ALERT, THE NEXT-GENERATION PATROL CAR

In police work, time and technology are often partners in the game of criminal pursuit. But when time collapses-during a high-speed chase, for instance-even the most high-tech gadgetry can be eclipsed. "When I'm chasing someone at 90 miles an hour, I can't take my eyes of the road," said Sgt. Greg Lewis, an officer in the Austin, Texas, Police Department. "In a high-speed pursuit, the screen turns into one big button."

That is only one of the technical challenges that the Federal Highway Administration, the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) and a score of industry players are currently tackling. Together they are developing the Advanced Law Enforcement Response Technology (ALERT) vehicle, a "second-generation" police car incorporating an array of advanced police, traffic enforcement and public safety applications.

The program, which links all a police car's computer and electrical systems into a sort of eight-cylinder local-area network, seeks to create a public safety system that can "plug and play" a variety of technologies, including handheld computers, touch screens, digital cameras, wireless devices and Global Positioning System terminals.

ALERT is the successor to a project called Technicar 2000, run by TTI in the early 1990s. "They wanted to explore technology found outside law enforcement and see if it could be injected into the law enforcement field," said Lewis, who consulted on the project. "It was unfunded, but they borrowed, begged or stole the equipment they needed," such as the handheld computers and printers. "We collected traffic citations, warnings and so forth from the field."

It was the possibility of gathering information on accidents and other public safety data that caught the attention of the FHwA. The two agencies then decided to forge a partnership to launch a completely new project and dubbed it ALERT. TTI gathered dozens of interested parties, from state and federal agencies to graduate students to police vendors, such as AT & T Wireless, Kodak, Epson America and others.

"We're not in the technology transfer business," said William Baker, chief of the Safety and Advanced Transportation Division of the FHwA's Office of Technology Applications and an evangelist for the ALERT project. "Our goal is to identify new and existing technology and accelerate its development to the user community. What we're designing is a technology kernel and an open architecture."

That technology would not be solely for police vehicles, either. Joseph Morgan, a Texas A & M University faculty member and TTI program manager who is helping spearhead the project, said ALERT's goal is to "create a data collection platform that can be used across a wide variety of first-response vehicles." Those vehicles might include emergency medical service or fire department vehicles-even intelligent dump trucks. "The ALERT project addresses a number of needs for the integration of technology on a micro level," said Sgt. Bruce Blair, radio systems manager for the Montgomery County Police department in Rockville, Md. Blair has been keeping an eye on the ALERT car as a potential user. "You hear about integration on a systems level. This is microsystems integration in the patrol vehicle environment."

For cops on the beat, ALERT should have more practical consequences. "We're getting new gear all the time," said Lewis, who is helping test the new car and shepherd it through a U.S. road show this year. "Now that cars are getting [passenger-side] air bags, there isn't room for the equipment we already have." A sudden stop can send equipment flying all over the passenger compartment and can seriously injure its occupants. "A touch-screen computer can provide the interface, so we could stick things in the trunk and not have to clutter the cockpit."

High-Tech Pursuits

The FHwA's Baker not only supervises the project, he is one of its biggest advocates, with a vision of law enforcement manifested by the ALERT cruiser. "First, picture a typical police car today," he said. "It's loaded with a shotgun, TV camera, switches and dials. It's a pretty busy, user-unfriendly environment. For every new piece of equipment, there's a new switch or dial. In the new system, all these technologies and more can be driven off a central point by touch."

For example, should a police officer spot a speeder, his radar would record the speed on an on-board computer even as the officer entered pursuit mode. "He never has to take his eyes off the vehicle," Baker said. Throughout the chase, all the technologies are integrated. The speeder is "spotted on [a geographic information system], and off [the policeman] goes," Baker said. "A touch of the screen, and his lights and sirens are activated in the right pattern; a television camera is activated, and a radio channel is opened up so that he can talk if he needs to."

Once the speeder is pulled over, the onboard computer can check the license plate, making sure that the tag belongs to the same vehicle that has been pulled over. If the plates have been stolen, the officer learns this before he leaves his car and can behave accordingly.

Leaving the car, the officer picks up a small, handheld computer linked by wireless LAN to the larger on-board device. To write a ticket, the officer can swipe a magnetic-striped license through his handheld device and get the driver's personal information, fill in the remaining information with a handwriting recognition system, and print out a copy of the ticket without returning to the car. The information is automatically sent to the on-board computer and, from there, to the traffic department's database.

Accident reports are streamlined by a digital camera connected wirelessly to the onboard computer, and traffic statistics are made available in days rather than months, thanks to electronic filing. During an arrest, the video camera's rear-view capabilities keep a close eye (and a permanent record) of a suspect's treatment and behavior during his arrest.

The Back End

As it happens, virtually all the hardware mentioned above is available for use today. It's the software at the back end-at the traffic court, the police station and other data proc-essing locations-that is generally lacking. "The hardware is just a front end," Baker said. "Back at the station, you need an information management system that can use the electronic records. We're creating a mobile data gathering platform-creating information for systems that really don't exist yet."

