(RE-) Enter the Entrepreneur

Smart and Connected transportation is innovating, evolving and transforming faster and in more complex ways than ever before. However, a few have stepped up to lead it, with a little help from their friends, as David Pickeral elucidates

Picking up from my “State of Transition” discussion at the end of 2015[1], the past two years — encompassing the NHTSA rulemaking,[2] the EU Mobility as a Service (MaaS) Alliance,[3] The Detroit[4] and Bordeaux[5] ITS World Congresses and now the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act[6] and the US Department of Transportation (USDOT)[7] Vulcan[8] Smart Cities challenge (more on these last two later) — have witnessed an unprecedented degree of public and/or private sector-driven change across and between the intelligent transportation system (ITS), telematics, wireless, information and communications technology (ICT), mobile network operator (MNO), infotainment, and Connected and Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) industries as well as the vehicle OEMs themselves.

Up until now, this change, however revolutionary, positive and necessary has also created a certain degree of uncertainty, even instability as ATMS merged (some might even suggest collided head-on) with ADAS, and government and industry stakeholders debated the merits of dedicated short range communications (DSRC), Wi-Fi, LTE, “5G”, Mesh and more.

More fundamentally the key question among stakeholders (inclusive of but not limited to equipment manufacturers, service providers, network operators, investors, regulators and the public) has evolved rapidly from, “So what?” to “Where do I sign up?”


Certainly there has been a lot written and said about the evolution and convergence of ITS-CAV by any number of pundits, academics, industry thought leaders, visionaries, dilettantes and just plain crackpots (and feel free to place me in any one or more of these categories).



We have explored, ruminated and even pontificated about the way forward over more years than many of use care to recall. Perhaps the end result of all this dialogue may have been merely to obfuscate the issue, creating risk perception that constrains the potential of the future in favor of proven, comforting legacy ideas about planning, procuring, designing, building, operating and enhancing transportation systems.

However, at some both point abstract aspirations and outdated methods need to be put into practice as the speculation of many, mired in the inertia of the past, gives way to the actionable path forward created by few.  As the late Dr. Carl Sagan, one of the greatest scientists and philosophers of the 20th Century observed: “In every time and culture there are pressures to conform to the prevailing prejudices.  But there are also, in every place and epoch those who value the truth…Future generations are in their debt.”[9]

These seekers of truth have come in many forms throughout the course of human history — be they religious, social or political reformers, scientists, and of course inventors and engineers.  In the case of transportation so many seminal transitions in this industry related to both products and services were started by entrepreneurs.



Simply put, with the significant (and most recent) historical exceptions of post Second World War Mass Transit and the Interstate Highway System and its equivalents worldwide, much of the real disruptive change in transportation innovation since the Industrial Revolution began has always been initiated as the result of a few focused individuals.  Entrepreneurs of the previous two centuries started small, but ultimately redefined how people and freight could be moved more rapidly, at lower cost, and with a higher degree of safety than previous generations had come to expect.


From the canals of Thomas Telford; to George Shillibeer’s omnibus[10]; to the railroads, tunnels, bridges and ships built by Marc and Isambard Brunel[11]; to the transoceanic steamship lines of Samuel Cunard[12]; to the transcontinental stagecoach routes of Ben Holladay[13] and then the transcontinental railroad of Leland Stanford[14]; to the pioneer automobiles created by Karl Benz and Henry Ford; to the first North American metro financed and built by August Belmont, Jr.[15]; to the North-America wide bus network woven together by Carl Eric Wickman[16]; to the elite global airline launched by Juan Trippe[17] followed by the disruptive low cost carrier created by Herb Kelleher[18]…all combined strong business acumen, the latest technology, a consuming passion to succeed, and an often flagrant disregard for convention and how it had “always” been done before.

Along with the innovations and transportation products and services that these entrepreneurs produced there were any number of their peers in adjacent industries whose efforts were as essential as their own to their ultimate success.  Whether motive power provided by the genius of Tesla, steel from the enterprise of Andrew Carnegie, financing provided by the Mellons, communication provided sequentially by Samuel F. B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and finally Marquis Guglielmo Marconi, and business information systems perfected by Thomas J Watson Sr. and Jr. that taught the world to THINK!,[19] by the start of the new millennium there was a formidable legacy of success in transport development, and legacy infrastructure supporting it, to build upon.

