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Life in the Smart Lane : Road to a High-Tech Transit System Paved With Opportunities

November 03, 1996|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's hard to envision if you're stuck in Southern California's weekday commuter crawl, but the land that gave freeway gridlock to the nation is poised to help unclog the freeways.

From the recently opened "smart corridor" on the Santa Monica Freeway to the California Test Bed projects in Orange County, a loose consortium of private industry, academia and government transportation agencies is working to create a seamless system of information, navigation and traffic management tools that will help speed us on our appointed rounds.

It is all part of a fast-developing industry called intelligent transportation that is creating business opportunities across the country.

This is not the intelligent transportation that futurists have sketched out for us: commuters leaning back with the morning paper while crash-proof, hydrogen-fueled, pre-programmed personal transit vehicles whisk them down the automated highway and into office building parking lots.

Instead, the intelligent transportation industry that has developed over the last decade is bent on combining sometimes doddering technologies such as electronically controlled traffic signals with newer ones such as computers, cell phones and orbiting satellites.

"People think this is still all out there in science fiction, but it's not," said John Stearns, an intelligent-transportation specialist (ITS) and director of Project California. "The technology is all there, and businesses are already making the products we need."

The key now is merging what industry is producing into traffic systems that, for the most part, are not very well coordinated, said Stearns, whose organization was formed by the state in 1991 to encourage development of an intelligent transportation systems industry.

If federal Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and his advisors are correct, continued growth of the industry means that in 15 years, the average commute in Southern California will take 15% less time than it does now, reducing gas and oil consumption and improving air quality and drivers' tempers.

And business growth seems assured: An estimated $210 billion will be spent on so-called ITS projects in the United States by 2010, according to government and industry estimates. About 15% of the total, or nearly $32 billion, will be spent in California, where the nation's ITS industry got its start in the ashes of the defense industry and where many of the most ambitious projects are underway, said Patrick Conroy, ITS chief for the California Department of Transportation.

The potential benefit to the state's economy is substantial. Said Robert Ratcliff, manager of the California Alliance for Advanced Transportation Systems, a Diamond Bar-based ITS business development group: "We figure this industry has the potential of adding 272,000 new jobs in the state by 2010."

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The industry has three parts: traveler information, traffic management and the still-experimental field of automated highways. A number of California businesses and universities, as well as Caltrans, are major players in all three.

Traveler information includes systems that deliver real-time traffic maps, directions, routes and public transit schedules. One example is global positioning systems (GPS) based on the precision navigation technology developed for the military by Seal Beach-based Rockwell International. The company has also developed civilian uses for GPS, which uses electronic signals from a network of 24 satellites to establish the location of a receiving device to within 35 feet of its position almost anywhere on Earth.

Rockwell is one of a dozen U.S. and Japanese companies making GPS devices for autos that display turn-by-turn maps (most produced by two Northern California companies) on dashboard-mounted screens and give voice instructions to the driver. Rockwell signed a deal with Hertz Corp. last summer to install 7,500 of its systems in rental cars.

The next step is to develop ways to broadcast highway information directly to GPS-equipped cars so drivers can receive instructions on alternate routes in time to use them, say ITS specialists such as UC Irvine transportation program director Wilfred Recker.

Rockwell also has contracts to use its GPS technology to help develop up-to-the-minute traveler information systems for the Orange County Transit Authority and the city of Santa Ana. They will be more localized versions of the pioneering Yosemite Area Traveler Information network, which provides traffic and tourist information to travelers who use interactive kiosks in towns on the approaches to the national park.

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On the traffic management front, the $50-million Santa Monica Freeway "smart corridor" that opened last month is one of the nation's first publicly visible ITS projects.

Overhead signs alert the freeway's motorists to accidents and other tie-ups ahead, and electronic signs installed on streets paralleling the corridor direct them around the obstacles.

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