Monday, January 29, 2001

Commuters who have noticed that every few months some new high-tech gizmo debuts on Washington’s transportation system can thank or blame people like David Hensing.

Mr. Hensing is president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, an up-and-coming industry association that promotes high-tech solutions for traffic congestion and safety.

Ten years ago, few people had even heard of “intelligent transportation” systems. Now, they are the cameras, variable road message signs, electronic fare cards and traffic management centers sprouting up in cities across the country.

Mr. Hensing defines intelligent transportation as systems that “apply recent advances in computing, communications or sensing technologies to the field of transportation.”

On one typical day last week, Mr. Hensing met with other transportation association leaders to discuss plans for a national 511 telephone number for transportation information. Last July, the Federal Communications Commission authorized creation of the 511 service to allow commuters to check local road conditions or transit arrival times by calling one number.

The meetings last week were intended to reach agreement on what kinds of information would be delivered through 511. “By the end of the year, we hope to have established some consistency among all the 511 sites,” Mr. Hensing says. The service is scheduled to begin in some major cities next year.

On another day last week, Mr. Hensing met with a University of Maryland engineer to discuss how pending transportation legislation might affect the chances of winning funding for intelligent transportation systems.

A week earlier, one of the last acts of outgoing Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was to name ITS America and Mr. Hensing to help lead the new Transportation Export Council. The council is supposed to coordinate industry and government efforts to export intelligent transportation system products and services internationally.

The new Transportation Secretary, Norman Y. Mineta, gained some industry support for his cabinet position from his former role as an ITS America board member.

Mr. Hensing describes Mr. Mineta as “a very knowledgeable person in the field of transportation. He is an indicator of many good things to come in the new administration.”

Up and comer

Mr. Hensing took over as president of ITS America this month. For the previous 20 years, he worked in various executive positions with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (Aashto). In the late 1980s, he helped organize Aashto’s “Mobility 2000” program, which eventually grew into the splinter group now called ITS America. Before leaving Aashto, Mr. Hensing was the organization’s deputy director.

Other transportation industry leaders recognize ITS America as one of the associations to watch in the near future.

“As things go, it is still fairly young,” says Amy Coggin, spokesman for the American Public Transit Association. “Everybody in the transit industry realizes that intelligent transportation systems are important to the future of the industry. They look to ITS America to lead the way. So, yeah, they have a lot of credibility.”

Mr. Hensing says transportation planners might have no other choice than to adopt the kinds of policies and technologies ITS America promotes. Population and traffic growth are overwhelming traditional transportation systems.

The Washington area is a good example of the problems created by growth as well as one of the best places to use intelligent transportation systems, he says.

“Washington is one of the more advanced communities,” Mr. Hensing says. An example he mentions is the network of closed-circuit cameras throughout the Beltway and, increasingly, along major downtown thoroughfares.

A public-private joint venture called SmarTraveler monitors the cameras and sells information on traffic conditions to state and municipal agencies as well as private subscribers. SmarTraveler’s monitoring center is located on the same floor as ITS America at 400 Virginia Ave. SW.

One of the association’s recent projects has been to develop a national “architecture” for intelligent transportation systems. Many companies are developing the systems. Until recently, however, they have lacked a single set of standards to guide them.

The meetings between Transportation Department officials and ITS America typically involve reaching agreements on the standards.

“Any metropolitan area that successfully deploys ITS systems will necessarily have a variety of systems,” Mr. Hensing says. “Their success will depend importantly on whether they can communicate well with each other and be effectively coordinated.”

Driverless cars

Not all the high-tech plans work out though. Three years ago, ITS America and its corporate partners demonstrated an “automated highway” technology that could guide cars to pre-selected destinations without the drivers ever touching the steering wheel. Magnetic nails and roadside guidance systems could even allow vehicles to pass each other and brake automatically.

The corporate partners included General Motors Corp., engineering and construction giant Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade & Douglas, and Honda Motor Corp.

In tests, cars were packed onto road lanes as little as three-feet apart and operated at 65 miles per hour. Theoretically, automated highways would more than triple the capacity of highways by packing cars into smaller spaces. They also were supposed to eliminate traffic congestion.

The main problem was that drivers did not want the technology. They felt too uncomfortable relinquishing control of their vehicles to a computer. In addition, if there was a wreck, the equipment manufacturers would be liable instead of the drivers. The liability questions even scared away the manufacturers who built the system.

“There was some difficulty in the practical applications,” Mr. Hensing says. “It was really judged as not being quite there yet.”

He holds out greater hope for the Transportation Export Council. In announcing the new council two weeks ago, Mr. Slater said, “The Transportation Export Council will help promote increased trade in transportation goods and services, which in turn will increase opportunities for U.S. business and industry and lead to more jobs and a higher standard of living for all Americans.”

Mr. Hensing hopes ITS America’s members will use the council as an export outlet.

“We believe we have some features and qualities that compete well with our international competitors in Europe and the Pacific rim countries,” Mr. Hensing says. He mentions as examples ramp meters and closed-circuit cameras. “There’s a tendency outside the United States to deal with these issues independently, rather than integrating them,” he says.


David J. Hensing, President of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America

Age: 62

Native: Ames, Iowa, now lives in Rockville.

Education: B.S. in civil engineering from Iowa State University; Certificate in Highway Traffic from Yale University; registered professional engineer in four states.

Experience: State Highway Commission of Wisconsin, 1960; Alan M. Voorhees & Associates of McLean, 1967; American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials, 1980. Family: wife, Patricia; two children, five grandchildren

Hobbies: golf, reading, travel

Favorite Book: “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond

Greatest Goal in Life: “To see my grandchildren grow up.”

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