A new ecosystem emerges in intelligent transportation

Our industry is changing so fast, it can sometimes be hard to keep track of developments and just who is doing what in what segment of the industry.  For example, Lowell McAdam, our CEO, has spoken often about the future impact and importance of “machine-to-machine” connections (sensors or small computers connected via our networks that help manage distribution systems like gas pipelines or home electrical systems). Verizon acquired Hughes Telematics a while back, a company that specializes in machine-to-machine telematics technologies.  These include fleet management systems that help trucking companies monitor and manage their trucks; in-car technologies that car owners assess the operations of their cars, remotely turn off a car that is stolen, or automatically call emergency services in an accident; and after-market technologies that plug into special ports built into cars since 1996 and offer a number of services including monitoring vehicle performance.

This is why Verizon joined the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA).  ITSA represents state, federal and departments of transportation, transportation industry consultants, traditional intelligent transportation technology companies (i.e., such as Iteris, which makes traffic management systems), some automakers, academic institutions that do research on transportation, and some tech companies (IBM, Qualcomm).  (Full disclosure, I sit on the ITSA board.) 

Kicking off the annual ITSA conference a few weeks ago was a panel featuring David Strickland, the NHTSA Administrator and Tom Taylor from Hughes Telematics.  David said that technology moves quickly and that is why we must be mindful of quick innovation, noting that NHTSA tries to use good data to provide a ‘flexible regulatory framework’.  He also acknowledged that drivers have first responsibility for driving, but industry and government need to collaborate to make things safer. Tom stressed the industry’s commitment to safety, and pointed out that while connected cars – cars that communicate wirelessly with one another – are a long-term technology trend, we can already do much of what can be done with connected cars using cloud technologies, enabling cars to connect via the cloud to each other and to data. This is an important point – cloud services are already here.   ITSA is focused on connected cars, but the reality is that it may take ten to 20 years to see real connectivity among large numbers of cars, in part because there are so many cars on the road, and also because many of those cars are older and not adapted to new technology.  Hence, the cloud is going to be important in the near term.

I heard something at the last annual meeting a few weeks ago that was new – at least in the context of the transportation industry: someone used the word “ecosystem” to describe how the intelligent transportation sector is changing.  What they meant was clear from the context of their comments: they are seeing that new companies – such as mobile phones, wireless companies and apps makers – are becoming important players in the industry and beginning to make major contributions to its evolution.  We’ve all heard of Uber and Car2Go.  Another example is a company called Streetline.  It makes special small sensors that can be glued on the pavement in the middle of each parking space. When a car drives over the sensor, it registers that the space is taken with a private parking company or with city hall in the case of public parking. Users have accounts on their mobile phones, and they are automatically debited for the cost of the parking space.

I often say that the Internet has “crashed” into a great many industries and in almost every case, it has helped change them for the better.  The word “crash” may not be the best one to use for smart cars, but the impact of communications technology on industries often does cause shock waves that shake up competition, innovation and business models. We are just at the beginning of the changes the Internet will spur in transportation as apps and intelligent devices come into play. This is the “ecosystem” emerging, just as I saw it come into play in the landline and wireless broadband sectors. Policy makers in Washington are taking notice of this development, too, as the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on advanced vehicles earlier this week. This is one reason too that we joined with other tech companies and organizations to launch the Intelligent Car Coalition recently.  There is no telling where all of this will go but that is an important aspect of innovation – avoiding the temptation to try to prescribe how technology should evolve.