Skip to contentUnited States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration FHWA Home
Research Home
Public Roads
Featuring developments in Federal highway policies, programs, and research and technology.
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65· No. 6 > Exciting Opportunity for ITS Work

May/June 2002
Vol. 65· No. 6

Exciting Opportunity for ITS Work

by Miriam Heller, Thomas F. Humphrey, William Jones, Priscilla Nelson, and Jeff Paniati

Advances in information technologies are radically changing the way Americans provide business services, manufacture products, educate, recreate, and communicate. As information and sensing technologies become ubiquitous in transportation systems, equally radical changes in how we move people and goods can be anticipated. These changes will either worsen or improve current trends in surface transportation: growing congestion, declining safety, deteriorating road infrastructure, constrained land use, use of nonrenewable fuels, and degraded environmental quality. Information and communications technologies in surface transportation therefore constitute an important area of long-term, strategic research.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in partnership with the private sector and academia has been harnessing these technologies through the development of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). DOT sponsors applied research in a number of areas related to surface transportation systems and participates in developing agendas for new short-range, applied research. These programs tend to mirror the five-year planning horizon governing the Intermodal Surface Transportation and Equity Acts, as well as the mission-orientation of the sponsoring agencies.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) supports fundamental research in transportation on a fairly small scale and not within the context of a dedicated program. Program-aligned, unsolicited proposals or proposals for junior faculty are typically the mode. NSF's Directorate for Engineering has funded surface transportation research in dynamic simulation, operations, control, management commercial transportation, networks, signalization, and general theoretical systems optimization. Engineering also has funded research in basic highway design and materials. Other Directorates support transportation research in facility location, economics, safety, and human factors.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago in October 2000, a joint NSF and DOT workshop explored the results of this parallel pursuit of basic and applied research. The workshop participants discussed long-term, basic research needs in surface transportation systems. The two-day workshop served to coalesce current thinking among more than 30 representatives of academia, the private sector, and the Federal government from a variety of disciplines.

Leading Lights in Transportation Research

  • Federal Highway Administration (DOT)
  • Federal Transit Administration (DOT)
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (DOT)
  • Directorate for Engineering (NSF)
  • Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems (NSF)
  • Division for Design, Manufacture, and Industrial Innovation (NSF)
  • Division on Electrical and Control Systems (NSF)
  • Directorate for Computer and Information Systems Engineering (NSF)
  • Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (NSF)
  • Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (NSF)
  • Transportation Research Board
  • Institute of Transportation Engineers
  • ITS America

A Vision to Launch the Research Program

The workshop defined a 25-year vision that formed the basis for an interagency agreement between NSF and DOT to move forward with a funded research program:

"We will have a customer-responsive, managed, safe, efficient, and integrated transportation system for the movement of people, services and goods. Advances in information technology will enable the system to be both flexible and optimal through productive operations and control. Communication technologies and advanced traveler information systems will provide optimal information and knowledge to the customer; and support equity, mobility, and accessibility. This seamless transportation system will preserve privacy and individual rights, provide choices, and be environmentally sustainable."

A goal was defined to provide all customers with the following:

"No matter who or where you are, you will have in your hand the knowledge and ability to choose, make, and pay for a safe, efficient, cost-effective trip or multiple trip segments for you, your family, or your goods to any location in the world. This will be the case whether the trip is to or from home or work; to or from any recreation or business location; or for any other purpose."

The workshop participants concluded that a new "community of researchers" in both technical and nontechnical disciplines must be attracted to surface transportation research. These disciplines include computer science and engineering, social sciences (human, environmental, and economic factors), operations research, systems engineering, telecommunications, as well as basic science and engineering.

Subsequent to the workshop, NSF released on March 8, 2001, a solicitation (NSF 01-087) entitled "National Science Foundation/U.S. DOT Partnership for Exploratory Research on Information and Communications Systems for Surface Transportation (ICSST)." The solicitation is intentionally broad (see "Goal of NSF 01-087").

Goal of NSF 01-087

"To initiate a basic research agenda aimed at discovering innovative ways for information and information/communication technologies to be developed and integrated into surface transportation systems in order to meet the challenges and constraints related to congestion, safety, land use, energy, and environment."

Researchers were asked to think beyond today's solutions and to "offer substantial enhancements in capacity utilization, safety, resource use, and environmental impact," ... "expand and verify our understanding of the impact of planning, engineering, and operations policies on surface transportation systems," ... and "seek dramatic breakthroughs in fundamental concepts of surface transportation."

