There is a reason that we are not living in smart cities – a tech utopia, like companies like Apple, Google, and Disney have envisioned, and it’s my fault. Well, not specifically my fault, but my industry’s fault. It comes from a traditional way of thinking: that only those with a “civil engineering degree” can do transportation. Well I am here to tell you that that is an archaic mindset that is dragging down Mr. Disney’s, Job’s, and Elon Musk’s vision for a futuristic transportation network. In order for me to lay this out, I might as well tell you how I came up into transportation.
A little bit of Civil in my life…
Before college, I did not want to be a civil engineer. No, I wanted to be a nuclear engineer and work on nuclear submarines in the Navy. This was my vision. However, then, during my Sophomore year I sprouted a good 4-5 inches, which was about the time that my uncle (a former Navy vet who served in Korea) let me know a little known secret: submarines do not accommodate 6+ footers very well. Being 6’4″, this was not going to bode well for me.
So, I had to readjust my plans. It was at this point that I got accepted to my in-state State safety school and just decided, “Eh, what the heck? It’ll cost me nothing to go to college.” (my father works as a professor and I got the added benefit of only paying 25% of tuition. Solid!). So, I went through the orientation process and visited the various engineering schools. I toured the aerospace, mechanical, civil, chem, etc. and got some good insight into each (or so I thought). I was very impressed by the new facilities the aerospace/mechanical school had just built. They had big windows with massive classrooms, large architectural structures out front of each building, and little “tech centers” inside each. This is where I wanted to go.
However, I still had to continue on with the tour. I visited the other departments (don’t really remember the order as I am writing this 10+ years later), and came to the last stop of the tour: the civil department. When we got up to the building, I was not impressed. The building was very plain, with red bricks adorning the side. I was led through an old hallway to a small, windowless, low-ceiling room. I sat down and looked around at my surroundings. This was NOT where I was going to study.
After a hum-drum presentation led my a junior facility who talked more to the PowerPoint than they did to us, little did I know I would be joining their ranks 5 years later (I was on the Super Senior program…more on that in another post). With all this new and exciting knowledge, I was about to be..an Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) Engineer? Hold on, doesn’t that require working with circuits and power, along with analyzing massive amounts of data and knowing how to work an IT network? Why the hell wasn’t I taught those things, instead of learning about structures for four (wait, five…forgot that…) years?!
Not a lot of match between education and practice
So, in my <40 years of experience in the transportation world, I have noticed (and maybe you have, if you were able to decipher the cryptic figure above) that the entire realm of transportation education is focused on the brick-and-mortar, humdrum, civil-side. Now you might be saying, “But Kris, there is no way you can get an in-depth education in your Bachelor’s degree.” True, I might say to the dissenting opinion with the same voice as mine, but there can be options to help guide young, aspiring minds to understand the real challenges of their major, and not have them learn everything on the job.
In practice, ITS engineers, who are the backbone to smart cities, focus on 4 main areas: traffic engineering, electrical engineering, data analysis, and computer engineering. These four subject areas are listed below, along with some of the shortfalls I have seen:
1. TRAFFIC ENGINEERING
Traffic devices affect how people operate their vehicles. Therefore, engineers need to understand how these devices can help them track, record, and affect traffic. This is the bread-and-butter of those working as ITS Engineers. In fact, most traffic guys and gals became ITS Engineers by default. I guess since these are the folks focusing on “real world operations,” the powers that be feel like a good fit. I mean, I cannot imagine someone working on pavement design transitioning over to this role, so it kind of makes sense.
The fundamentals of traffic theory have not changed over the past 100+ years. Cars still have 4 wheels, people are still behind the steering wheel, and everybody has the worst drivers (more on this in a later post). Therefore, it is a safe bet to teach these “laws,” which include fun things like perception-reaction time, cycle length, shockwaves, and Q=KV (a fundamental law as expressed by my transpo professor). Therefore, they are easy to teach.
2. ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING
While it would be great if these devices ran on sunshine and rainbows, these devices need to be powered by a reliable power source. ITS engineers need to know how these devices are going to be powered. This is very important because, depending on the final location, costs can skyrocket for projects just because of power. However, it is difficult to find qualified engineers with this capacity, as this was not a major focus in college. Circuits, V=IR, and putting your tongue on a 9-volt is a fun, drunk prank; however, I do not remember a single thing about my electrical classes from college. Now I am tasked with finding voltage requirements and sizing wires for voltage drops. Sheesh.
3. DATA ANALYSIS
This is a foreign concept to a lot of engineers. In school we are given problems to solve, given a set of conditions. There was always one correct answer and by god if you did not get it exactly right to the thousandths place, you were sent to places where women were weeping and men gnashed their teeth. Well, in the real world, it does not work like this. The real-world problems do not hand you the “givens.” The engineer needs to figure this out. Furthermore, there could be multiple answers for a given set of inputs, which is a complete 180 from my college days.
These restrictions, I feel, have not allowed engineers to become more creative. In many meeting I have been in, there is only one answer, and one set of inputs per problem. However, this mode of thinking is not constructive to the dynamics of transportation. The reason a road has traffic isn’t solely due to the fact that it only has 2 lanes. There could have been an accident, or a traffic light is not optimized, or a mass of people could be traveling due to a special event. All these examples are logical explanations for the simple question of: “Why is there traffic?”
4. COMPUTER ENGINEERING
This is a concept that I believe will be changed in the future. Given the rise of computer science degrees and the integration of coding and hacking at younger and younger ages, this will be a thing of the past. HOWEVER, until my 3 year old niece develops her own robot, the current ITS engineers are severely lacking in basic networking and computer programming skills. Devices need to communicate with each other via a medium, whether it be wireless, fiber, or 2-cans attached with a string. The properties of telecommunication must be understood so that we’re not designing systems that cannot communicate with one another.
In regards to programming, I think this is the real crux: ITS engineers need to USE the information given by all these different aspects of ITS to actually do something. It is great to have a device that records data and presents it in an interesting fashion; however, if you are not able to leverage the power of the computer to create information to assist the traveling public, then the engineer has not really done much at all.
Why aren’t things changing with the times
After the gloom and doom speech above, it might be beneficial to point some key reasons why change has not occurred. Well, one the main reasons is that secondary education (and primary education as well) is now more focused on their graduates’ potential employers’ needs. This is a great theory in practice, as both the educational institutions and the students have aligning goals: get the graduates a j-o-b! However, it does not help advance the state of the practice, but this responsibility lies on the shoulders of the DOTS, not the students or the institutions that serve them.
Employers (mostly Departments of Transportation (DOTs) or consultants who do business with DOTs) are still stuck in the way of trying to build their way out of congestion. This is reflected in a lot of their hiring practices. For example, let me pick on my current state of Florida. There is a certain where someone with a PE (Professional Engineer) cannot rise above, even though the PE License is not used, nor is the liability of a PE needed. This is ludicrous, especially in the ITS realm. The types of people needed to do these jobs are not just civil engineers, but computer engineers, mathematicians, electrical engineers, data scientists. The complexity of and solutions to problems need to be shared across different professions.
This is all happening for not nefarious reasons, but rather because of the old adage of: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This type of mentality is pervasive within most agencies that I have seen, which is why during my time as a fed, we had to push our state and local partners to try and innovate. In my opinion the reason this is the default culture, is not because there are no incentives to do better. No, this is due to the fact that your life as an agency employee is much easier if you do not rock the boat. If you try and innovate and a higher-up or an elected official does not like it, your work life is now in the gutter.
Now, granted that there are select champions who want to make a difference, but in my experience, these folks are the exception to the rule, and not the norm. It would be a much better world if we had more of these people…
Light at the end of the tunnel (road pun FTW)
Fortunately, there are hints of change down the line. Tennessee DOT’s Chairman, John Schroer, seems to be rethinking how his agency is doing hiring per his AASHTO interview: http://www.aashtojournal.org/Pages/VideoDetail.aspx?VideoId=392
From what I can gather (and this may be all political fluff), he seems to be open to hire within, which helps improve their agency. While this may just be a cost-cutting measure, he is one of the only transportation heads that is going against the norm. This is a good sign.