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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations
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|Publication Number: Date: Sept/Oct 1997|
Issue No: Vol. 61 No. 2
Date: Sept/Oct 1997
It seems that in the last few years, transportation researchers and engineers have become more aware of the importance of "public awareness."
Like the old philosophical question about whether or not a tree falling in the forest makes any noise if there is no one around to hear it, the researchers are realizing that the value of their work is somewhat diminished if no one knows about it. For a long time, they have been writing reports and making presentations at technical conferences to share information with their researching colleagues, but now they are recognizing the need to reach a broader audience to whom they must tell their story. Especially in times of constrained funding, it is critical that the key "movers and shakers" in the budget process understand the explicit and potential impacts of these programs to radically change the face of America.
In many ways, the American culture has been shaped by the transportation developments in this century. In 1993, former Associate Administrator for Research and Development John Clements wrote, "I can't help reflecting on the dramatic and enormous changes in transportation during the 20th century ... The transportation changes of the next century will be every bit as dramatic, and the challenges are just as massive."
In early August, I flew from Washington, D.C., to San Diego to attend the Automated Highway System proof-of-feasibility demonstration. During the 5 1/2-hour flight, I thought about how 100 years ago the trip would have required weeks by railroad and months by coach. Maybe, 100 years in the future, our descendants will look back on what is now the most mobile society in the world and wonder how we survived with such an antiquated and dysfunctional (from their perspective) transportation system.
But if we are going to get there from here, the transportation research and technology community is going to have to convince the decision-makers and the general public of the significance and safety of the continuous advancement of transportation-related technologies.
At the First International Workshop on Vehicle-Highway Automation held in San Diego immediately following the demonstration, there was a great deal of discussion about the importance of gaining public acceptance and confidence in the significance and safety of AHS technologies. It is not enough to impress people and make them say gee whiz in amazement. Certainly, the participants, spectators, and media representatives at the AHS demo were impressed by the "hands-off, feet-off" operation of vehicles that were "driving" down the highway at 100 kilometers per hour without the help of a human driver. But if the public does not believe that the demonstrated technologies are safe and worth a few extra dollars when they purchase their next car, the automobile manufacturers are not going to build these technologies into their cars, and legislators are not going to appropriate government funds to pay for improved infrastructure to support these technologies.
While there are many important areas of transportation research and development, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) programs are the ones that will capture the enthusiasm and amazement of the public. Many other advancements will improve the infrastructure by making it more durable and less costly or will better protect the environment; nevertheless, they will be relatively invisible to the general traveling public. ITS programs offer possibilities for quantum leaps in mobility and reducing traffic congestion, improving traveler information and convenience, enhancing the environment, and improving safety.
In the this issue of Public Roads, we have several articles that tell the ITS story, and in the next issue, we will continue to focus on ITS programs and activities, including the AHS demo in San Diego. Quoting Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, "We are in the midst of a revolution in transportation technologies that will transform our economy and our daily lives ..." But how far and how fast we go depends on our success in telling our story.