In other words, researchers were encouraged to think out-of-the-box and propose new concepts that might come to fruition within a 10- to 25-year horizon. With the fundamental technologies that underpin ITS, information technology, and communications changing so rapidly and independently of the transportation community, researchers might have been expected to be hesitant to address such a far-reaching request.

On the contrary, the prospect and freedom to investigate unique, self-defined issues resulted in the submission of 94 proposals, plus 3 collaborative proposals, from a broad array of transportation and non-transportation researchers. In accordance with NSF's peer review model, 33 experts from academia, DOT, and industry were selected from a variety of targeted disciplines and assembled into four panels to review the proposals and recommend awards. By September 2001, nine grants were awarded. The grant projects geared up only recently.

Image A: Target image that shows vehicles at an intersection
Image B: Common background showing the intersection with no vehicles
Image C: Vehicles separated out from target image

Starting with a target image (a) that shows vehicles at an intersection, a common background showing the intersection with no vehicles (b) is defined, from which vehicles (c) can be separated out and their progress from one video monitor to another can be estimated.

Nine Grants Awarded

1. Towards a Systems Integration Urban Network Performance Measure - Scalability and Data Issues of the Two-Fluid Model. Elizabeth Jones of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Qiuming Zhu of the University of Nebraska-Omaha are developing a computer vision method for vehicular tracking from one traffic monitoring camera to another. Good progress has been made on a heuristic that generates the common background scene to subtract out and detect vehicles. A parallel effort under this project entails collecting traffic data to validate the two-fluid model, a kinetic theory of traffic flow in which vehicles are modeled either as stopped or moving, that is, as two traffic streams. Data collected from the traffic monitoring cameras at University of Nebraska's ITS Information and Infrastructure Laboratory will be used for "ground truthing" the final computer vision method.

2. A Zero Public Infrastructure Vehicle Based Traffic Information System. Thanasias Ziliaskopoulos of Northwestern University is investigating the use of fully distributed information and communications systems. The proposed system demands zero tax dollars to implement and is self-maintainable, applicable to all roads, market-driven, and more robust and less prone to failure than centralized systems, due to its decentralized design. (See http://trans.civil.northwestern.edu/~thanasis/research/projects/zi.html for details.)

3. Decentralized Surveillance, Control and Data Transmission for Transportation Applications. While investigating this topic, Benjamin Coifman of Ohio State University is re-examining combined surveillance and communications costs. The goal is to reduce costs by developing distributed control algorithms to make decisions in the field so that systems will transmit data only when it would be beneficial for wide-scale control, without sacrificing traffic management effectiveness.

4. Cooperative Traffic Management and Route Guidance: A Multi-agent Based Approach. Goutam Satapathy and Vikram Manikonda of Intelligent Automation Inc. are developing a three-tier route guidance model (see Figure 1) where traffic density is distributed over the entire grid, while accounting for objectives of both supply (traffic network managers) and demand (drivers).

5. Dynamic Cargo Assignment and Route Planning in the Trucking Industry. Randolph Hall, Maged Dessouky, and Petros Ioannou of the University of Southern California are focusing on improving intermodal truck scheduling by reducing empty miles while improving customer service in a centralized port area. Uncertainties, such as those associated with arrival of new orders, cancellation of existing orders, variable waiting times, and variable travel times due to traffic congestion will be considered. They will explore a hybrid solution methodology consisting of a fast, dynamic program in conjunction with a search technique (such as genetic algorithms). This work can be expanded to solve more general dynamic routing problems.

Figure 1. This drawing shows a proposed information architecture for a three-tier computer multi-agent-based model of cooperative traffic management and route guidance. The upper tier is a network of (automated) traffic intersection controllers/agents whose collective objective is to minimize dynamically the throughput time in the grid. The lower tier shows the objectives of drivers, such as route guidance and travel advisories, travel time or schedule delay, travel distance, number of turns, and roadway classification changes. The middle tier of Information Service Provider (ISP) agents bridges the upper and lower tiers by providing the future network use information to the controllers (traffic estimation), and pre-trip path information (trip plan negotiation) to the drivers to satisfy their objectives. The paths are scored based on a weighted multi-objective normalized function.

Figure 1. This drawing shows a proposed information architecture for a three-tier computer multi-agent-based model of cooperative traffic management and route guidance. The upper tier is a network of (automated) traffic intersection controllers/agents whose collective objective is to minimize dynamically the throughput time in the grid. The lower tier shows the objectives of drivers, such as route guidance and travel advisories, travel time or schedule delay, travel distance, number of turns, and roadway classification changes. The middle tier of Information Service Provider (ISP) agents bridges the upper and lower tiers by providing the future network use information to the controllers (traffic estimation), and pre-trip path information (trip plan negotiation) to the drivers to satisfy their objectives. The paths are scored based on a weighted multi-objective normalized function.

