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Leadership Perspectives

Q&A with ITS Directors Past and Present

(Inerviews are from Fall 2015)

Alexandre Bayen July 2014–present
Liao-Cho Innovation Chair, College of Engineering; 
Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Top achievements during your tenure? After one year, and looking ahead, one initiative I am very excited about is the new Smart Cities Research Center in the field of energy-efficient transportation, to be launched in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) — the first center to be jointly operated by our two organizations. LBNL has terrific potential in the field of transportation, and their expertise truly complements the assets of ITS, in particular in the fields of electrification grid–vehicle interaction, fuels, batteries, and GHG emission reduction. The Department of Energy has seeded the new center through a research and development grant. In addition, the new entrepreneurship programs within the Technology Transfer Program have grown steadily, raising ITS’s international profile and enabling the launch of several successful companies in the field of transportation and beyond.

Biggest organizational challenges? In the context of shrinking budgets and tighter financial constraints, the diversification of funding for ITS becomes a more pressing matter each day. This is a major financial sustainability problem we must address now by revisiting our core funding from California (unchanged since 1947) as well as our support from campus and the UC system. '

Solutions? Readjusting the state contribution is a top business priority for ITS, and we are including an inflation framework to protect future generations’ leaders from having to solve the same problem. In addition, we must change our strategic approach with the changing times. Thanks to previous leadership, ITS not only survived the global economic downturn, but we thrived. However, now that the world is changing again, we will be most effective by identifying and focusing on topics that have the most impact on the global transportation network.

Biggest transportation challenges? A few burning questions in the transportation landscape include: How will the sharing economy change demand management for mobility in large urban cities? How does urban data analytics enable researchers to reveal previously unobservable, but suspected phenomena such as gentrification, inequities 
with relation to travel time and pricing, hyper-local contributions to GHG emissions, and robustness of the transportation network? How will electrification, automated driving, and connected vehicles change mobility, and at what scale?

Technology crystal ball? The next big thing in transportation technology is the third dimension: drones, or UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles. The time is not far off for pizza or mail delivery by UAVs to people’s skyscraper terraces and first aid by flying robots on the scene of accidents on freeways, and it will affect our lives in unprecedented ways. As mobility becomes automated, so will the logistics underlying our daily lives. The number of drones sold is already over 200,000 units per month, rapidly increasing, which will lead to a revolution in how aerial traffic needs to be managed.

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Samer Madanat 2005–2014; Acting Director, 2002–2003
Xenel Distinguished Professor, UC Berkeley; Dean of Engineering, New York University–Abu Dhabi

Top achievements during your tenure? Three notable ITS achievements during my tenure are the 2006 establishment of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center  in collaboration with the Energy and Resources Group; the 2005 establishment of the Volvo Center of Excellence on Future Urban Transport, which was won after an international competition; and the 2009 establishment of the ITS Multi-campus Research Program on Transport Sustainability.

Biggest organizational challenges? There was large dependence on funding from Caltrans and insufficient diversification of research funds. As the state budget situation worsened, leading to a reduction of available research  funding, this jeopardized ITS’s ability to maintain our usual level of research productivity. This also put our research staff, who are funded primarily on state contracts, in a stressful and uncertain environment.

Resolution? We were successful in diversifying our research funds through winning grants from international foundations, the federal government, and private sponsors. Furthermore, we managed to strengthen our partnership with Caltrans by restructuring some of our centers to align ITS research more closely with the state’s mission and priorities.