Even the consultants that supported the transformation of the industry during this period were entrepreneurial, with Edwin Booz devising entirely new methodologies to gather and analyze transportation data long before the advent of software and algorithms to provide unique insights to his clients that resulted in lasting change through the refinement of operational and business practices.[20]

Standing on the shoulders of these 19th and 20th Century Entrepreneurs (and in some cases graduating from universities established by them!) the present day transportation entrepreneurs blend a diversity of backgrounds, experience and invariably talent as never seen before and across a wider spectrum of both device and data driven enterprises.



Whether from humble origins working from scratch or born into means they are able to capitalize upon, the achievements that preceded them while in no way being obligated to follow the conventions these achievements had established.  Sir Richard Branson, Travis Kalanick, Garrett Camp, Ehud Shabtai, Elon Musk, Brian Souter, David Neeleman, Logan Green, Antje Danielson, Robin Chase, Joseph Kopser, Craig Cummings, Shelby Clark and many other present day Entrepreneurs have already made great strides to develop the 21st Century model for mobility, even to the point of that being a distinct concept from transportation itself, which no previous generation had done much less even conceived of.


Once again these innovators hardly operate in a vacuum but do so in the context of strong technological and operational engagement with adjacent industries and with resources ranging from financing to bandwidth to rights of way.  ICT is now no longer working in parallel to support transportation enterprises as in the previous two centuries but increasingly infused with it while consultants (not to mention the transportation operators themselves) have a full array of big data and analytics tools to assess, predict and advise.

Like their predecessors, today’s entrepreneurs have been both lauded and vilified in the media, the market and the public eye.  Love them or hate them their impact is beyond question reinforced on social media and even traditional TV through such topical shows aired worldwide as Shark Tank and Dragons Den, and even celebrity cameos such as that of Tesla’s Elon Musk this past Thanksgiving on the popular US comedy The Big Bang Theory.

Whether enjoying rock star status or laboring (for the time being at least) in obscurity, all entrepreneurs across geographies and across the years have essentially one thing in common — motivation. The immediate imperative that entrepreneurs have to achieve tangible, monetized success tends to brush all confusion and uncertainty aside. There isn’t going to be a pension or even a retirement plan match and there are no points for playing through the bureaucracy, being a loyal “company” person or “good team player,” or finding a safe niche to hang out on some big government or big corporate organizational chart. If the ITS-CAV transformation is going to be successful, and few now doubt that it will be, motivation will continue to be central to the process.


Corporate Constraints

On that note, established companies, especially large public corporations, are by virtue of their entrenchment of decades, generations or even centuries, often at the mercy of an ever more connected and commensurably reactive customer base and, even more, the global investment community — a community that now includes millions of amateur day traders clicking in their cubicles during their lunch breaks — reacting to profitability signals literally hour-to-hour based on the latest industry analyst assessment, earnings report or social media feed.

This has unfortunately led in recent years to what might be called ‘diseconomies of scale’ by creating a strong (and perfectly logical from a strict balance sheet standpoint) aversion to risk, viz, why assume the risk of innovation when we have product lines that are already selling profitably to meet target?

Moreover, the lead time for corporate ROI is by most estimates shrinking – now the action-reward cycle is more like 2-3 years, not the 3-5 famously cited by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos some years ago. Along the same line of reasoning, unworkable decisions need to be reversed that much faster before they show up in the bottom line which also tends to incentivize inaction at the top and perhaps even more across the mid-to-senior ranks beneath them who may value the stability of the status quo even at the price of missed new opportunities.

By this I certainly do not mean to criticize big corporations, where I myself have spent a very rewarding portion of my career and which are and will inevitably remain the backbone of the global economy and the primary creators of wealth for investors and citizens as long as a free market economy exist on earth.  However, this does make the role of both the entrepreneur and, as I will shortly explain, government all the more important.


