Blurring the lines

Thinking Highways
By Arif Rafiq December 5, 2014 16:17

Blurring the lines

Arif Rafiq wonders if there still such a thing as traditional ITS in a smart environment

Amidst growing privacy concerns, location-aware smartphone apps continue to proliferate. We simply can’t get enough of the convenience of tapping a few times on our smartphones and a vehicle magically appears on the street in front of us to take us where we want to go, or being alerted while driving that there is a collision up ahead and to take an alternate route. Or, perhaps, even something as simple as ordering a pizza and the delivery driver knowing exactly where to go.

The convenience and simplicity of location-aware apps combined with connected vehicles have brought us is astounding, even when compared to what we had available to do just a few short years ago. Can you imagine getting stuck in a traffic jam because you didn’t know about the collision up ahead? Or even worse having to frantically wave your hand in the street in the hope that a passing taxi sees you and is available? Yes, it might be a bit of a stretch, but this reality is already here in many ways. Note the controversy and disruption from startups like Uber and Lyft [1]  – those existing businesses that choose not to adapt face an uncertain future.

The simple assumption that mobile phone users take their devices everywhere with them is enough to fuel the appetite for hungry app developers to serve up the finest in location-aware cuisine.

No longer simply a domain for VMS (Variable Message Signs) and Synchronized Traffic Signals, Intelligent Transportation Systems have evolved into a complex entity where the line between product development and service delivery or, better yet, between vendor and customer, are becoming increasingly blurred. Where once they were simply messengers of information, ITS firms are fast becoming the custodians and interpreters of Big Data.


Location-aware apps on smartphones enable just about any one of us to become data providers; we agree to deliver information about our location and environment so that others can interpret and deliver this information back to us in a meaningful way.

18 Blurring the lines 2For example, many of us already have apps on our smartphones that can automatically analyse the phone’s movement patterns and location in the world to identify whether we are walking, driving or relaxing at home. Taken a step further, interpreters of this data can identify that, if we are driving, that our speed is less than it should be on a particular road at a particular time of day. This may suggest that the traffic congestion is little higher than normal. Combined with the inputs of a few other drivers in the area, this results in a familiar orange or red line on the map in our smartphone or vehicle navigation system that many of us use to get to where we are going. All this without any of us consciously making the decision to do it and in most cases without paying for the resulting information.


Crowdsourcing data from location-aware smartphones delivered to connected vehicles is a simple enough concept, yet it is phenomenally powerful. There are a number of ITS firms participating in this movement right now.

A by-product of this is remarkably huge amounts of data. So immense that mere humans could not digest and interpret it fast enough. Take a look at the following projection on global data to 2017 [2].  Yes, this chart is in Zettabytes.

With the arrival of the connected vehicles for mobility services, and safety services in the future, managing this data effectively and making sense of it has become a leading objective for ITS firms around the world. The traditional traffic engineering component of being an ITS firm is still paramount, because without being able to interpret the data and deliver information, this exercise is not applicable in the real world. But the data custodian nature of the business is most interestingly garnering a larger share of the attention from the stakeholders of ITS firms.

The International Road Federation (IRF) hosts an ITS Technical Committee comprised of leading industry, research centers and government highway agencies from around the world. This is in addition to the IRF’s Asset Management, Road Financing and Road Safety committees. There is obviously value in the type of data unwittingly generated by motorists in terms of forecasting demand, improving safety or preventive asset management planning. This in turn bolsters the argument that IRF is the place where this cross-industry dialogue needs to happen.


Arif Rafiq is director of membership and marketing at the International Road Federation


[2] Source: Cisco Global Cloud Index: Forecast and Methodology 2012-2017.

Thinking Highways
By Arif Rafiq December 5, 2014 16:17