6. Dynamic and Stochastic Vehicle Dispatching with Time Dependent Travel Times: The Next Generation of Algorithms. Amelia Regan of the University of California at Irvine also will address time-dependent and stochastic (i.e., probabilistic) travel times, dynamic service requests, and stochastic service times by discovering a new generation of routing and scheduling models. The applications of interest are local truckload trucking operations, local less-than-truckload operations, local pickup and delivery operations, and service fleets.

7. Multidisciplinary Exploratory Research to Exploit Motor Vehicle Information and Communications Technology. Chris Hendrickson and Burcu Akinci of Carnegie Mellon University are defining a framework for exploiting motor vehicle information and communications technology for transportation engineering, including issues of communications data management and business planning. (See Figure 2 and www.ce.cmu.edu/~cth/transport/.)

8. Development of an Information Technology-Based Advanced Monitoring and Inspection System for Air Brakes in Commercial Vehicles Systems for Air Brakes. The main goal of this research by Darbha Swaroop and K. R. Rajagopal, professors at Texas A&M, is to design novel fault detection algorithms for air brake systems in commercial vehicles with a view toward applying them in the development of automatic maintenance and enforcement inspections and in the development of real-time, on-board monitoring systems. This research is motivated by the lack of such diagnostic and monitoring systems for air brakes in trucks and considerations of preventive and active vehicle safety.

Figure 2. Hendrickson and Akinci are developing a conceptual framework for integrating data communication, collection, business models, and applications. This drawing shows computers representing functions such as vehicle maintenance, traveler's information, and traffic control linked to information management and in turn linked to vehicle and information sensors embedded in a car and pavement.

Figure 2. Hendrickson and Akinci are developing a conceptual framework for integrating data communication, collection, business models, and applications. This drawing shows computers representing functions such as vehicle maintenance, traveler's information, and traffic control linked to information management and in turn linked to vehicle and information sensors embedded in a car and pavement.

9. Real-time Collision Warning at Traffic Intersections. Safety is also the concern of this research carried out by Nikolaos Papani-kolopoulos and Ravi Janardan of the University of Minnesota in Twin Cities. The researchers will devise intelligent computer vision techniques to monitor intersections and predict intersection collisions. Like the work of Jones and Zhu, gray-scale image sequences of traffic scenes are monitored, the background is separated from the foreground, and vehicles and pedestrians are detected. Vehicle and pedestrian information then is fed into computational geometry algorithms to predict collisions. (See www.cs.umn.edu/Research/airvl/its/index.html.)

Additional information on these awards can be found online at www.fastlane.nsf.gov/a6/A6AwardSearch.htm.

The research initiated in these awards spans a number of transportation disciplines and represents innovative approaches to traffic management, including distributed control, dynamic systems and reliability modeling, commercial vehicle management and operations, collision prevention, and traveler information systems. The research grants clearly depart from those typically supported by DOT. Some appear incremental, however, relative to current research themes. Others embody new thinking in the field. In every case, though, these small awards represent potential seeds from which new ideas for basic applied transportation research will spring. These new ideas, if properly nurtured, can represent the beginning of new directions in transportation research. Therefore, the NSF/DOT team will evaluate the results of this research to determine if further research is warranted.

Photo of experimental set-up for automobile research on an onboard, real-time brake monitoring and inspection system, which will help improve safety.

This photo shows Swaroop's experimental set-up for automobile research on an onboard, real-time brake monitoring and inspection system, which will help improve safety.

Nurturing Innovation

The NSF/DOT partnership moved forward with year two of the program to solicit and support innovation in transportation engineering for surface transportation. On March 8, 2002, the NSF released a solicitation (NSF 02-089) entitled the "NSF/DOT Partnership for Research on Information and Communications Systems for Surface Transportation (ICSST)." (See www.nsf.gov/pubs/2002/nsf02089/nsf02089.htm.) The 2002 solicitation reads fundamentally the same as that of the previous year. Certain points have been added or emphasized, however, while others have been clarified.

Both NSF and DOT are looking forward to innovation and maturity in research concepts in the second year of this program. Assuming this year's program successfully draws out promising basic research projects, a third solicitation will be released in late winter or early spring FY2003 and posted at www.nsf.gov/home/eng.

