By Steve Ingracia, National Technology Practice Leader, Olsson Associates
As I write this, I am returning home from the 2015 National Rural ITS conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Carlos Braceras, the forward-thinking executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, gave the keynote address this year, and in his remarks he echoed several things I have been thinking about in the last several years.
DOTs across the country have always hired civil engineers, which, of course, stands to reason. DOTs have always built roads. However, the role of DOTs is evolving from one of expanding the roadway network to operating and maintaining this network. I do not know a single engineer who believes we will continue to add lane miles at the pace that we have observed in the past 50 years. Rather, as we seek to operate the existing network more efficiently, and to maintain it in a cost-effective way, it will take different skillsets within our DOTs – and many of these skillsets do not fall under the umbrella of traditional civil engineering.
Maintenance of the roadway is primarily a civil engineering function, and one could argue that operations is as well. However, I believe that there will be a significant role in the coming years for electrical engineers, software engineers, and computer scientists within the ranks of DOT staff. Our roadways are increasingly becoming smart, connected, and network-enabled, with fiber optics running down the ROW and cameras, sensors, digital signs, and network gear becoming more pervasive. Connected and autonomous vehicles will be sharing the roadway sooner than anyone would have ever expected. The effective design of a large, distributed, and maintainable network such as this is primarily a function of electrical and network engineering.
Within my firm, I have seen the partnership of traffic and transportation engineers with network engineers and software developers produce some stellar results. I have not seen all DOTs embrace this partnership, but I believe that as we move toward a future of connected vehicles and smarter infrastructure, combined with reduced funding levels, we will need this partnership to succeed.
Along these lines, I also believe that from an ITS perspective, DOTs have become big data sources. Over the years, homegrown websites and smartphone apps have emerged from DOTs to disseminate this data to the public, with varying results of success. Apple and Google, along with app developers for firms such as Waze and Uber, have set a high bar for the quality of apps that the public expects – a bar that not many DOTs have the expertise to rise above. If the DOTs’ primary interest is in getting traveler information to the public quickly and seamlessly, why not give the data to these companies and let them produce the apps that consumers want and expect? The Iowa DOT’s recent data sharing partnership with Waze is a great example of such thinking.
As DOTs move to recruit these technology-centric staff, they will undoubtedly encounter resistance – in culture and in pay levels. Rather than simply competing with the consulting community for staff, they will now be competing with the tech companies, where recruiting is difficult and competition is fierce. It will take a new level of creativity to recruit (and retain) these staff, but I believe this effort is essential if the DOTs are to move into the network-enabled future.