Top Cover

Having been born in Washington, DC half a century ago this spring and spent 41 of those 50 years in and around the Beltway (and been employed by four different government agencies during my early career before taking what turned out to be a very gratifying a leap onto the corporate ladder 17 years ago) I try to avoid the temptation to lapse towards either cynicism or optimism when it comes to my expectations of public institutions.

Far too many people seem to gravitate towards the extremes of blaming their governments for the lack of progress in transportation and expecting them to solve all of their problems — and more than a few do both.  There has been a great deal of rhetoric from industry, and even from within other facets of the public sector, that government should simply step out of the way and let the market run its course. As justifiable as this may appear, this legally shall not, and practically must not happen. As I have said in this and other forums — and will continue to stress not because it is my personal opinion but because it is a statement practical of reality supported by centuries of historical fact—transportation, behind perhaps only health, food and nuclear energy, is the most heavily regulated industry on earth and with very good reason.

Through in the laissez-faire regulatory environment of the 19th and early 20th centuries transportation along with other industries (e.g. mining, manufacturing, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, food service, telecommunications) operated largely unchecked, often with disastrous human, social and economic consequences such as pervasive environmental damage, rampant disease, horrific industrial pollution, massive crop failures and of course railway, highway and maritime disasters (including even the loss of the Titanic which was as much the result of nonexistent ICT regulation as it was poor contemporary transportation safety oversight)[21].  With the Great Depression as a backdrop the largest governmental reshaping in the history of the United States consolidated Federal power and resources for generations to come.



New Power Generation

For that and other reasons, the vast majority of those in a senior decision-making capacity today grew up during those 60 years of unprecedented Federal Government power, resources, and influence that stretched from the New Deal in the mid-1930s to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s — this inclusive of course of the period in which the Interstate Highway System was planned, funded, procured, and constructed.

It was also the era during which local and state governments, almost invariably with significant federal support, took over en masse the once private and prosperous transit properties which had failed in large measure due to competition from the personal automobiles as one (or more) appeared in every garage and driveway.  Add to that the creation of Amtrak in 1971 and it is easy to see how a culture of Federal Government dependency arose in the US, and was paralleled in many aspects by Canada, the EU member states, and other governments throughout the world.

Transportation thereby moved from the realm of entrepreneurs and visionaries, into check-writing bureaucrats and politicians with the foregone conclusion that many aspects of mobility were operated at a loss merely out of governmental social obligation.  All of this co-developed along with the North American power grid and the public switched telephone network (PSTN) both with heavy public support through funding and regulatory impetus such that by the time “Ice-Tea”, the first modern, comprehensive Surface Transportation Authorization and the precursor to the FAST Act, was signed in 1991,[22] government at all levels had gotten squarely into the infrastructure business.

Now the pendulum is swinging back again and it is practically unlikely that anyone of any age now in the workforce will be able to rely on that sort of public sector funding in any economy during their professional or biological lives.  While there have been a lot of very articulate arguments by some of the most brilliant minds here about the lack of leadership in and beyond Washington,[23] the fact remains that, big government or small government, the tide of spending has not just gone out, but the ocean itself has dried up.



If anything the current situation in ITS-CAV is perhaps in a small way more comparible to the creation of the national railway network in the latter half pf the 19th Century. Then the Federal Government was instrumental in facilitating and providing oversight for the project, however the real innovation and investment came from private investors and entrepreneurs (yet again invoking Stanford – who incidentally also switched sides of the public/private table himself to serve as Governor of California).

The situation is much the same today, where the Federal Government, through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in a move very analogous to those land grants that made the railway network possible, allocated 75MHz of licensed spectrum for the purposes of deploying CAV wireless technology, to include DSRC for safety critical V2V and, possibly, other applications.[24] At the risk of stating what should be obvious, and has been generally accepted by the modern democracies of the world, only governments may do that sort of thing.

Beyond the world of public land grants and frequency allocations there are other more immediate roles involving so called “inherently governmental functions,” such as operational oversight, criminal prosecution, and international treaty negotiation which simply cannot be delegated into private hands, and essentially are not in all nations with a functioning government.  Moreover they are critical responsibilities profoundly affecting all economic strata of citizens that are shared effectively across all three branches of government to balance legislation, enforcement and adjudication.

