Realistic Assessment of New Transportation Technologies and System Concepts: Even If You Manage to Build It, They May Not Come

by John B. Hopkins

Prepared for and presented at the Seventh Annual International Conference on Applications of Advanced Technology in Transportation, sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers, August 5-7, Cambridge, Massachusetts


Many non-technical factors bear on the success of new transportation technology applications. Both the technology and transportation communities often underestimate the difficulty of achieving technological innovation in transportation. Crafting of wise and informed policies, plans and decisions in this complex arena requires a broad perspective and a clear vision of the complexity of the innovation process and the primary obstacles to its success. This paper suggests some key topics and issues that need to be considered when determining whether, when and how to direct major effort and investment toward application of advanced and emerging technologies in transportation, particularly in the context of innovative system concepts.

In addition to uncertainties inherent to application of innovative technologies and concepts, a wide range of real-world challenges must be considered: broad understanding of user needs, behavior, and preferences; identification of implementation and transition difficulties; assessment of the capacity of new concepts for long-term evolution in technology and function; overcoming of political factors, institutional complexities and stakeholder conflicts; achieving compatibility and interconnection with existing technologies and systems; and adaptability to future changes in transportation needs, patterns and behavior.

These topics are discussed primarily from the perspective of major public sector programs, within the political, financial and institutional environment of the US, but most of the issues considered are highly relevant in other contexts. A framework for assessing innovative approaches is suggested, illustrated by reference to the evolution of our existing transportation system, and by mixed results obtained in achieving technological innovation in recent decades. This discussion is relevant not only to policy on technology and infrastructure investment, but also to formulation of transportation R&D programs in these areas.


Economic growth on a national and global scale carries with it a steady increase in demand for transport of passengers and goods. Satisfying that demand while achieving acceptable levels of cost, safety, security, environmental compatibility, and service characteristics poses many difficult challenges. Innovation will be critical to meeting future needs. Major transportation innovations generally arise from new or significantly improved technologies, and from system or operational concepts enabled by those technologies. Attention is frequently focused on the specific technologies involved, sometimes to the degree that traditional uncertainties and obstacles associated with achieving transportation system improvement projects are slighted or overlooked. When this occurs, the likely result can be a less successful innovation.

Implementation of transportation system improvements is seldom easy. When they incorporate a high degree of innovation, the challenges increase along with the potential benefits. Success, if achieved at all, is often more painful and typically takes far longer than expected. However, without bold initiatives, transportation will increasingly fail to meet societal demands for growth, to the nation’s detriment. This paper embodies the view that the likelihood of successful innovation will be improved if the necessary spirit of confidence and optimism is accompanied by a broad and realistic understanding of the challenges.

The personal and admittedly subjective views presented here are intended to increase the sensitivity of innovators to common obstacles they are likely to encounter, and thereby to improve the probability of success in innovation efforts. ("Forewarned is forearmed.") The discussion is intended to be relevant to many types of innovation: vehicles (air, land and marine), integrated vehicle-guideway systems, physical infrastructure, and information infrastructure. Each raises different opportunities, issues and challenges, but the factors discussed below potentially apply across the innovation spectrum. It is hoped that greater awareness of the impediments can make the innovation process shorter and less painful, and can greatly enhance the ultimate degree to which success is achieved.

Can You Build It?

Few major transportation infrastructure projects move smoothly and easily from conception to successful operation, on time and within budget. Where major technical innovation is involved, many of the usual problems and obstacles can become significantly more challenging, and new ones can appear unexpectedly. Some major impediments typically encountered are described briefly below, with illustrative anecdotal examples from recent decades.

Although innovative elements increase the public visibility for an initiative, and may enhance its initial attractiveness to some parties, the implied uncertainties concerning cost and performance, and even feasibility, may well be a net negative in obtaining the necessary approvals and funding. Any stakeholder opposed to the activity can be expected to seize on such uncertainties, and the associated delays and risk are anathema to both public- and private-sector investors. More specifically, the issues of the type discussed below can often arise before a project is accepted as well as during implementation, and can therefore impinge on its initial acceptance and authorization, and on its ability to obtain funding.

Technical Compatibility and Interoperability. Transportation improvements seldom offer the luxury of a clean sheet of paper. New technologies usually have to coexist with the old, at least for a lengthy interim period, and often indefinitely. Existing infrastructure and large, long-service-life fleets of vehicles mean that many changes must be evolutionary. The time required for this process may prove to be a serious limitation on the rate at which system-level benefits are realized, which can in turn jeopardize financial viability. For example, FAA has faced a major challenge in achieving full compatibility and interoperability of new equipment with the installed base of hardware, software, and procedures that make up the National Airspace System. Introduction of high-speed intercity rail service often faces performance constraints in sharing track with commuter and freight operations. The Intelligent Transportation System program found it necessary to devote substantial resources to developing an overall architecture to foster national interoperability.

