As the former Director of Caltrans, Michael Dougherty has more than 25 years of experience in the transportation industry. He’s seen the industry go through all kinds of changes and transitions, including now when technology is evolving so quickly.
Join us for a brilliant, high-tech conversation with Malcolm about ITS, P3s, DSRC, and all things cutting-edge and transportation.
Regina: (00:06) From GRIDSMART Technologies, I’m Regina Hopper. Welcome to POLICYSMART.
Regina: (00:19) Another edition of POLICYSMART and boy, am I excited about this one because I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a few months ever since you left California DOT, Malcolm. So…Malcolm, former head of the California DOT, Caltrans.
Malcolm: (00:34) Right.
Regina: (00:34) I never understood that, by the way. How, how, how was it that Caltrans was not just like, California DOT?
Malcolm: (00:41) It’s a naming convention that California used for a lot of its state departments, a CAL FIRE, Caltrans. It’s just a nomenclature.
Regina: (00:49) Okay, I got it. So now you’re with Michael Baker and we, we were just talking earlier today about all things possible and all things maybe in the future. So all things are possible but like how far along are they? So tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now.
Malcolm: (01:07) Well, six months ago I left the DOT, Caltrans, after 26 years and seven years as the director of the department. And for the last six months, I’ve been the National Practice Lead for Michael Baker International and it’s got an external-facing role in responsibility and working with clients on transportation solutions to making sure that everything is going well and being a subject matter expert on the toughest challenges from a transportation standpoint and then also leadership within the company, within the folks that are working on transportation projects. Michael Baker’s known a little bit as a bridge company, they’re sixth in the ENR on bridge, but they’re in the top dozen on transportation in ENR as well, so they’re nationwide. We work on a lot of transportation projects from the east coast to the west coast.
Regina: (01:55) So along with a few other states and there really were a few—California’s really a leader in new mobility, stepping out there, allowing there to be pilots—and so when you’re thinking about the future of transportation, many people, not only because there are companies out there that are working on it and their tests, but because California always has that kind of progressive feel to it. So when you look back at the time that you were there, do you feel a little responsible for helping to bring that there?
Malcolm: (02:20) Well, I can only hope that I made some contribution to it. And the conversations that I was involved with on a national scale, I think I brought that back to the state as the subjects were advancing, whether or not it was transportation, ITS, connected or autonomous vehicles. I think our body of knowledge, my body of knowledge was certainly expanding with every conversation and therefore translated into some of the applications or some of the policy decisions that we had to make. California, I’ve, I’ve much referred to California as well as Michigan being frontrunners, but there’s a lot of states that are out there advancing the conversation in those two happened to be two of the states that are pushing really hard and recognizing that this is coming and we need to take full advantage of the deployment of technology. So between the private sector in the automotive industry and states and cities pushing the envelope. I think all those conversations need to be coalesced into one so that we have the most traction we can.
Regina: (03:16) When you’ve kind of combined now your experience on—more experienced on the public side than on the private, yet—but now you’ve been in long enough on the private side and you worked with the private side long enough to know, what’s sort of your expectations now for the public side of the private side to work together to make this new—these new mobility systems real?
Malcolm: (03:36) My expectations or my understanding of the relationship between the public and the private really hasn’t changed that much from when I was on the public and the private side. There’s a tremendous amount of expertise that the public sector can leverage on the private side that they just wouldn’t have in-house and that was true when I was there and it’s true now. I believe that while I’m in the private sector. One thing that I think—there’s policymaking, there’s funding and then there’s knowledge and expertise that can advance on both sides, but the funding and the policy side is definitely on the public sector side, but they can learn a lot from the private sector side and inform themselves when they’re making those decisions. So I think the private sector can make that contribution. From a project delivery standpoint. I know a lot of architectural and engineering firms who are doing what we’re doing and we are definitely looking at ITS expertise and connected and autonomous vehicle expertise because that is going to be the traffic engineering of the future. So any traffic engineering that’s going on right now, any civil engineering highway projects that you’re doing now is going to have ITS embedded in it in the future. And it’s also going to have elements to take into consideration regarding connected and autonomous vehicle. So we’re building our expertise, we’ve done a lot of work for different states on coming out with their connected and autonomous vehicle roadmap or their strategic plan for connected and autonomous vehicles. What do you plan for? You need to coalesce all the expertise that you can when you’re looking off into the future and when you’re deploying and doing projects. Some of those expertise are in the private sector, some are in the public sector.
