Jun 23 2021

Seize This Moment to Invest in the Present and Future of Transportation

The federal government’s interest in helping state and local agencies improve their infrastructure could lead to a boom of technology investment to create smarter, more resilient cities.

With the recent introduction of a new $494 billion federal transportation bill, state and local governments have been presented with a chance to make profound and lasting changes to their infrastructure. The proposed bill allocates grants for the creation of electric vehicle charging stations, investments in rail infrastructure and more. It gives agencies opportunities to address today’s challenges while laying the groundwork for what lies ahead.

Taking advantage of these opportunities will require a new way of thinking that goes well beyond a fixation on immediate needs. Agencies can no longer look to the past and ask, “How did we get here?” Instead, they need to look at the present and ask, “How can we make things better today while preparing for the future?”

Balancing Future Transportation Needs with Current Realities

Balancing future preparedness with current realities requires creativity and wisdom from the agencies investing the proposed funds.

Yes, much of the money must go to the maintenance and repair of decaying infrastructure. However, if done smartly, investments made today can also go toward technologies that make it possible to modernize current infrastructure while reducing the complexity of adding the next project.

This is like building a new home. It’s far less expensive to have the builder prewire for ceiling fans or add the plumbing connections for that future pool a family has been wanting. Small, smart investments today avoid waste and can serve as a down payment on future projects.

Most of the technologies that government agencies will likely consider investing in are very familiar. These include the cloud, edge computingthe Internet of Things and other tools state and local governments use to power their smart city initiatives.

However, these technologies are only as good as the tools that make them run. These tools include containers, application programming interfaces and event-driven rules engines that determine what information should be processed at the edge and what needs to be sent to a central data center for further analysis.

Each of these technologies serves its own purpose and contributes to agencies’ efforts to deliver new solutions today while transforming the way they approach future infrastructure needs. Let’s take a closer look at each of these and their roles in transportation transformation.

DIVE DEEPER: How will smart cities be impacted by new infrastructure investment?

Containers Enable Application Development at Speed

Containers are essential to cloud-native development practices, which in turn are critical for developing applications and new citizen services at speed. Containers enable developers to easily and quickly create and modify feature-rich applications and port them wherever they are needed.

A developer can create an application today to solve a current problem and deploy that application to hundreds of edge sites with different use cases without having to re-create unique applications or physically travel to and touch each site.

Containers can serve as the development bedrock for a number of current and future use cases. Developers can use containers to create application services to process videos from smart traffic cameras, radio-frequency transponder signals and license plate photos from high-speed tollbooths, or information derived from IoT sensors along railroad tracks and at high-risk traffic crossings.

APIs Open Up Secure Shared Connections

APIs make it possible for these sensors to run together, seamlessly and more securely connecting formerly separate devices. For example, data from a smart traffic camera manufactured by one company can be shared with the information being collected by connected vehicles.

Connecting these seemingly disparate assets creates a mesh that can help cities improve everything from traffic flow to air quality and pedestrian safety.

Using enterprise open standards, modern APIs help municipalities to bring together existing investments in proprietary cameras and sensors while positioning themselves to accept new endpoints, regardless of the manufacturer.

EXPLORE: How can smart cities survive after the pandemic?

Rules Engines Lead to Smarter Decision-Making

Finally, rules engines deployed within containerized applications that live close to sensors determine which information to process locally and what should be sent to the centralized cloud or agency data center.

The more data that can be processed at or near the edge, the faster the decision-making can occur. Expenses are reduced too, since edge processing helps agencies to avoid excessive ingress and egress costs incurred by transmitting data to central processing centers.

Perhaps even more important, the less data needs to travel, the more resilient the overall ecosystem becomes. For instance, a self-driving car needs to locally process data using artificial intelligence algorithms to make a real-time decision to stop before it hits a jaywalker. It’s like building up human muscle memory through repeated practice and training to catch a Frisbee or hit a curveball.

Conversely, machine learning models may be used to determine smarter ways to lower overall vehicle maintenance costs, improve safety, and increase overall customer and employee satisfaction.

For example, telemetry information from city buses might be sent to the cloud to feed apps that inform customers about when the bus will arrive at their stops. Telemetry information collected over time paired with vehicle weight sensor data may be analyzed using centralized machine learning models to provide better insight into when a bus needs preventative maintenance.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out why these smart cities are the ones to watch.

A Standard, Open Infrastructure and Future Possibilities

Ideally, each of these technologies should be supported by a common enterprise open-source infrastructure. This allows for better interoperability among different types of sensors. It will also provide IT professionals with a standard and consistent framework upon which to build and iterate over time.

Inherently modular components save agencies from having to make wholesale changes to their IT infrastructure every time they add a new tool to their toolboxes. They can add new features and applications incrementally and with less need for rework, expediting development while keeping costs low.

These baseline technologies set the stage for endless future possibilities, both large and small. Imagine having the ability to manage and monitor from a central location thousands of connected stoplights spread across a city. Imagine providing a state department of motor vehicles with the ability to modernize incrementally without the need to make substantial and costly changes to its IT environment.

State and local agencies must keep thinking about these future opportunities and move on from outdated technologies and thinking while continuing to take care of the present. Agencies should not throw away this shot at hitting all their infrastructure goals.

RELATED: How can transportation infrastructure be both smart and equitable?

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