Compatibility with Existing Standards. Technical standards generally follow, rather than precede the introduction of new technologies and applications, and often may be inapplicable to an innovation, conflict with it, or simply not exist. These issues can be resolved, but may require time, money and possibly even design compromises, all of which could have substantial negative impacts on the success of the undertaking. The absence of appropriate standards also can exacerbate uncertainties as to the safety and viability of the project. The pace of introduction of high-speed passenger train equipment was inhibited by the absence of some standards and incompatibility with others. Another aspect of this issue is that the lack of standards can be reflected in a splintered marketplace that frustrates users, impedes growth, and keeps prices higher than necessary.

Compatibility with the Transportation Environment. Even with the most solid technology, the path from a working prototype or demonstration system to provision of revenue service transportation has often proven long and difficult. It can be very difficult to fully appreciate in advance the real-world challenges that considerations such as weather and other environmental factors can pose. Other problems may arise through harsher than anticipated maintenance and usage practices of operators, passengers and shippers. The attempts to apply advanced technologies to transportation vehicles in the 1970’s—buses, light rail vehicles, transit cars, high speed trainsets—encountered numerous situations in which the operating and maintenance environment contributed to reliability and availability below expectations.

Compatibility with Existing Procedures and Operations. Often the purpose of introducing new technology is to enable changes—sometimes extensive—in system procedures and operations. The initial operating period may well reveal that the planned operational changes need substantial revision in order to be viable in the real world. New skills, equipment and practices may be needed for operating and maintenance functions. Transformation of an existing workforce into one matched to the new system can pose a real challenge in hiring, training and—where a higher level of technical expertise is required—costs. As the federal Intelligent Transportation System program has evolved, it has been recognized that a key element consists of assisting states and localities in finding ways to build their professional capacity to use the new technologies effectively.

Transition Implications—Feasibility and Cost. Innovations involving new physical and information infrastructure, or even markedly different vehicles, can be very challenging in the many cases in which the project must be implemented in a manner that allows continuous operation. Construction of Boston’s enormous Central Artery and Tunnel project—the "Big Dig"—has had to be pursued while allowing virtually-uninterrupted functioning not only of transportation activities, but also communications, electrical, water, sewage and other infrastructure affected by large-scale subsurface construction work. Modernization of the nation’s air traffic control system must be accomplished with no break in services or degradation of safety. These requirements can have a major impact on the total project cost, and can even threaten the viability of an innovation if the complexity of the transition stage is not fully appreciated in the design and planning and funding of the project.

Transition Implications—Stakeholder Acceptability. Innovative transportation system solutions generally involve significant changes in the roles of many of the individuals and organizations involved in using and operating the system. Often, some of these changes will be perceived as undesirable by some those parties, and may be seen—accurately or not—as threatening to their well-being. Where a high degree of innovation is involved, it is quite possible that there will be associated changes that are disadvantageous to parties that will bear costs or other burdens not compensated by an appropriate share of the benefits. Their resistance and opposition can be a serious impediment, and can prevent realization of some anticipated benefits or even doom the undertaking. These issues have arisen in the consideration of air traffic management system concepts that entail major avionics costs for airlines, or technologies that affect the existing practices or roles of air traffic controllers. Similarly, those who live near airports, or other transportation facilities, are seldom eager to increase the volume of operations in their neighborhood. These difficulties can be ameliorated, though not prevented, by a process that, from the beginning, involves key stakeholders in the design and planning, and gives their views serious consideration.

Technical Readiness of Key Elements of the Innovation. Performance characteristics that initially appear within reach, albeit with some effort, sometimes prove unattainable when subjected to the challenge of incorporating emerging technologies into practical systems in a new environment. The risk of such failures increases with the level of improvement sought, the degree of technical innovation, and the criticality of cost and reliability considerations in the application in question. Even with success in the developmental and prototype stages, shortcomings of new technology can become all too apparent when subjected to operation in the real world. Optimistic initial promises, perhaps made to facilitate funding and project approvals, can often lead to embarrassing and expensive shortcomings that tarnish or even threaten success of the innovation. As delays occur and costs rise, both private and public sector funding sources may lose heart. These risks are even greater when a technology firm ventures into an unfamiliar transportation application area, where the environment is different and emphasis is on a different set of performance characteristics. This problem was relatively common in the 1970’s, when firms primarily familiar with defense and aerospace systems explored many surface transportation innovations.