Biggest transportation challenges? Climate change is a challenge that touches on all aspects of transportation. In the United States, and especially California, transportation is a major emitter of CO2, which places the onus on the transport industry to reduce its carbon footprint significantly. The consensus in the research community is that this should be done through three tracks: 
•    Improved vehicle fuel economy, or adoption of low-carbon fuel standards that necessitate a shift in the fleet toward electric vehicles (EVs) 
•    Improved freeway operation (for example, by better mitigating bottle-necks to reduce congestion) and better management of infrastructure, such as optimizing pavement resurfacing for GHG reduction benefits
•    Increased urban density to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by cars and also enable a shift from low-occupancy vehicles to high-occupancy public transportation, thus further reducing VMT 

Technology crystal ball? I don’t believe technology alone can solve the major problems in the field of transportation. For example, to effectively reduce transportation’s carbon footprint as I outline above, most solutions require the use of existing technologies combined with policy regulation or market incentives, as well as transformation in the way we live —favoring higher density urban living with a reduced dependence on the automobile. One area where technology can play a role is in the development of better fuel cells to increase the range of hydrogen vehicles. Such advances still need to be combined with government investment in creating the fueling infrastructure to make EVs real alternatives to the combustion engine. This investment will be needed before the market share of alternative fuel vehicles can climb high enough to attract the private sector to invest in such infrastructure.

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Martin Wachs 1999–2006
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Civil and Environmental Engineering and City and Regional Planning, UC Berkeley; Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Urban Planning, UCLA

Top achievements during your tenure? The establishment of SafeTREC — the Safe Transportation Research and Educa-tion Center, a multidisciplinary center in cooperation with the School of Public Health — was especially satisfying for me. Another major accomplishment was strengthening the transportation library. I also was particularly proud of our effort to strengthen ties between the Institute and academic departments in which there were curricular offerings in transportation.  

Biggest organizational challenges? The Institute had a rich history of accomplishment in traditional areas of transportation engineering, including pavement and traffic engineering. Prior directors had worked to broaden the mission of the Institute to include social science analysis, the study of human behavior, and information technology as the nature of travel and transportation systems changed. My challenge was to continue to be strong in traditional areas, to remain loyal to our longstanding constituents around the state, and to broaden our programs in a time of budgetary reductions.  

Resolution? The challenges had intensified and the cost of the research enterprise was growing. While we accomplished a great deal, it was clear that the Institute had to specialize to a greater degree while reaching out to engage the larger university community more actively in transportation.  

Biggest transportation issues now? Transportation infrastructure is costly and needs to be entirely renewed to reflect the changing nature of travel and the changing technology by which it is produced. America has been unable to maintain its existing transportation systems, much less address their adaptation to the new technological realities.  

Technology crystal ball? While many see the biggest challenges to be technology, I think engineers are far more ready to advance technology than is our society ready to accept it into daily life. The greatest challenges relate to social and economic changes and governance that will enable us to use technology effectively to benefit society.

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Adib Kanafani 1983–1997
E. G. & J. R. Cahill Professor of Civil Engineering Emeritus;  
Professor of the Graduate School, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Top achievements during your tenure? Probably the most profound achievement was the Institute’s leadership in transforming the paradigm of transporta-tion research along two dimensions: the introduction of automation in road transport, and the role of information technology in the use and performance of transportation systems. The PATH program was established in 1986 to lead the research in Intelligent Transportation Systems avant le mot. Another achievement was the Institute’s leadership in fostering the creation of centers of research excellence, which focused on important topics of interest in transportation and brought together a far broader group of faculty from around the campus than ever before. The creation of NEXTOR with its focus on aviation and UCTC with its focus on planning and policy are just two examples from that period.  

Biggest transportation issues now? Transportation engineers represent but a segment of the ITS research landscape, which encompasses a broad community of scholars in the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The biggest intellectual challenges are probably in this broader ecology of transportation, including societal and environmental concerns. The big challenges have been with us for decades — environmental impacts, safety, and equitable and efficient management of transportation systems. Automation and new forms of clean, renewable energy for transportation are promising answers to these challenges, provided the political decision-making process does not stand in the way. Efficient management of transportation systems continues to be elusive. But the next big thing in transportation may be the solution.

Technology crystal ball? I think that the big thing in transportation is the totally connected traveler and vehicle. The combination of total connectivity and personal-level computing and decision making will open up new avenues for efficient and equitable use of transportation resources and will enable new ways of life with a completely different meaning of mobility — a new mobility to access processes and services rather simply moving from place to place.