WASHINGTON -- When engineers talk about roads here, they describe them as networks. There's a good reason for that.
In high-definition displays, roadways appear like wires hanging off the back of server racks. It's a tangled system. The data, vehicles in this case, are illustrated by small, slowly moving dots.
Researchers who study motor vehicle traffic are interested in reducing traffic congestion. Congestion equals loss, they say, the loss of human and economic productivity that comes from sitting in traffic.
"Building a way out of this mess is not going to be a solution," said Gabor Karsai, a professor in the school of engineering at Vanderbilt University and a member of a team using IT to improve traffic flows.
Engineers, auto makers and U.S. transportation officials who gathered at the White House's SmartAmerica conference this week showed various systems and technologies that may be used to make driving safer and more efficient.
On display were technologies ranging from dedicated short range communications (DSRC) that will allow vehicles to share real-time information about location and speed and warn of a need for evasive action, to systems that monitor and regulate traffic flows over a region.
As the importance of IT in transportation increases, the U.S. Department of Transportation has begun discussing the need for standards on data exchanges, said its CIO Richard McKinney.
McKinney, speaking at the SmartAmerica conference, said the transportation industry doesn't want to find itself 10 to 15 years from now with independently developed data standards that hinder communications.
Last week, DOT officials met to examine the role the DOT should play "in the definition of data standards" in "this newborn industry" of digital technologies in transportation.
McKinney said he doesn't know what role the DOT should play, but made it clear that he wants to discuss the topic with industry officials.
"I see that the marriage of information technology with transportation is going to be as transformative as anything," said McKinney. "I'm beginning to see things that I couldn't have imagined as a young man."
The overarching goal is to make driving as safe as air travel, and reduce the 30,000-plus traffic fatalities annually. Among the technologies that could play a major role, is DSRC, which is being used in a pilot test in Southfield, Mich.
DSCR systems enable vehicles to communicate with one another, but it also requires the devices to be deployed along highways as well as in cars. It takes the auto industry five to seven years to add new technologies to vehicles, do DSCR is clearly years away.
But in the more immediate future, there are systems like the one that Vanderbilt's Karsai is working on, along with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.
The system, which may be deployed in a few years in Southern California, is an integrated infrastructure that will monitor the network, or roads, and then control the traffic flow. Individual traffic lights and freeway ramp lights will talk to each other in a connected system to help ensure that traffic flows smoothly. It will involve regulating ramp lights, which control vehicles entering the highway.
Other systems that may be more pervasive in a few years concern parking, a big time waster for motorists. Technology is now available that can tell drivers where to find parking, how much it will cost and even reserve a space.
The problem, say those working on these systems, is that many garages, which operate on low margins, have not invested in the technology, which also tells drivers which parking spaces may be free.
Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.