Transportation leaders are working to build a culture of innovation, modernizing IT to improve passenger and customer experience, and creating the digital foundation to guide transformation efforts into the future, experts say.
Yet they face a significant obstacle: the technical debt associated with maintaining legacy systems that likely won’t be part of that future. More than 80 percent of transportation IT leaders say keeping existing technology running is taking valuable resources from modernization efforts, according to a recent MeriTalk survey conducted in collaboration with Dell Technologies, Microsoft, and VMware.
In a recent webinar, experts recommended that leaders overseeing the nation’s transportation infrastructure address this dilemma by focusing on long-term modernization strategies, rather than short-term thinking.
“Technical debt is something that people sometimes say, but they don’t understand that it’s when you’re deploying these solutions as a Band-Aid. You’re trying to fix something, but you’re not really thinking long term,” Randy Lack, general manager of global industries – public edge/computer vision at Dell Technologies, said during the webinar.
“When you’re trying to overcome technical debt,” he continued, “you want to step back a little bit and ask, ‘What is the desired outcome at the end of the day for this? And how does it integrate with what we currently have?’”
Doug Wycoff, senior manager of passenger processing for AV and Innovation at Tampa International Airport, said he is applying that thinking for IT operations at the airport, which serves about 21 million passengers each year.
We have to make “sure that we take a step back and look at everything more from a holistic standpoint,” Wycoff said. “When you have a need … you have to come up with a full solution. You can’t go part way.”
In Tampa, IT modernization is improving airport operations through upgrades such as biometric screening at gates, which is designed to speed and simplify the boarding process. Airport officials have said the screening can safely make boarding move up to four times faster.
“It used to be you would come in and stand in lines and wait and have to talk to somebody,” Wycoff said. “The experience is evolving to where you may not have to talk to anybody … people want it to be as streamlined as possible.”
As innovation builds in the sector, transportation officials are seeking to integrate technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision to improve operations and experience.
AI has already arrived in Tampa, where Wycoff said it is helping airport authorities improve passenger flows, reduce crowding, and anticipate and react to delays. He said the “massive amount of data” collected throughout the airport complex with AI enables officials to send alerts when they process an unusually high number of passengers in a short period of time. Knowing that backups will likely result, they are then able to notify passengers to “move along” and better avoid delays, Wycoff said.
Lack added that data gained from AI and edge computing devices can increase operational efficiencies in transportation hubs, but that IT leaders must ensure that “all of these devices are secure” and cannot be compromised.
Security was also a focus of the recent MeriTalk research, which found that 89 percent of transportation IT leaders say outdated IT leaves their organization vulnerable to potential cyber threats.
Lack confirmed that “cyber is a massive topic right now” in transportation circles. He recommended that transportation organizations focus on developing zero trust security architectures.
“There are a lot of resources to do this,” he said.
One key source of funding is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known as IIJA. The MeriTalk research found that nearly nine in 10 transportation organizations are likely to apply for IIJA funds, but 41 percent have yet to submit applications.
Lack said Dell Technologies has a team of experts who can help transportation entities apply for IIJA funds. “Just getting started is usually the hardest part,” he said. “That’s where we can put a stake in the ground and say, ‘Here’s a good baseline. Let’s start from here, and then let’s take a really smart approach to it.’”
“And then usually,” Lack added, “if you have a good plan, people are willing to fund it.”
For more insight, view the webinar on demand.