Regina: (05:06) You know, there’s so many issues. There’s the ability to get funding. There’s the ability to have the workforce. There’s the ability to integrate. There’s the ability to make sure that the consumer or the public stakeholders and constituencies understand. There’s—it goes—there’s the…there’s the technology that changes so quickly that how do you make the right decisions? If you put all of those together, is there one thing that worries you most about getting all this done? Or does it all have to work in, you know, in conjunction, together?
Malcolm: (05:34) Two things that you brought up, I think stand out for me and one is on the funding side. Funding is always a concern no matter what you’re talking about with transportation and on—as a public sector leader of a department—it’s hard to invest in new technology that may be a little bit premature, but it’s necessary to advance it when you’re not filling all your potholes.
Regina: (05:56) Oh yeah.
Malcolm: (05:56) So you have that of an investment, so, but you have to be strategic because everybody wants smooth roads, but also people don’t like congestion and traffic, you know, backing up and not being an efficient system, so you’ve got to invest in that. The selling point is that those investments are a lot more cost effective than capacity expansion projects. So we need to take full advantage of technology that’s out there so that we can maximize the efficiency of the transportation system that we’ve already built and invested in. We’re going to have to do expansion projects. There’ll be multimodal expansion projects, whether or not it’s rail or transit or highway. You’re going to have to make those investments, but you’ve got to maximize the performance of the system you have and I think that’s where some of the autonomous…ITS comes into play today, and connected and autonomous vehicles will come into play in the future.
Regina: (06:44) How do you, though, how do—it’s easy to show people that you filled a pothole. It’s easy to show people that you built a bridge. It’s not easy to show people that you’ve got some sort of technological, you know, sensor in the road or the signs are helping you get to where you need to be, or traffic management systems are in place in a cabinet that you’re driving by and you never see. I mean, how do you do this? How do you convince the public?
Malcolm: (07:07) Well, let’s start with the tangible things. The automotive industry is putting new technology into their vehicles that is appealing to the consumer on a safety front: blind spot warning system, lane departure warning systems, or even lane keep, frontal collision avoidance systems,backup alarms. These things are all things that are—that are sellable to the consumer to improve safety. Then you’ve got adaptive cruise control, which is more of a comfort and convenience thing. Those things are tangible. They are going to resonate with the consumer. When you get into the connected technology, are they willing to pay an additional $2,000 for equipment in their car that’s not talking to anything yet? That’s a little bit prospective. I think that’s where the owner-operator probably needs to go ahead and make that investment first, but some automakers have already made the commitment to start putting that equipment in. Once they start seeing it, once it’s tangible, like those other features, then they’ll start to realize the advantage that they have in it. Not only from a safety standpoint but also from a traveler convenience standpoint.
Regina: (08:10) If you go back and look, I was talking with Kirk Steudel this morning and he said, “I remember going back and when I first thought about ITS, so you know, I was an engineer, you know, I didn’t know about ITS.” And then he told a story about what convinced him that that was the future. Do you have a story that said that kind of resonates with you that says, “Oh yeah, that’s when I sat down and realized I got to look at this stuff.”
Malcolm: (08:34) Well, I mean, there was a point in time when I realized I need to keep up with this conversation to know what its potential is and that it was out there and that was probably a decade ago and they’re not necessarily one poignant moment that that happened. The more poignant moment was probably at one or other of the ITS or multiple of the ITS World Congresses where I actually sat in a car and I saw it and I felt it and I started to see the realm of possibilities. What is available now, but then it really resonated in the picture off in the future is what it could be, became a lot clearer when I, when I saw it and I sat in it and I tested it. And that’s probably true for a lot of people in the public. You know, they’re not comfortable with it, but they’re not—they’re uncomfortable with the unknown. And there’ll be another level of comfort or uncomfort when there’s not somebody sitting in the, in the front seat of a vehicle, but they’re uncomfortable with the unknown, but the more familiar you are with it, when you actually get to do it, you realize what it can bring.
Regina: (09:29) Yeah, that was his story, too, you know, getting in. It just happened to be in Michigan and GM, but—so then how do we do that then because we’re not going to get everybody in any town or city in America in a car or in a shuttle bus when—how are we going to get them there?
