and provided to site coordinators in each State, along with a brief scope of discussion activities. They are asked to distribute the information to potential participants.

On June 25, 2002, a videoconference on Highway Noise Abatement—a typical WASHTO-X conference—attracted more than 50 participants, from the States of Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington. After opening introductions, California Department of Transportation's (Caltrans) Bruce Rymer presented an overview on noise abatement issues and research. Other topics followed, such as evaluation and criteria (by Larry Scofield from Arizona), and environmental and aesthetic factors (by Peter Tang from Utah DOT). In addition to being videoconferenced, the session was videotaped, thereby enabling those unable to attend to get the benefit of the discussion.

Guaranteed Success?

Looking at the cold figures of cost and time savings, one might think that success for WASHTO-X is a foregone conclusion. The technology is there. The need is there. What could possibly be the downside?

But one might well have said the same thing in 1964 when the Bell System introduced its PicturePhone. That it was bound to be a success seemed self-evident. Yet, in spite of millions of dollars in promotion, the PicturePhone never caught on. Almost half a century passed before the concept even began to gain acceptance, whether for private or office applications.

The people at Bell Laboratories and AT&T were convinced that the PicturePhone was viable and could find a market. Yet their surveys kept telling them otherwise. They were told that the PicturePhone's controls were awkward, the picture was too small, and most people were simply not comfortable with the idea of being seen during a telephone

conversation.

Initial reaction to PicturePhone was extraordinary. At the 1964 World's Fair in New York, people lined up to make PicturePhone calls to a corresponding exhibit in Disneyland. First Lady Ladybird Johnson even stopped by to try it. But the commercial rollout of Mod II in 1970 received a less-than-warm reception. One reason was the subscription rates: $125 a month (in 1970s dollars). Then there was the question: If no one owned a PicturePhone, and there was no one to talk to, why buy one?

TV screen displaying staff members during a videoconference, video camera on top of tv
Staff members from the Utah DOT, the Utah Division of FHWA, and the Utah LTAP Center participate in a WASHTO-X videoconference.

Irwin Dorros, a former Bell Laboratories employee who worked on its development, once argued that if consumers had been exposed to PicturePhone's 'visual dimension' earlier, they would have been more prone to accept the intrusion into their lives. He said, 'If we had it, and it was a way of life, we couldn't live without it.'

Perhaps the greatest single thing that might dampen the success of WASHTO-X is any inability of users to adapt to the changes required in making the transition from meeting in person versus meeting via teleconference. The WASHTO-X coordinators have looked at several means of meeting those challenges and ensuring success.

First, they developed a comprehensive set of surveys to make sure users of the system understand it and that they're being provided useful information. Those surveys will be taken again and again throughout the 2-year period of the study.

Also, they developed a set of rules of etiquette. Some rules are aimed at making sure that no time is wasted and that the sessions are treated as having great value: "Arriv[ing] 10 to 15 minutes early will help the session start on time." But other rules were set up to recognize the unique aspects of videoconferencing: 'Always assume others can hear and see you, even if you can't hear or see them.' This rule recognizes that an offhand comment or facial expression in a crowded conference room might not be picked up, but in a videoconference, sensitive microphones and quality lenses can sometimes produce embarrassing moments.

The challenge, then, is for potential users of teleconferencing systems to become comfortable with the equipment, the difference in meeting style and etiquette, and the benefits such technology offers. The importance of 'comfort with the technology' cannot be overstated. When some people were first introduced to personal computers, they were so frightened of breaking the equipment that their effective use of the devices was limited. Now, after years of use and a greater comfort level, the fear of crashing has pretty much minimized. So, with improvements in technology and an evolving "videoconferencing etiquette," the use of this technology transfer tool may well become second nature as time goes by.

The challenge, along the way, is making transportation professionals comfortable with the concept and making it, as Bell Labs' Irwin Dorros put it, "a part of their lives."


Kathleen A. Bergeron is the marketing specialist in FHWA's Resource Center, San Francisco office. She has 27 years of experience in all aspects of marketing, including market research, public relations, and advertising. She is accredited in public relations (APR) by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Her experience includes working for major consumer products corporations, a market research company, consulting engineering firms, and State and Federal transportation agencies. She has taught classes on marketing at community colleges and major universities, and she has received awards from PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators, the Texas Public Relations Association, the WorldFest Charleston International Film and Video Festival, the National Association of Government Communicators, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. She is a member of PRSA and the American Marketing Association.

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