That openness should help both local police departments and their vendors by providing a standard to aim for. The common interface would allow police departments to continue their practice of customizing their vehicles, while letting vendors design products that can be sold to any of thousands of police departments in North America.

"The fact that the infrastructure has not been defined doesn't bother me," Montgomery County's Blair said. The openness of the system and the allowances that let data travel through a variety of pipelines means that departments such as Montgomery County are free to design their own systems within a relatively loose framework. "They are acknowledging that there are different needs," Blair said.

The Incredible Shrinking Patrol Car

One of the problems ALERT faces is purely ergonomic: When the 1994 Chevrolet Caprice was pulled off the market and replaced with the smaller Lumina, police elbow room literally went out the window. "The ALERT project addresses a problem we're faced with right now: integrating a lot of technology in a smaller vehicle," Blair said.

The problem becomes especially acute for police departments, considering some of the larger hardware they tote. "Take equipment like shotguns," Blair said. "Now you put those between the two front seats. But that real estate has become very valuable, especially since, with dual air bags, you can't mount a PC on the passenger side."

The ALERT engineers have managed to squeeze some of the bigger hardware out of the cab, especially in areas where the police have to maneuver. "They've taken all this functionality and all of the in-vehicle ergonomics and combined into one package," Blair said. "It creates a clean cockpit area."

Program officials estimate the ALERT black box, including the case-hardened on-board computer, touch screen and software, will add $5,000 to $7,000-or 20 to 30 percent-to the $23,000 it takes to buy a police car today. Although that's a lot for cash-strapped local governments, economies of scale should help bring down the cost of other equipment if vendors can sell to a larger potential market, officials say.

They also point to huge potential savings in administrative and data-gathering costs. "To an administrator, I could show them how we can transmit to whatever database we have to," Baker said. "That does away with at least one clerk. Under the old system, a ticket was entered by the officer, by the clerk, by a tracer clerk and then by the courts. With ALERT, you enter it only once."

That fact alone might have a major effect on the cost of accident reporting nationwide. "Billions are spent on accident statistics gathered in the field," Lewis said. "There's probably a good chance that some of that information is skewed. Certainly it isn't timely. The reports can take a year and a half to process. Right now, there is a 10-day delay just getting the data from College Station to [state capital] Austin." Added Baker: "It looks as though we are getting a 30 percent to 50 percent reduction in the length of time it takes to file a report, and that's in the early testing stage."

For end users-the police agencies themselves-the sell is more basic. "To them, I would say, `You want to put more technology into the hands of the police? The cars are getting smaller all the time. Where are you going to put it?' " Lewis said. Even with the pilot proj-ects, "there has been a tremendous change in attitude and interest" on the part of police departments, according to Texas A & M's Morgan. "They're not going to just allow anyone to go in and change the way they do business."

ALERT is still a long way from becoming standard government issue. And with only two vehicles completed, there's still a lot to be learned from the field. "The next step is more test vehicles," said Baker, who notes the California Highway Patrol may take half a dozen cars, and the city of Alexandria, Va., may take a couple. At the end of a year or so, the developers should have gotten enough feedback to complete development.

By then, the International Association of Chiefs of Police may take a hand, simply because managing ALERT may cost more than developing it. "We're hoping that they give it the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," Baker said.

"We're not trying to say that this is the right way," Lewis added, "but we know it isn't the wrong way because nobody else is doing anything at all."

Gerald Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly, N.J. He can be reached at jl4hire@ix.netcom.com.

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TTI: The ALERT Vehicle Incubator

The ALERT vehicle project is sponsored by the Texas Transportation Institute, the largest university-based transportation research agency in the United States. The institute was created in 1950 to conduct highway research for the state of Texas and now does research on all aspects of transportation systems, including planning, design, construction, operation, maintenance and enforcement. It also studies the economic, environmental and social impact of transportation.

TTI is part of the Texas A & M University system and earns 90 percent of its budget through competitively awarded research contracts funded by public-sector and private-sector sponsors. Last year it performed more than $27 million in funded research, of which $2.1 million was appropriated by the state of Texas. Other research is funded through the Federal Highway Administration; the departments of Transportation, Energy and Defense; transportation departments from other states and nations; and private industry.

TTI is in the last year of a 10-year research effort focused on urban mobility; the project aims to identify transportation trends and rank needs. In the course of the study, it concluded that commuters in one-third of the nation's largest cities spend the equivalent of one work week, or 49 hours, a year in traffic jams.

TTI conducts interdisciplinary transportation research and technology transfer in eight fields: economics and planning; materials, pavements and construction; safety; transportation systems; traffic operations; systems planning; structural systems; and communications/technology transfer.

TTI is home to six national research centers, including the Intelligent Transportation Systems Research Center of Excellence, the Southwest Region University Transportation Center, the International Center for Aggregates Research, the Association of American Railroads' Affiliated Laboratory, the TTI Center for Ports and Waterways, and TransLinkTM Research Center and Laboratory.

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