To kick off the 53rd year of the Texas Transportation Researcher, we sit down with Greg Winfree to see how he’s settling in as the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) new director. We also get his views on various topics, including the connected-automated vehicle revolution and the role TTI will play in conducting advanced research initiatives in the coming decades.
It’s a long way from Washington, D.C., to College Station, Texas. What’s the transition been like for you?
Earlier in my career, I made a similar move from Washington, D.C., to Danbury, Conn. Like College Station, Danbury is a mid-sized city that hosts a university community, and it’s kind of nice getting out of the big city after you’ve been there a while. I can go into a convenience store and leave my car running, and it’s still there when I come back out! And if I need a big city, I can drive two or three hours in any direction and find one. Smaller communities like this one, though, are comfortable for me.
What was your impression of TTI before applying for director?
What have you learned about the Institute since becoming director that’s surprised you?
I knew quite a bit about TTI, actually. When I was assistant secretary for research and technology at U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), I reviewed two competitions’ worth of University Transportation Center grant proposals and debated the selection of finalists with the secretary and other senior DOT officials. TTI stood out even then to me, and the agency is highly respected at DOT. I also knew several of TTI’s current leaders through organizations like ITS America and the Transportation Research Board.
As far as what’s surprised me — TTI’s Proving Grounds are well known for having improved roadside safety. But to see a crash test firsthand — that’s really remarkable. The Freight Shuttle, too, is impressive on paper. But to see it in person brings home the level of effort it takes to move an idea from concept to reality. I’ve also learned how closely TTI works with Texas A&M Engineering, particularly the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, to educate the next generation of transportation professionals.
That brings us to the theme for this issue of Researcher — TTI’s connection with Texas A&M University and its education mission. Can you talk a little about how you see TTI’s role in that relationship?
When I was at USDOT, my office was responsible for workforce development. That gave me an appreciation for a broad, multifaceted definition of that term. Certainly, Texas A&M’s mission in producing well-educated graduates is vital to producing a sustainable workforce for the country. But beyond the specialists, the Ph.D.’s in engineering for example, we also have to train the folks that maintain the transportation system — the operators who turn the wrenches, who wear the steel-toed boots. TTI and its sister agencies in the A&M System are critical to that process, and we’re fortunate to have access to the University’s deep, broad pool of student talent. TTI offers a living laboratory that complements the classroom experience, and the students’ fresh perspectives strengthen our research results. It’s a win-win.
Speaking of the next generation, the connected/automated vehicle (CV/AV) revolution is coming; some would say it’s already here. But there are lots of issues — from technology to policy to cybersecurity — that have yet to be addressed. Can you talk a little about how you see this revolution unfolding?
It really is already here. Assistive technologies — automated cruise control, assisted braking, lane assist — are already standard features on cars rolling off the showroom floor. We’re even seeing autonomous cars being tested on public roadways. At USDOT, we didn’t see it as CV/AV, with that implied divide between automated vehicles and vehicles connected to infrastructure. We thought of it more as (CAVs) — connected-automated vehicles. It’s a fine point, but an important one, I think. Some private companies believe they can design autonomous cars that don’t need to connect with other vehicles or the roadside, but my fundamental belief is that connectivity is critically important and should be the very first step of CAVs. About 40,000 highway fatalities a year occur in this country, and they’ve risen for the second straight year. CAVs can help prevent up to 80 percent of unimpaired crashes, so the safety benefits of CAVs could be significant.
The related issues of positioning, navigation, timing and spectrum management are important to how things are changing. These vehicles communicate via DSRC [dedicated short-range communication] signals at a frequency of 5.9 GHz. The Federal Communications Commission allocated 75 MHz of spectrum in that band for intelligent transportation systems (ITS). But some Wi-Fi companies, for example, are lobbying for access to that part of the spectrum to stream faster content. It’s very important to protect that neighborhood from a noisy neighbor moving in because the safety messages are transmitted 10 times per second, and any interference can dramatically impact the effectiveness of the communications. If DSRC signals are drowned out by a movie transmitted near them in the frequency spectrum, crashes can occur. Lives can be lost. We had a saying at USDOT to help remind us how important this issue is: “We don’t want people getting entertained to death.”
CAV technology is also reliant upon GPS for positioning, navigation and, importantly, timing. This issue of timing, however — of discrete parts of the information system handshaking in a coordinated fashion — affects more than transportation. It affects the power grid, precision agriculture, shipping, banking transfers. In transportation’s case, we have to protect that quiet neighborhood to ensure public safety and a robust economy, which depends on reliably moving goods to market.
As this revolution progresses, where do you see TTI in 5 or 10 years? Will the Institute’s mission evolve at all?
TTI — especially through centers like the Transportation Policy Research Center (PRC) — can play a vital part as CAVs are developed. Lawmakers need reliable transportation research — dispassionate, non-partisan facts — to generate good policies that protect the public. There’s no other example I know of in the country like the PRC, which is charged by the Texas Legislature to provide reliable research findings in terms the public can understand. It’s that kind of guidance — as well as TTI’s more traditionally recognized expertise in ITS, maintenance and roadside safety — that the Institute can continue to provide going forward.
Someone in Washington described the concept that everything is connected as “The Internet of Things.” I think the traditional engineering disciplines will morph and merge in coming decades as technology becomes more integrated and the need for mobility in Smart Cities continues to evolve. We’re all waiting for the Jetsons’ flying cars, right? That might sound like science fiction, but the best Sci-Fi takes the science of its time and extends what’s possible through visionary thinking. That’s the kind of Institute I want TTI to be — grounded in the fundamentals but inspired to dream beyond them.
What are the strengths you see yourself bringing to TTI’s directorship?
I’m a lawyer by training, but I have a proficiency in technology and innovation. So, I know enough to know that I should help the Institute’s experts excel in their chosen fields, not do their thinking for them. I like to think of myself as TTI’s advocate, the Salesperson in Chief — it’s my job to create opportunities and clear obstacles so TTI folks can do their jobs better.
As far as my leadership style goes, I’ve had positive and negative experiences with managers in my own career, and I’ve developed my style in part as a response to my own experiences with bad managers. It’s always better to be respected than feared. Fear stifles creativity; it can keep employees from offering their best because they’re afraid of showing up the boss. I want people to feel comfortable enough to take chances, to innovate in their fields. I want them to embrace the notion that, as long as you learn from mistakes, there’s no such thing as failure.
What’s the one thing you want people to know about you as the new agency director?
I’ve got your back. If you’re a TTI employee, part of my job — a big part of my job — is to inspire you to want to come to work every day. If you’re a sponsor of TTI research, I’ll work to make the Institute responsive to your needs. If you’re a Texan wanting a safer transportation system, I’ll encourage TTI’s researchers to think outside the box — to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with innovative solutions that work in the real world. When you think about it, everyone’s a stakeholder in TTI. And I’ve got your back.