Societal Factors: Environmental Impacts, Safety, Land Availability and Jurisdictional Issues. Little need be said about the issue of achieving the necessary environmental and safety approvals, which is a familiar part of any major project. However, it is worth noting that the situation becomes more complex in the case of innovative approaches, which are likely to introduce a new level of uncertainty into the proceedings. This is a particular problem in cases for which those whose approvals are required lack familiarity with the technology, or where scientific knowledge is limited and standards are still being developed. This is currently the case, for example, with respect to health effects of electromagnetic fields.

A key consideration in most transportation systems is physical location, such as right of way for a road or rail system project or an airport. Anywhere that there are enough people to warrant a major transportation investment, land is likely to be scarce—particularly land that meets the needs of the proposed system. Further, in most parts of the country, economic viability of a system will entail crossing multiple political jurisdictions, each of which may view matters differently. This is a particular challenge for any system that does not use existing right of way. For example, very high speed ground systems need extremely level and straight route alignments, a factor that has proven challenging for the introduction of magnetic levitation systems; rail-highway grade crossing safety has been a serious issue for those seeking to implement high speed rail operations.

Political and Financial Sustainability. At best, major transportation improvement projects can require one or two decades to go from conceptualization through actual initiation to full-fledged operational reality. It is very likely that unforeseen (and often unforeseeable) circumstances—some associated with factors discussed above—will cause substantial increases from the planned schedule and cost, often necessitating performance compromises. Perceptions of the value of the planned innovation, and the likelihood that it will ever be realized, will vary. New circumstances may raise concerns about some aspect of the effort, such as financial viability. Public and political support may fade, potentially leading to cancellation of the project. The result is that programs having only modest initial support are highly vulnerable when any bad news surfaces. Technology-based innovative undertakings are likely to be even more vulnerable; any technical difficulties or uncertainties will simply add to the other concerns that decision makers may have. Even in a purely private-sector context, the same forces can increase the possibility that key investors will lose confidence and withdraw.

Control and Management of the Undertaking. The challenge and complexity of implementing major transportation improvement projects is evident merely from a listing of the factors discussed above. The entire process normally includes many participants whose diverse activities have to structured, coordinated and integrated within the context of a comprehensive plan. It is critical that the management structure of such a project be professional and thorough, particularly in view of the many unexpected issues and problems that may arise, some of which are technical while others can involve stakeholders with strong feelings. When innovative technologies are involved, additional technical expertise is required in performing the management function. Equally important, successful completion, including maintenance of public and political support, requires that key decisions be made and issues be resolved in a manner that fully reflects a broad appreciation for the public interest, with careful assessment of potential unintended consequences. In public sector undertakings, this underlines the importance of the professionalism, authority, resources and commitment on the part of government agencies and individuals responsible managing the effort.

Will Anybody Come?

Initial operational capability of an innovative approach is a major accomplishment, but does not assure success. Travelers and shippers buy a service, not a technology, an innovative concept, or even an infrastructure. Ultimately, the success of an innovation is measured by the degree to which the intended improvement is found to be useful and cost-effective for users, generating a combination of revenues and public benefits sufficient to justify the financial and other intangible investments that have been made. While there are niche markets in transportation, innovations will be truly significant only if they offer a bundle of characteristics that make the innovation attractive to a large range of transportation users.

Some failures result from unpredictable changes in the external world. However, achievement of less than the intended success often may have been inherent to the original (flawed) concept, assumptions, or application scenario, or may arise in the course of adjustments necessitated to meet problems arising during implementation. Regardless of the cause, key considerations that can affect the post-construction success or viability of the innovation are indicated below.

"As Designed" Service Characteristics. A central tension in transportation systems is the balance between cost and performance. However performance is measured, better performance—intended to attract users—typically implies higher capital investment and operating cost—which reduces the number of users. The challenge is thus to design the system in reasonable accordance with market preferences, for which the preferred choice may often be modest performance goals achieved at modest price, rather than high performance at a price the market will not meet.

