2018 marks 50 years since Opticom was made commercially available; GTT is celebrating its past and inspiring the future with new approaches to change the way cities move
1968: the year of the Apollo 8’s first manned orbit around the moon; the year the Beatles recorded ‘Hey Jude’; the year the first automated bank teller machine was installed in the United States; and the year when the average cost of a new house was less than $15,000.
Another impactful technology debuted in 1968: Opticom™ priority control for traffic signals. It’s been helping emergency responders get help to where it’s needed more quickly and safely ever since.
Opticom is the flagship product of Global Traffic Technologies, LLC (GTT), based in St. Paul, Minnesota. The basic concept is straightforward: an Opticom-equipped vehicle sends a signal to a traffic light and requests a green light in the direction the vehicle is traveling.
While the idea seems simple, decades of partnering with cities around the world has led to countless innovations and refinements that make Opticom the industry-leading signal priority solution, GTT president Jason Lund said.
“Opticom has a rich history of innovation,” Lund said. “That legacy inspires us to continue to evolve and solve our customers’ problems as their needs change.”
‘A powerful tool’
There are two main Opticom variants deployed in cities today: Opticom Emergency Vehicle Preemption (EVP) provides a green light for emergency vehicles to get them swiftly and safely through traffic signals; and Opticom Transit Signal Priority (TSP) allows transit and traffic managers to give public transit vehicles green light priority when requested, to ensure schedule adherence and system optimization. Opticom is also used to give priority to public works vehicles – including snow plows – and other municipal or VIP motorcades.
However, the majority of Opticom installations are for emergency vehicles. Over the past five decades, Opticom has helped to save countless lives, Lund said.
“Opticom is a powerful tool for first responders – it not only helps to protect those responding to emergencies, but also increases the chance of a better outcome for victims and patients,” Lund said.
United States Federal Highway Administration studies have shown that EVP can reduce emergency vehicle crash rates by up to 70 percent and can improve response times by up to 25 percent. Those types of improvements are essential considering that vehicle crashes were the second leading cause of fatal firefighter injuries in 2016, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Fire Administration. And, if a response team can arrive in 3 minutes instead of 4, it can mean the difference between life and death for a cardiac patient, for example.
The benefits to transit riders might seem less serious, but having reliable, efficient transit enabled by Opticom signal priority can have profound effect on people’s well-being, Lund said.
“Imagine having an extra 10 or 15 minutes to spend with your family every day,” Lund said. “There’s comfort in knowing that your bus will be on time when you’re trying to get to and from work or school.”
Transit signal priority can reduce delays by up to 40 percent and improve travel times by up to 20 percent, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
On a technical level, the underlying technology for Opticom started out as light-based, where either strobe or IR flashes were used to request a green light. The second-generation of Opticom uses GPS for location and radio for communications to make requests. While first and second-generation offerings are widely deployed today, many cities considering “Smart City” initiatives are moving toward the third-generation of Opticom: a software-based deployment that centralizes the decision-making, whether in the cloud or on a customer’s server, taking advantage of existing vehicle computers, cellular communications, fiber optics and other infrastructure investments already made.
Despite becoming more commercially available fifty years ago, the Opticom story began a few years prior to 1968.
Engineer William Long developed the initial Opticom technology in 1965, according to historical documents. Long used his experience with military developments on ship-to-ship optical communication devices to start to envision a way to remotely control traffic signals.
As part of Light Energy Systems, Inc. (LES), Long traveled the United States with colleague G. Wayne King demonstrating the Mark I and II Opticom units. The first sale of an Opticom system was to Buena Park, Calif. in June 1966.
The acquisition of LES by 3M in July 1968 led to a greater commercialization of Opticom. As part of 3M’s portfolio, Opticom developed significantly, benefitting from increased exposure and resources.
Just outside of the 3M corporate headquarters, Opticom was installed at intersections around St. Paul, Minnesota and in the vehicles of the St. Paul Police Department, which quickly saw the value in emergency vehicle preemption.
Retired St. Paul Police Department senior commander Edward Steenberg recalled 3M marketing the product to other departments by hosting them at their campus. Steenberg said he’d take the visiting officers out to lunch in his Opticom-equipped car.
“I’d drive them through St. Paul and they’d see nothing but green lights,” Steenberg said.
Beyond St. