COMMENTARY: Kill the quest for killer applications

Every month or so, another company pops up touting its killer application for Intelligent Transportation Systems.

Maybe it's better traffic information. Maybe it's pinpointing vehicle location by triangulating the driver's animal magnetism. Maybe it's the once and future algorithm for micromanaging urban traffic. Or instant/seamless/painless intermodal freight handling. Or cars that drive themselves.

Unfortunately, every month or so, another of these companies bites the dust, leaving both market planners and observers with one more apparent bit of evidence that ITS is Buck Rogers stuff.

Truth is, ITS has become part of many people's lives. For example, drivers in several states use smart tags rather than cash to pay tolls electronically. Elsewhere, drivers are being offered real-time traffic information. The end result is that precious minutes are being shaved from motorists' commutes.

I am convinced the future of Intelligent Transportation Systems will be vast and profitable in the long run. And I think traffic information, geolocation, traffic management, freight handling and driver assistance systems will all be part of the equation.

Oversold promises

But the successful future of ITS is delayed further into the future every time we sour the vehicle manufacturers, public agencies and buying public with oversold promises of killer apps that can't be delivered.

In some respects, ITS is suffering the same fate as the dot-coms, and for the same reason. Too much uncritical investment money is available, and too many companies believe their own hype.

Perfectly respectable old-line companies have been led down the garden path by promises of quick, slick computer-based approaches to difficult product and service delivery challenges. I have said for years that transportation and automotive engineers need to know more about computers and information technology so they can use software to better leverage and multiply the power of their hardware. And they need to know enough so they don't get taken in by overly enthusiastic in-house techies who promise more than can be delivered.

People from the computer and communications industries often seem to think that automotive products and services have quick and easy solutions. Never mind the need to build an organization and a market with products that are robust enough and reliable enough that people will pay for them.

Take predictive traffic analysis. The computer whizzes believe that formulas can be whipped up like a short-order lunch - quickly and cheaply - without taking the time to gather and analyze all the information. Then there is the issue of delivering the information to the consumer in a useful form. Worse, they may think drivers will pay for partial information.

But the real world pricks the bubbles of the enthusiastically unprepared.

The problem is that these burst bubbles are leaving behind an automotive industry and a public sector whose fingers have been burnt too many times. No wonder many are skeptical of ITS.

A fix is needed

This needs to get fixed. There is no way to prevent fools and money from continuing to be separated. But maybe we can help keep this from souring the whole ITS industry.

To begin, we need better scrutiny from the industry press of the bright new ideas. A few of these bright ideas have the promise to lead to useful products, but not very many.

We also need better education, both in our schools and in our corporations, regarding how the automotive business actually works. And we need education concerning the promise and the limitations of information technology, especially in the vehicle.

The people with the bright ideas need to understand that they're building a new business line for vehicle usage - not for a PC or the Internet. And the people overseeing new initiatives at corporations need to know enough about information technology and the automotive industry not to be dazzled by glib tech talk.

Most important, we need to work to maintain support for ITS from industry and government despite the failures of overly optimistic promises and predictions from entrepreneurs and others. This means keeping the focus on creative efforts that have substance behind them.

And it means helping everyone to recognize and be wary of smoke and mirrors from whatever source they come.

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