Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Can auto wag the ITS dog?

Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) promise to deliver many benefits, from increased road safety to better traffic flow. It’s no surprise, then, that when people talk about ITS, it is often within the context of the auto industry. But is the auto industry alone big enough to attract the businesses needed to innovate and deploy ITS?

This question came up repeatedly at the Fully Networked Car Workshop held at the Geneva Auto Show, for the simple reason that auto is dwarfed by the telecom industry. Car volumes are measured in millions, whereas mobile phones are measured in billions. (In fact, evidence suggests the world may contain more mobile phones than toothbrushes.) It is likely, then, that businesses will focus on ITS-related applications, services, and infrastructure for phones — not cars.

Workshop panelists also pointed out that ITS extends beyond the auto or other transport industries; it is about enabling a connected society on the move. Consumers want mobility solutions that enable them to stay connected to all aspects of their lives in meaningful ways — not just optimize the efficiency and safety of getting from point A to point B.

The need for global standards
Regardless of whether auto or telecom drives ITS, we will need global standards for how these systems work. The good news is, major international standards development organizations (SDOs) are already trying to collaborate on the global standards needed to make ITS a reality. In fact, the Fully Networked Car Workshop was jointly sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC).

The ITU has also started a collaboration on ITS Communications Standards. The next meeting of this collaboration will take place at SAE Headquarters in Troy, Michigan, USA on April 3, 2012.

A non-starter without industry participation
Mind you, success of ITS standards cannot solely depend on cooperation of the SDOs. Industry involvement is just as important.

Some workshop participants argued, however, that standardization inhibits product differentiation and thereby acts as a barrier to industry participation. But others felt this could be managed by standardizing on the lower layers (i.e. communications layers) and differentiating at the higher layers (i.e. application layers). The one caveat raised was that some aspects of the higher layers need to be standardized for safety reasons. But even then, it is possible to standardize on safety and still differentiate on user experience.

Panelists also discussed the threat of government regulation as a motivation to develop and deploy ITS. Someone pointed out, however, that competition often acts as a bigger motivator for companies than the threat of regulation.

Wagging the dog?
So what will drive innovation and deployment of ITS? It seems that global standards created with industry participation are crucial. Perhaps even more important, the auto industry must start working more closely with other industries such as telecom and consumer to develop ITS solutions that not only help people get from point A to point B efficiently and safely, but also deliver value in other ways to consumers on the move — unless of course you believe that the tail can wag the dog!

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