Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
July 1, 1998
TranSafety, Inc.
(U.S. and Canada)
(360) 683-6276
Fax: (360) 335-6402

Institutional Lessons Learned from Examining a
California Smart Call Box Study

Part of a concept known as Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), smart call boxes are "multipurpose data processing and transmission systems using independent solar power supplies and wireless communications." A smart call box system in San Diego, California was one of the first field operational tests (FOTs) completed in a 1992 Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) program. The purpose of the FOT "was to determine whether smart call boxes are a feasible and cost-effective means of performing specified data processing and transmission tasks." James H. Banks and Patrick A. Powell reported the results of a technical evaluation of the FOT in one paper of a two-part series: "San Diego Field Operational Test of Smart Call Boxes--Technical Aspects," published in Transportation Research Record 1603. An article in this issue of Road Management and Engineering Journal called "Technical Problems Produced Mixed Results in California Smart Call Box Study" reviews their findings on technical aspects of the field test.

Another major goal of the FOT evaluation "was to identify and analyze institutional issues that either affected the test itself or might affect deployment of smart call box systems." Banks and Powell documented the results of this analysis in "San Diego Field Operational Test of Smart Call Boxes--Institutional Issues," Transportation Research Record 1603. Results showed that institutional factors can significantly affect the technical outcome of a project such as the smart call box system. Schedule delays markedly altered the FOT's projected outcome and were due in large part to the "administrative inefficiency" and "awkward organizational structure" caused by its institutional make-up.


The smart call box FOT was an interagency project, funded by FHWA and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and independently evaluated by San Diego State University. Additional project partners included the Border Division of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies (SAFE). Daily management of the FOT was the responsibility of a project manager from TeleTran Tek Services (T-Cubed), and a regional coordination team (RCT) provided technical supervision. Two vendor teams--GTE Telecommunications Systems and U.S. Commlink (USCL)--designed and installed the test systems.


As an interagency project, the FOT was defined and directed by its various institutional participants. It compared the smart call box system (which uses wireless communication) with a hardwire telephone system, rather than comparing the system with other wireless system possibilities. As a result, the specific interests of its participants limited the design possibilities for the FOT--a factor that, according to the authors, "had a profound influence on the technical aspects of the FOT and will have a major impact on the viability of the products developed through it."

Despite the importance of potential markets and profit margins, the FOT did not include a market analysis for smart call boxes. The projected market, however, appears "small" in relation to other electronic devices and equipment. Moreover, the current market is "mature," with many vendors competing for "modest" profit margins. The smart call boxes' need to interface with a "wide range of intelligent data-collection devices with (perhaps) radically different interface needs" creates another potential market problem. The smart call box's usability "can be greatly enhanced by development of standards for communications protocols for devices communicating with smart call boxes." However, such development is "unlikely" given the box's market potential.

A number of other factors also are necessary for successful smart call box systems, including "a public institutional system capable of financing and procuring them" and funding sources that provide for their entire life-cycle. In addition, the variety of users for the data produced by smart call boxes will require careful arrangements of distribution and payment.

Successful smart call box systems also depend on "private-sector firms with the technical ability and the financial incentive to provide them." Several vendor problems affected the outcome of the FOT, including a conflict between a vendor and an engineering subcontractor, "severe cash flow problems," and "lack of communication" within one vendor team. Any or all of these problems "could have a serious impact" on implementation. Moreover, "ownership of intellectual property" can create conflict in a public-private partnership. In the San Diego FOT, the RCT purposely did not acquire intellectual property rights in order to give the vendors more freedom in developing their systems and to encourage them to continue marketing and development after the FOT project.

Procurement of smart call box systems is another issue of concern. In California, emergency call box systems are managed privately and maintained and installed by vendors. This private-sector procurement arrangement "requires minimal pubic staffing and may result in expert and efficient management and maintenance." On the other hand, advantages of public procurement include "greater control over system management" and avoidance of the problems associated with contracts. Either model may encounter problems if there are multiple vendors; as such, both require careful planning. The details of contracts with cellular providers must also be carefully negotiated, since they "may have a significant effect on the cost of providing smart call boxes."

A successful smart call box system also requires efficient administration and careful organization. The San Diego FOT had problems in both areas, again due largely to its interagency make-up, which resulted in "a fairly complicated set of contractual relationships." Some of these relationships were considered "unusual," including (1) local control instead of control by Caltrans and (2) project management by a private agency. Some FOT participants felt these two factors were beneficial because they resulted in better organization and an earlier completion date. However, other participants felt agency relationship issues weakened the FOT in technical matters and raised the project's costs. Still others believed that T-Cubed, the project manager, might have placed self-interest above the interests that would benefit Caltrans.

The role of T-Cubed created another significant concern--possible conflict of interest. T-Cubed wrote the project's proposal and was eventually chosen as its manager. The company, therefore, had "an overwhelming advantage" in the selection process, since it had proposed the project and knew its details. This created both "an awkward situation" and "unnecessary uncertainty" that might have been averted had the proposal named the project manager as a partner.

The project's organizational structure created problems as well. To ensure objectivity, FHWA mandated an independent evaluator. This requirement had "negative effects" on the project's efficiency and the effectiveness of its evaluation, partly because the evaluator was not involved in the project's proposal. The process used to select vendors was unwieldy and time-consuming. The process also diminished performance and created delays because vendors received only about half the funding they required. These schedule delays, due in part to the "RCT's reluctance to enforce" deadlines, seriously compromised the overall outcome of the FOT.


Both the positive and negative factors involved in the San Diego FOT project "can provide valuable institutional lessons to other ITS development projects." Smart call boxes and other ITS devices require adequate markets and profit margins to make development feasible. The lack of market analysis created significant problems for the smart call box FOT; and while "potential users and . . . vendors remain interested in the concept, quantitative market research should be undertaken before significant additional investment in smart call boxes."

In addition, "successful deployment also requires an adequate institutional infrastructure for both production and use," including "administrative and organizational efficiency and equitable distribution of risks and incentives." To minimize potential problems, "all significant participants should be included as partners in the initial proposal." However, "the proper distribution of risks and incentives, especially where project coordination and scheduling are concerned, is apt to remain a difficult question regardless of organizational structure."

Copyright © 1998 by TranSafety, Inc.

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