Rockstars of mobility gather in Copenhagen

Ryan Gajewski

Friday, September 21, 2018

ITS World Congress offers compelling look at future of transportation

COPENHAGEN, Denmark – So, this is what one of the happiest cities in the world looks like.

Copenhagen is a classic rendition of “old meets new.” Danish Modernism architecture mixes with historic palaces. Hybrid cars wait at intersections alongside single-speed bikes. Canal boat-buses packed with commuters sail past wooden rowboats.

As host of this year’s International Transportation Society (ITS) World Congress, Copenhagen provides an engaging tableau upon which to imagine a future of driverless cars. Of course, it’s clear there are hurdles to address before what was once considered a pie-in-the-sky ambition comes a little closer to Earth.

But there’s no doubt that this is a placed where the rockstars of mobility gather. And, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to know more than one person in the room has Elon Musk on speed dial. Just the kind of minds you’d want together discussing how to makes the world’s roads safer.

The vital conversations about the challenges facing mobility and autonomous-vehicle technologies are taking place, quite appropriately, in a vibrant place surrounded by history and reminders of an earlier form of transportation that dominated the world.

In a preeminent international city that began as a Viking fishing village a millennial ago, discussions on the future of autonomous vehicles focuses on a range of topics, including practical considerations such as how will an autonomous vehicle responds when a pedestrian steps into traffic, or when a biker quickly changes lanes.

Meeting of the minds

At ITS, PlanetM and Michigan Department of Transportation hosted a symposium that included international guests and panelists offering a range of timely and provocative views on the challenges ahead. Attendees included some of the greatest thought leaders in mobility, including Gary Smyth, head of global R&D for General Motors; Ken Leonard, director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office; and, Ben Foulser, Transportation Technology Team Lead, KPMG.

The symposium was emceed by industry rockstar – Kirk Steudle, MDOT director, former president of American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, and recently appointed CEO/president at American Center for Mobility, a massive purpose-built test site for connected and automated vehicles.

How big of a rockstar is Kirk Steudle? Nearly everywhere Kirk goes, he’s stopped. Not necessarily asked for his autograph, but definitely for his for input.

Mobility catching on

From year to year, great progress is made in mobility. Last year, the ITS conference in Montreal focused on mobility systems and infrastructure. Frankly, that gathering sounded a bit wonky. In Montreal there were debates about how best to design tests for connected vehicles, whether to use different colors of streetlights in pilot programs (that one killed for some reason).

It was easy to describe the many professionals in Montreal as nerds (and I did describe them as nerds), but a year later as I attend this year’s World Congress, I now realize these people aren’t nerds at all.

They’re bona fide rockstars.

This year, with the focus on the future of driverless cars, ITS sounds and looks more like a Lollapalooza festival.

The dynamic energy, shared purpose and sense of urgency is catching on.

For those in the mobility movement, it’s about time for that kind of “happy talk.”

Where else would that talk be heard than in world’s most happy city?

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