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(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Intelligent Highway: A Smart Idea?

Congestion pricing: Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, among other cities, are considering charging vehicle operators more to use roads, bridges, and tunnels during peak hours. In some variations, these congestion-pricing systems would be invisible to drivers — they would simply get a bill at home for driving in certain places at certain hours or their credit card accounts would be automatically charged. But other systems would communicate to the driver with messages such as: “If you take this road, you will be charged this much. If you use another route, you will pay much less.” Or perhaps: “If you drive ahead at this hour, you will pay $10. But if you delay your trip until 10 a.m., it will be free.”

One exciting feature that could be incorporated into future systems is the ability to “know” how many people are in the vehicle, as well as how much pollution the car generates. Drivers who carpool might be rewarded with lower charges, and operators of vehicles with higher engine emissions might pay more. Local politics, however, may slow the development of these systems. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, proposed a congestion-pricing system in 2007; the city council, state assembly, and state senate are now considering a modified version of the plan, which would bring in additional revenue and make the city “greener” by reducing the amount of individual vehicles.

Communications networks and connected cars: Google, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and Cisco Communications have announced plans to develop technology for advanced transportation communications networks or automobile operating systems, or to provide applications and supply content to new fleets of cars that are connected to the networks. With the potential to connect 150 million vehicles to the Internet through highway communications, these companies may have sufficient commercial incentive to launch the necessary technological platforms with little government funding. As the quantity and quality of real-time information increases within a system of connected vehicles, such companies could recoup their investments by charging money for traveler information, maps, and even infotainment systems.

Cashless tolls: North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, and Florida are considering the adoption of cashless open tolling systems. North Carolina is currently considering whether to incorporate DSRC 5.9 GHz technology. The state is performing a “head-to-head” evaluation, ranking the 5.9 GHz standard against the 915 MHz technology used by the other three states to support older cashless tolling systems like E-Z Pass, SunPass, and E-Go. If the 5.9 GHz technology stacks up well, it may become the choice for smart highway communications on many other tolling systems, while also providing safety and security screening. In the end, financial considerations may play a big role in North Carolina’s decision: Private-sector proponents of 5.9 GHz technology and open standards are offering to pay to build the cashless tolling network and guarantee a high level of net profit to the state. That, in itself, reflects a significant amount of confidence in the communications technology.

From a policy perspective, there’s little question but that an open standards approach, which would allow all states to use the same technology and thus allow drivers traveling from one area to another to receive the information offered in the new locale, would be best. If this approach is successful in North Carolina, other states and cities might have more incentive to embrace it and avoid the continued nightmare of balkanization — numerous proprietary solutions separating one network from another and creating a patchwork of systems around the country that requires drivers to purchase multiple service offerings to travel from state to state. Balkanization has slowed the adoption of a seamless, nationwide system. Among the downsides of open standards, however, is a public safety issue. If a driver in North Carolina has grown used to a robust network of services — for example, a system that warns when oncoming cars are traveling so fast that a left turn would not be wise — what happens when the driver enters another state that provides some similar information but not this particular capability? In addition, a proprietary toll system may not be easily expanded to provide additional services later on, such as parking information, traffic data, intersection warnings, and weather updates.

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  1. Approaches for Building Effective Regional Relationships in the Deployment of ITS,” U.S. DOT ITS Joint Program Office Webinar, March 4, 2008: Details of a Webinar on the subject of regional cooperation in creating intelligent highways.
  2. Patrick Gannon, “Turnpike officials discuss ways to collect tolls; ‘Easley Pass’ system?Star News, November 15, 2006: A useful article from a regional newspaper in North Carolina about that state’s toll road aspirations.
  3. North Carolina Turnpike Authority Web site: The arm of the N.C. government considering the tolling system.
  4. U.S. Department of Transportation Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) Web site: The segment of the DOT most directly involved in attempting to create intelligent highways.
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