Malcolm: (09:45) Well, I think this is going to be an iterative process, and I’m going to mention this later in my talk today, but the one physical principle is everything gravitates towards chaos. You have to actually expend energy to put things in order. And I think we’re in that storming period right now. Everybody’s thinking about the completely autonomous level five vehicle. We’re not going to jump there. We’re going to get there in iterations. You’re right around the corner from three dimensional cruise control in most vehicles in a couple of years from now, you’re going to be able to be on a freeway and press two buttons instead of one and you’re not going to have to control the speed. It’ll speed up. It’ll slow down and you’re not going to have to keep yourself in the lane. It’ll keep itself in the lane. There are vehicles out there today, but that’s going to be more and more common when people get comfortable with that. When they get comfortable with a low speed, completely autonomous shuttle without a driver that’s only driving around your neighborhood, taking you to the library or taking you to the community center or kids to school or whatever, you’re going to get comfortable with that. It’s the inbetween that we’re not comfortable yet with yet, but when those other two realms are normal, it’s going to start to close that gap and I think when we get there in iterations people will be more comfortable with it. But we jumped straight to…Uber or Lyft going to pull up outside and there’s not going to be a driver in front of it in the front seat. Are we comfortable with that? Well, you skipped a few steps, in my opinion. And I’m not comfortable with that, I don’t think yet. But I think that’s what will happen is…people will get used to cruise control being three dimensional in their cars. People will get used to a driverless shuttle coming up and picking them up and taking them to the supermarket or their groceries is coming to them in a driverless vehicle, so then…then you’ll get to that next step, I think.
Regina: (11:32) It’s like all of a sudden you woke up one day and it was okay because you’ve just sort of made your way through the process.
Malcolm: (11:38) I think it’s gonna be a building process, yeah.
Regina: (11:41) Okay, so I have to ask a question because you and I talked about it earlier, which is do you think in the next 10 years we’re going to see autonomous vehicles across the country?
Malcolm: (11:50) Well, not across the country. In 5-10 years…I was asked this question before and I came across as a pessimist…I translated that into being a realist. Within the 5-10 years, you’ll see isolated pockets and you’ll probably see some either demonstrations or some programs that are out there where there are driverless shared mobility, Uber, Lyft, and that sort. But I think there’ll still be a driver in the front seat for the timebeing. It’s going to be very slow and very isolated to actually have that and not have a driver in the front seat, but we will get to the point where we’re testing it and we’re doing demonstrations in one city here or one city there. We’ll go ahead and take that leap forward and it’ll help us with our global conversation on it, but I don’t see that as a wholesale practice in, in the next couple of years. 5-10 years—I think you’ll start to see it and it’ll start to expand a little bit, but I don’t think 10 years from now all shared mobility is driverless. I, I don’t. Um, but we’ll be much closer then than we are today.
Regina: (12:51) What about…I know you come from California, so very populous state, a very city-oriented state, although very large rural areas. What about the middle of the country? I mean, you know, these are people who like to—I’m from the middle of the country—is it real that people in Arkansas and Nebraska are going to just, you know, be driving around in autonomous vehicles?
Malcolm: (13:15) Well, I don’t think so, and for certainly not in a grand scale. So we’ve got two things going on there. One—how soon is the…how quickly is the existing fleet going to turnover? Is it going to completely turn over? I don’t think that it will for the foreseeable future, but you’re always gonna have a mixed fleet out there. So you may have cars with this technology out there with the 1998 Ford pickup or they even the 1970 Mustang or whatever the case may be. So these cars have to interact with human drivers around as well. So I do think in major metropolitan areas it’ll probably take off quicker. I think on university campuses you’ll see those low-speed shuttles. I think those things will happen very quickly. You’ll see these vehicles start to emerge across the country and maybe in higher concentrations with highly automated technology and sooner or later…a completely autonomous vehicle, but you’re gonna have a tremendous number of human-driven cars out there. I used an example previously as popular as common—I shouldn’t say popular—common, as electric vehicles are today.
Regina: (14:20) This is a great—this is a great question.
Malcolm: (14:21) Especially in California—because there’s more electric vehicles in California than anywhere else, and they’re mainstreamed, if you will. But we’re just stretching our necks to get to five percent of the fleet being electrical.
Regina: (14:34) I was stunned by that figure.
Malcolm: (14:36) So yeah, even in California. So if we’re only that far along in the transition, the revolution of that technology—why do we think autonomous vehicles is going to happen in five years? The technology’s there. That’s not what’s holding us back. It’ll get there, but there’s got to be a transition period. What that transition period is…I tend to be a realist on what that timeframe may be as opposed to, you know, two years—I think it’s more along 5-10 years will be much more common—but even then you’re gonna have a significant amount. 10 years from now, 20 years from now, five percent of vehicles are highly automated? 10 percent of vehicles are highly automated? I don’t know…but that means 90 percent aren’t.
Regina: (15:19) Right, right. I, you know, I drive an old Volkswagen and I, I just, you know, you were showing me some application, you know, some apps that are on your phone that you’re like, these have got to go through the car. You know, there’s, there’s still gonna be a lot of cars out there like mine that have no connectivity other than maybe the radio, you know.
Malcolm: (15:37) I’m a firm believer some of this is going to happen much faster than people expect, but a lot of it’s going to happen a lot slower than people expect.