In particular it will be important that the courts, legislatures and administrations (Presidents, Governors, Premiers, Ministers, Kreyetars, etc.) will be able to provide some necessary measure “top cover” for CAV deployment.  This is not by any means to allow for faulty engineering, poor quality control, or inconsistent standards development, or to prevent legitimate claims for loss or injury, but to assure and protect the responsible companies and academic institutions that follow acceptable design and operational practices.

Although there will be some unavoidable failures and unfortunately even accidents involving CAVs as there have been throughout transportation history, the potential for reduction of what is now well over one million traffic deaths worldwide[25] will certainly offset these.  Meanwhile, it is essential that governments ensure that the inevitable litigation profiteering that must inevitably accompany this type of implementation as it did cruise control, air bags, etc. does not raise the cost of adoption and reasonable indemnification so high as to slow the progress that must be made.


Getting Real

In delineating the strengths and challenges of each of these three different elements of the entrepreneur-industry-government “triangle” it becomes evident that a symbiotic relationship is emerging.   In this context I have by no means forgotten about academic institutions, which unlike the others reside not so much at a single point of the triangle as at the very center of it.  Whether public or private being in most cases at least partially insulated from both political agendas and profit margins, academia has led the way in such things as collaborative research, open standards, and P3 development.

Academics are thereby ever more agile in their ability reach across all three points of the triangle, and often multiple ones in the same transaction.  It is hardly surprising that the vanguard for CAV development, and the training ground for the next wave of entrepreneurs from both a technology business enterprise standpoint, have been recent projects as the UMTRI-USDOT Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot,[26] the University of Waterloo WatCAR,[27] the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s work with the I-81 Corridor Coalition[28] and, of course, Stanford.[29]


In terms of government, while it is as previously noted an era of doing more with less, USDOT has perhaps more than any agency in Washington become adept at doing just that.   Indeed, in writing this article I originally thought to acknowledge by name the leadership at the ITS JPO,[30] RITA,[31] OST,[32] NHTSA,[33] FHWA,[34] FMCSA[35] and FAA[36] during the current and previous Administrations that made the current oversight and enablement posture of USDOT a reality. I soon realized that that list would be unmanageably long, and that I would run the risk of leaving out key executives and thought-leaders past and present in the process, both appointed and SES (with an appeal to at least my fellow Americans to know as we enter an election year what that last important distinctions means!)[37].

During the final few weeks of 2015 four events took place here in Washington,DC that to me solidify the theory that while such challenges and unknowns as the Fiscal Cliff, the 2016 elections and others still lurk here around the Beltway, it is clear that government-industry-entrepreneurs (academia) are, despite a lot of rhetoric, more aligned as a partnership of equals than they ever have been in Smart & Connected Transportation.

The first two were the FAST Act and the Smarter Cities Challenge co-sponsored by USDOT and Vulcan as already mentioned.  Add to that the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) Vehicle Connectivity Workshop[38] and USDOT Smart Cities Forum[39] — each done both live and by webcast with archival materials copied — and it becomes clear that things are progressing.

In many ways the exploration and the debating must die down to at least some extent, and as mundane as this sounds it is going to be essential that CAV technology does becomes ‘commoditized’ much as all other aspects ICT have over the past 30 years.  There will always be room for innovation, new products, and proprietary solutions within the context of CAV.  But in order to ensure widespread adoption and acceptance there needs to be an embedded base of technology for CAV that is standardized, ubiquitous and to a large extent interchangeable.  In many ways the opposite occurred in legacy smart transportation technology for ADAS, AFC and ATMS, that involve stovepipe systems that have to be replaced rather than upgraded.  Simply put, the market can no longer afford to do that—and starting in 2016 I think the change will start hitting the bottom line and, thereby, the balance sheet.


Once it does, with all of the elements described in place, and whether through rapid organic growth, partnership or (as appears to be the trend already) acquisition, the potential in this era of Unicorns to leap from Local-to-Global, tomorrow is the exciting possibility that all of us have to look forward to whatever our niche in this industry.   Although no one is likely to achieve true Nirvana in the coming year, collectively we have as an industry taken a large step towards enlightenment that may yet move us towards the best of all possible worlds.