Are Smart HighwaysAbout to Pay Off Big?

The companies that decide how America's future transportation system communicates are poised to be big winners in the marketplace

The business of providing high-tech transportation equipment and services is so new in America that companies are still trying to calibrate exactly what their customers will demand. But some firms have positioned themselves in such a way that they are practically guaranteed success.

The handful of companies that decide how America's future automobiles will communicate with the surrounding infrastructure will have a competitive edge in developing products for an advanced transportation system, say industry participants and observers.

A $20 million effort is underway to ensure that when automobiles of the future "talk" to toll booths, parking meters, road sensors, and traffic management centers, they are all speaking a common language. The framework that outlines how components of an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) will communicate and work together for the next 20 years is called the system architecture. And four industry-led teams have spent the last year developing rival ITS architecture concepts.

The U.S. Transportation Department will soon pick two or three of the teams to work together on merging the architectures into one national framework. Using the communication protocols and interfaces that the final architecture dictates, companies will be able to produce interoperable products. But industry sources say the firms that have a hand in developing the framework will have a leg up on developing products.

"Companies that continue on [in the architecture-development program] have an excellent vantage point to look over the ITS landscape, to look at the technology thrusts, and analyze where the markets are going to be," said Dick Worsham, project manager for Baltimore, Md.-based Westinghouse Electric Corp., which is heading up a nine-member architecture team.

"It will give companies an insight into what structures are going to be employed" and give them an advantage in identifying future business opportunities, said Worsham. Other members on the Westinghouse team include Bell Atlantic Mobile Systems, the Harris Corporation and the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Members of the four teams include systems integrators, product developers and system implementors like local governments. It will be easier for the companies on the teams to see market niches because they are thinking of the whole transportation system, said Rich Schuman, director of system integration for ITS America, the public-private partnership created to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced transportation technologies.

"Obviously anyone who goes on will have the benefit of knowing exactly what kinds of products will be needed," said Kenneth Schreder, technical director of advanced technology and engineering for Anaheim, Calif.-based Rockwell International. Rockwell is leading a team that includes Apogee Research, GTE Laboratories, Honeywell and George Mason University. Loral Federal Systems in Bethesda, Md. and Los Angeles-based Hughes Aircraft are heading up the other two teams.

Being on the two or three teams that develop the architecture will give those firms the chance to think about ITS in a systematic way and to exchange ideas among teammates, said Russ Steele of TRW Transportation Systems in San Diego. Last year TRW submitted one of the 14 proposals to develop an architecture, but they were not selected. All four teams benefited from participating in the first phase of the architecture development, said Steele, because they were able to conduct studies and focus groups that were paid for under the government contract. He notes that TRW does focus groups to identify ITS markets, but they have to pay for them with company funds.

Lee Simmons, architecture team leader at the Federal Highway Administration, which is managing the architecture development program, argues that there are no real competitive advantages for the teams chosen to develop the architecture. He says that all the projects introduced by the four teams can be considered when developing the national framework.

In July 1996, a single national architecture will emerge.

But will firms build equipment and products that meet the architecture's guidelines?

"It's a free country," said ITS America's Schuman, and the companies aren't going to build products that adhere to this architecture if it doesn't meet their needs. But it is to the advantage of all firms to develop a consensus architecture so when companies build equipment they address defined markets, thus reducing their risk, said Schuman.

Eleven forums are being held Nov. 7-18 around the U.S. to solicit comments about each of the four architectures. This will be the chance for all the ITS stakeholders -- from private firms that will develop transportation products, to local officials who will implement high-tech infrastructure elements -- to affect the architecture process, said Simmons.

But there are clear competitive advantages -- in product development, strategic planning and research funding -- that firms involved in setting the architecture will have over uninvolved companies.

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