Regina: (15:45) So let me ask you a technical question. DSRC..5G…where do you see it? It just seems like we keep talking about 5G but we don’t see it and it’s not because they’re not trying…it’s not telecoms aren’t trying, but it’s just tough. It’s tough to push that out.
Malcolm: (16:02) Well, 5G is going to happen, right? So now you’ve got that opportunity and how it is applicable to the technology that we want to take advantage of. DSRC is in hand…so 5G is going to happen. DSRC is in hand. Up ’til now I’ve always felt it was going to be a combination of both technologies. There’s so much of the information that can be translated through 5G and there’s nothing wrong with that. 4G or 5G. Now you’ve got the data, you’ve got the information. You’ve got traffic, data downstream and those types of things. It’s the split-second information that I say signalized intersections that I always thought, now DSRC is the tried and true technology for that, because it can react very quickly. I don’t think 4G is reliable enough to be able to handle that. I believe 5G will get there and we’re right on the heels of 5G happening when that happens. Does that mean DSRC is no longer needed? Maybe. I thought early in the transition it would be a combination of both technologies and it may ultimately on whatever timeline get to just 5G, but once the 5G is available to us and we’re testing it, we’ll see what the limitations and the capabilities of it are. And that will determine whether or not DSRC is going to continue to be a part of the picture or not. The thing is DSRC—it’s available to us now and we know that it’ll work.
Regina: (17:22) Is 5G going to need pilots? I guess? They’re going to need pilots…I mean, right?
Malcolm: (17:26) Well first of all, we need spectrum bandwidth. That’s a whole ‘nother podcast.
Regina: (17:30) We could go…I was going to say, we could go there. We could talk about the FCC for a long time.
Malcolm: (17:35) But assuming it’s going to be there, I don’t know about pilots, but certainly testing—some sort of testing to make sure you know what the limitations of that technology are. Because if you’re depending on it for split-second safety maneuvers like collisions at intersections, it’s got to be highly reliable and it’s got to have the bandwidth to be able to…and it’s got to have the speed. And it may have all that. It’s just not something that I’ve played with myself.
Regina: (18:02) So now that you’re in your brand new life—what are some things you want to achieve?
Malcolm: (18:07) Well, the one thing in my new job that I get to do is expand my horizon from California. Now California’s certainly kept me busy in my old job, but I’m having a lot of fun finding out what cutting-edge things that are going on in transportation in Florida, in Texas, and in Pennsylvania, in the northeast, and in the Great Lakes area. That’s really what has gotten me driven even harder than I was before, is this opening up of the horizon and seeing all the things that are happening around the country. And then I also get to take that back and add that to my body and knowledge and my company’s body of knowledge to be able to solve transportation challenges and provide solutions to clients now having a more national perspective. So that’s what’s a really enjoyable for me.
Regina: (18:49) That’s great. Well, we miss you in the role in California, but also glad that you’re still involved in the industry in a way that—and you’re brilliant—both politically and substantively, I might add.
Malcolm: (19:01) Well, I appreciate that.
Regina: (19:02) So I’m sure that you’re going to be doing great things. So, any final words you’d like to say about as you head off now to do your speech, but any final words that you’d like to say about where you kind of see technology going, where you see transportation technology going?
Malcolm: (19:15) Well, I mean, one of the things we didn’t get into is all this technology—it’s not about just deploying the technology. It’s about solving a transportation challenge or problem or making transportation work better, safer, or more efficient, right? So it’s the application of all this technology. And it’s not just going to be in automobiles. We’ve got to figure out, using that technology, how to move people a lot more efficient—as well as goods, and that’ll be different in Tennessee than it is in Washington, DC, or San Francisco, or New York. But again, it’s a holistic transportation system. We’ve got to use technology to move as many people as efficiently as possible and give them as much access and as many options as they can possibly have so that they can move freely and efficiently. So that’s the application of the technology and ultimately it always comes back to safety. So I don’t know if that’s new information or summarizing what we’ve already talked about, but I think that’s what it’s all about.
Regina: (20:12) Well, it really is about safety. I mean that’s where intelligent transportation started, right? What’s making sure that—and making sure that things are equitable for people across the board. So…
Malcolm: (20:21) Agreed.
Regina: (20:22) Thank you. We really appreciate it. Good luck!
Malcolm: (20:24) It’s good to see you,
Regina: (20:26) So, thanks so much for listening and participating in the POLICYSMART podcast. You can download the POLICYSMART app on the Apple App Store and Google Play and you can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and now on Spotify. And also, please leave a review to help people like you—those interested in the next generation of mobility and intelligent transportation—find us.