Unfortunately, the more innovative the system, the less precisely can cost and performance be estimated. It is natural for the developers and advocates of new technologies and systems to emphasize the areas in which their particular approach excels, be it potential speed, theoretical energy efficiency, maximum capacity, or some other parameter. Aside from the question of whether those results are likely to be achieved in real-world large-scale operations, that emphasis sometimes reflects an undue focus on the physical product—the technology or physical system—with too little attention given to the service aspects that users (passengers and shippers) are actually concerned about. The consequences of failing to address this issue realistically in the design stage can be very damaging to ultimate success. Technical specialists not intimately familiar with the domain in which the innovation is being applied can easily miss the subtleties of actual user desires and preferences. This syndrome was particularly apparent in the 1990’s in unsuccessful applications of information technology to administrative and operational functions in a wide range of businesses and organizations.

In particular, innovators often focus on speed as the key measure of a transportation mode. While highly visible and unquestionably important, this parameter is often just one of several user criteria. Within broad classes of the transportation market, other parameters may be weighted more heavily than speed in the decision process of large subsets of users: reliability and predictability of service, convenience, safety, security, and cost. Also, the most visible parameter—maximum or cruise speed for a vehicle—may be very misleading in terms of the actual door-to-door trip time for individuals or goods, so that there may be little return for often-substantial increased investment required in order to achieve the highest technically feasible operating speed.

"As Built" Service Considerations. It is rare that implementation of a major system improvement does not require a substantially larger investment than originally anticipated, generally with somewhat lower performance than had been promised. For public-sector investments, this discouraging reality is often ameliorated by eventual recognition of the high long-term societal value of the improvement, such as for construction of a highway or transit system. Particularly when new and complex technologies are involved, designs based on excessive optimism concerning technological capabilities, or insufficient attention to technical and implementation risks, may result in pricing the system out of the market. During the early use of innovative technology—particularly for vehicles—if weaknesses arise that affect the reliability and other service characteristics, very substantial delays and cost increases can occur while problems are corrected. If this occurs during initial revenue operations, the impact on usage can be serious, and is not quickly forgiven by users and taxpayers. It can also be the case that compromises necessitated during the approval and implementation phase have disproportionate impact on the system’s transportation value and viability, as when a planned route structure must be sharply constrained.

Integration with the Broader Transportation System. Users are concerned with movement from their specific origin to destination, not merely the part of the trip provided by the innovative system. If the interfaces to other systems or modes cause the user to experience significant delay, cost, inconvenience or unpredictability, the attractiveness of the new system will inherently be limited. For example, the linkage from high-speed rail stations to other ground modes is an important determinant of passengers’ overall trip experience. This can be an important constraint on perceived overall service quality for cities lacking effective transit systems and linkages to the rail terminal. Similarly, the value of improving the movement of vehicles on high-volume limited-access highways can be dissipated by the more limited capacity of the local street networks through which users access and leave those highways, or by availability of urban parking once at their destinations. In aviation, the benefits of a higher-capacity air traffic control system can be significantly diminished if airport capacity limitations (both air-side and land-side) are not also overcome.

Requirements Placed on the User. Applications of sophisticated computing, communications, and other information technologies provide powerful building blocks for system innovations. Often these entail a direct investment by the user. For example, some ITS functionalities necessitate that special on-vehicle equipment and services be provided by the individual user. Movement toward satellite-based air navigation, surveillance and traffic management has major cost implications for the airlines and others that must install and maintain new avionics.

If a high level of usage is necessary to obtain the societal benefits or commercial viability of the basic innovation, unwillingness of a significant fraction of users to participate can significantly reduce the overall value of the innovation. For example, congestion-relief benefits of automated toll collection occur only if enough vehicle operators participate. This situation also limits the ability of the innovator to control the implementation process.


Success or failure in large-scale efforts at transportation system improvement generally depends significantly on the degree to which the initiative fully reflects and responds to (1) the diverse and often conflicting needs, wishes and priorities of users, including the ability to adapt and evolve as those needs change; (2) the importance of physical and operational compatibility with the broader transportation system, and (3) the many constraints on implementation imposed by institutional, economic, political and other characteristics of the society. The application of new or emerging technologies may change the nature of these factors and the task of assessing them, but in no way diminishes their importance. Attention to these issues is an important element in assuring that transportation system innovations succeed and provide the full benefits that will be needed in the future. In general, the following guidelines may be helpful in maximizing the success of innovative systems:

Focus on outcome, not output—the product is transportation, not technology.

Be diligent in understanding and responding to the perspective of potential users and stakeholders.

Don’t underestimate the challenge and complexities of non-technical factors—organizational, economic, environmental, behavioral, political, legal, etc.

Do not let technological optimism replace realistic assessments.

Don’t let fascination with elegant technology and high performance overshadow the importance of critical system attributes such as reliability, flexibility, adaptability and robustness.

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Last modified: August 16, 2002