The ITS waltz

Projects requiring federal and state governments to work together often take years to bring to fruition, and public projects that depend on industry support sometimes never materialize. So it's easy to understand why the concept of intelligent transportation systems, which is a three-way dance, has not lived up to expectations.

That said, it's worth noting that, whatever the expectations, ITS development has played out pretty much as it should. No doubt that doesn't sound right to people who, a decade ago, envisioned that by now, information technology could prevent many of the traffic snarls common in most metropolitan areas. ITS may come in many forms, but ultimately transportation visionaries hoped to deliver information to drivers right in their cars.

Although the ITS reality has so far not met the visionaries' high expectations, many people are beginning to realize it's simply a product of the approach — and the right one—government has taken to ITS development.

The U.S. Transportation Department has concentrated its efforts on developing basic ITS blueprints to ensure that systems developed by different states can share information as needed to manage traffic flow. The federal government also has bankrolled city and state efforts to pilot innovative applications.

So far, so good. This model has brought varied applications into the field, including systems to direct police or ambulance crews to accidents, or to help maintenance crews take care of icy roads.

The next step—delivering data to drivers so they can avoid those problems — is trickier. For years, ITS efforts have stalled because most automakers have not designed their dashboards to accommodate ITS devices, but that is changing with the emergence of some tech-ready models. Now states are realizing that the data-distribution business is just that—a business. It's merely a matter of convincing vendors that there's enough of a market to make it worth their while.

It's not an especially efficient way to make ITS a reality. But it's a case where federal and state agencies have taken a refreshingly realistic approach to what is bound to be a complex choreography.

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