New Requirements for NSF 02-089

Proposals submitted to the 2002 solicitation were required to:

  • Focus on surface transportation system mobility. Research involving the built, natural, or socio-economic environments are desirable and encouraged, as is intermodal research, however, only insofar as they relate to mobile transportation systems, e.g., automobiles, commercial vehicles, and transit.
  • Emphasize the "exploratory" nature of the program. The 2001 solicitation yielded many proposals that were incremental steps along the technology road that we have been on for 10 years or were actual operational tests of products and technologies that exist today. The intent of an exploratory research program is to open new frontiers for ITS in transportation.
  • Conform to the model of hypothesis-driven research. The overarching goal of the research should be framed as a testable hypothesis. The research plan should provide the methodology and process by which that hypothesis can be proved or disproved.
  • Avoid purely application-oriented ideas, specifically technology development and implementation. Other agencies, such as DOT, already support these efforts. Please do not propose research that has already been investigated in the same vein nor anything already commercialized. Think critically about the generalizability of the anticipated results.
  • Adhere to the expanded funding constraints. As in the previous solicitation, proposals are requested that address high-risk, exploratory research with potentially high payoff. Research of this more focused, feasibility-assessing type can be supported for 12 months at up to $100,000. More well-developed ideas, possibly with multiple investigators, may be requested for up to $300,000 and up to 36 months. The research plan and resources needed must align with the budget.

Dr. Miriam Heller, Ph.D. co-directs the National Science Foundation's Civil and Mechanical Systems Program on Civil Infrastructure and Information Systems. This program supports fundamental and applied research needed to further the development, design, and deployment of Information Systems for Civil Infrastructure Systems under normal as well as critical conditions, transportation systems management, and integrated hazard management. Prior to joining NSF, she was with the Université Aix-Marseille III in France as a 1999-2000 Fulbright Scholar, on leave from the Industrial Engineering faculty at the University of Houston, where her research focused on the application of systems engineering methodologies and tools to civil infrastructure and environmental systems problems. Dr. Heller's industry experiences include Digital Equipment Corporation, Citibank Credit Services, and a French consulting firm for Lyonnaise des Eaux. She earned her Ph.D. at The Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering.

Tom F. Humphrey is currently a senior policy analyst at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center. Prior to joining the Volpe Center, he served for four years with FHWA's ITS Joint Program Office as director of the newly established ITS Professional Capacity Building Program. He retired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996, where he was director of the New England University Transportation Center. At MIT he conducted research in the areas of surface transportation policy and planning. He holds a B.S. in civil engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an M.S. in civil engineering from the University of Massachusetts. He completed a 1-year program at the Cornell Graduate School of Business and Public Administration as a Fellow of the National Institute of Public Affairs. He is a registered professional engineer in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

William Jones has been with DOT since June 1995 and oversees all technical activities in the ITS Joint Program Office. Prior to joining DOT, he spent 34 years with Westinghouse Electric Corp. in the defense and commercial electronics business. He retired from Westinghouse in 1994 as the vice-president and general manager of the Transportation Management Systems Division, which he started in 1990 as an application of Westinghouse's defense technology to the transportation industry. Jones spent most of his career in the development of new sensor technology in radar, infrared, and optical systems, as well as the application of real-time computing for electronic systems. He has a master's in electrical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and an MBA from George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is a registered engineer in the State of Maryland. He has been an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and chaired the IEEE International Radar Conference in Washington, DC, in 1995.

Priscilla Nelson, Ph.D. is currently director of the Civil and Mechanical Systems Division in the Directorate for Engineering at NSF. She has served as program director for the Geotechnical Engineering program and for the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation project. In 1983, she received her doctorate from Cornell University in geotechnical engineering, specializing in underground construction. She served on the faculty in civil engineering at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 through 1996, and became an NSF employee in 1996. Dr. Nelson has a national and international reputation in geological and rock engineering, and the particular application of under ground construction. She has more than 15 years of teaching experience and more than 120 technical and scientific publications to her credit.

Jeff Paniati is the program manager for ITS at DOT. In this capacity he leads a $200-plus million annual Federal ITS program and directs the day-to-day operation of the ITS Joint Program Office. The ITS program is focused on bringing advanced communications and information system technologies to the management and operation of the surface transportation system. The program has responsibility for planning, directing, and coordinating the ITS program across DOT. Paniati has 19 years of experience with FHWA, primarily in the areas of safety, traffic operations, and ITS. He has a BS in civil engineering from the University of Connecticut and an MS in civil engineering from the University of Maryland. He is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.

The report from the workshop can be accessed at www.utc.uic.edu/~mcneil/Workshop_report.pdf.

ResearchFHWA
FHWA
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration