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Government at the Speed of Silicon Valley

Monday, October 24, 2016

Just as a painting is an amalgamation of brushstrokes, and a digital image is a combination of pixels, big technological changes that seemingly happen overnight actually come together from many small pieces.

Instead of focusing on an end result or product—cars that drive themselves, for example—it’s much more effective to focus on prototypes that can help get the creative process started and tackle countless challenges in manageable chunks.

This is the power of prototyping, according to J. Christian Gerdes, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s first chief innovation officer, who spoke as part of Volpe’s Future of Transportation speaker series.

“It’s very much a Silicon Valley approach,” Gerdes said. “Think about a big picture idea, use your imagination, and then try to develop a quick prototype that gets you closer, that allows you to learn.”


Watch video highlights or the full event video from Chris Gerdes' talk at Volpe.

Spiraling Out Toward Flexibility

There are good and intentional reasons why government entities do not move as quickly as Silicon Valley when it comes to creating new technologies, Gerdes said.

Some of those reasons have to do with how government entities are set up, particularly at the federal level. There are divided branches to make sure that power isn’t too concentrated. There are rules that govern job categories, so no agency becomes overly reliant on one employee or leader.

But the government also suffers from some lack of trust from the public, and people want more rules when they don’t trust the government, Gerdes said. More rules can make it difficult for people working in government to be flexible and creative.

“The question is, can we find a way of spiraling out?” he said. “Can we harness some of these same [Silicon Valley] techniques? In fact, the government has done this in the past extraordinarily well.”

The Moonshot

The moon landing was an iconic milestone in American history. An estimated 530 million people were watching in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped out of Apollo 11 and became the first lunarian.

Since then, the term “moonshot” has come to mean an extraordinary, seemingly impossible feat—exactly how the moon landing may have felt for those watching at home—but that definition is missing some important context, Gerdes said.

“For those of you who are fans of The Princess Bride, [moonshot] brings to mind the words of Inigo Montoya: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,’” Gerdes said.

The moon landing—the moonshot itself—was not, in fact, a singular event, but was built upon committed stakeholder engagement through a lengthy process of successes and failures, Gerdes said.

Today’s Prototypes, Tomorrow’s Automated Cars

Dreaming big is the first step. Being realistic about getting there comes next. 

A fully automated road future where crashes are rare might look something like this: vehicles that drive themselves share information with each other and with bicyclists, pedestrians, and infrastructure.

Photo of Chris Gerdes.
“Think about a big picture idea, use your imagination, and then try to develop a quick prototype that gets you closer, that allows you to learn,” said Chris Gerdes, discussing the power of prototyping. (Volpe photo)

“There’s a temptation to say, ‘Well that looks too hard,’” Gerdes said. “So, how do you get people to move toward that big picture dream? Again, it’s through prototyping.”

There are several real-world prototypes now underway related to automated vehicles, with the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) working collaboratively with partners in government, academia, and the private sector.

These prototypes began with the Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment conducted by the University of Michigan—conceived and funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation—which allowed drivers to test nearly 3,000 connected vehicles in Ann Arbor from August 2012 to August 2013.

The success of that pilot led to three more pilots announced in 2015, with up to $42 million in funding from U.S. DOT:

  • New York City is installing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications technology in 10,000 city-owned vehicles. This pilot will focus on improving traffic signaling and intersection safety.
  • In Tampa, pedestrians who are pilot participants are having their smartphones equipped with technology that connects them to vehicles, with a focus on safety and alleviating congestion.
  • In Wyoming, V2V and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology is being used to decrease weather-related crashes and improve the movement of the more than 11,000 heavy-duty trucks that move freight every day through the Interstate 80 east-west corridor.

Smart Cities

These and subsequent prototypes from U.S. DOT may, in fact, lead to a future where automated vehicles can be summoned with a smartphone, Gerdes said. But not having a smartphone shouldn’t mean that you should lose out on access to opportunity.

That’s part of the reason Columbus, Ohio, was chosen as U.S. DOT’s first Smart City Challenge winner and awarded $40 million—because the city targeted transportation improvements for the underserved who may not have access to the latest technology.

Part of Columbus’ winning package included a strategy to improve health care access in a neighborhood where infant mortality is four times the rate of the national average, by providing patients with a transportation plan at the same time that a medical appointment is made.

“[Columbus is] a prototype that can be demonstrated and hopefully rolled out as a model,” Gerdes said. “That was really the idea behind the Smart Cities Challenge, which in many ways was a prototype in and of itself: Going out to cities and saying, give us your vision of what you could be as a smart city.”

Updated: Wednesday, June 13, 2018