There’s a weird feeling of omniscience as we stare at what’s happening across a vast area of roads. Pack scrolls up and down the East Coast from Raleigh to the New Jersey Turnpike, which is in flashing red gridlock.
He then picks an incident from a previous day and shows me how RITIS can replay it in granular detail. Moving through the timeline, we start with a bad accident, we see responders arrive, we see lanes getting shut down for emergency services and a Medevac helicopter arrive. And then we see everyone . . . waiting and traffic backing up by the mile. The reason: The accident can’t be cleared until the accident investigator shows up to do an analysis, and the investigator takes an hour to arrive. It’s a perfect example of how poor incident management can screw up the world. “Now you know why not every agency is happy to share their data,” Pack says.
Because RITIS is so flexible, only about 40 percent of its 800 subscribers are from departments of transportation. The rest are agencies related to law enforcement, the military, and federal entities such as the National Security Agency, the Office of Personnel Management, the Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is also a user. I ask Pack how far he plans to extend RITIS’s reach. “I would like us to be the national data integrators,” he says. Then he starts zooming out, so we can see not only the United States but other continents, too.
He doesn’t say a word, but you just know what he’s thinking.
Despite Pack’s sedate and earnest demeanor, he’s concocting ever more elaborate tools to worm his way deep into the DNA of traffic incidents. For example, he’s polishing a virtual-reality game that allows incident responders—fire, police, ambulance, tow-truck drivers, everyone who might show up in the real world—to assume their roles in his custom-engineered virtual reality. Wearing communication headsets and using a game controller or keyboard, they work their way through a variety of scenarios.
Pack leads me into a darkened room next to the main lab, where one wall is covered by a huge screen, and asks a student to cue a scene up. It’s eerie to watch Pack’s avatar move and talk at his direction. In a full-up recreation—which Pack describes as Grand Theft Auto for the good guys—multiple players walk, talk, put down traffic cones, and do all the stuff they would normally do, and it’s all replicated on the screen. For playback and review, every action of every person is recorded against a timeline.
Pack uses this Virtual Incident Management Training game to run trainings for first responders so they can improve speed, communication, safety, and traffic management. Participants can see the impact of every decision they make, and it can all be deconstructed afterward to analyze how things could have been done better. Did that police cruiser need to turn on all its roof lights (which slows traffic going the other way)? Did that fire truck need to be parked across that lane? Why was that cop standing in a place where motorists squeezing by either had to slow or risk hitting him?
Pack, I realize, is like Willy Wonka for transportation nerds, and the CATT Lab is a factory where wild ideas get transformed into technology that’s irresistibly fun. He’s even working on a “3-D virtual helicopter” version of RITIS that allows the user to fly over an uncannily realistic recreation of traffic on the ground. A few clicks and we’re airborne over the Mall, looking down on vehicles going every which way. We’re “flying” yet also sitting in chairs. My brain races to process what I’m seeing and its potential. One thing’s for sure. Pack and his ragtag, whiz-kid posse are on the verge of retiring the most recognizable icon of modern traffic reporting: the clattering helicopter, manned by a reporter who’s breathless over the sight of a six-lane pileup.
I ask Pack whether he thinks there’s a technological solution to traffic congestion.
“Oh, sure,” he says. “Completely automated cars that take the driver out of the equation, communicate with one another, and can travel at high speeds within six inches of one another.”
It’s a cool idea. Not even the Jetsons had cars like that, but with wireless, autopilot, and GPS technologies it seems doable. You could imagine our existing roadways being able to handle huge volumes of traffic, incident-free, if only the cars—not impulsive, distracted, unpredictable humanoids—were doing the driving.
By now, I half expect Pack to say, “Do you want to see one? We’re building a car like that right next door.” But he doesn’t—though he does mention that Google is experimenting with an automatic car. I ask how long before we can all stop driving and let the cars do the work. “Oh, a while,” he says. “Maybe 30 years.”
In the meantime, Pack is in favor of much more aggressive incident-clearance laws and procedures, including putting special bumpers on law-enforcement and responder vehicles and allowing them to push crashed or broken-down vehicles off the road quickly. “It would make a huge difference,” he says.
Next: Can Washington endure 30 more years of traffic hell?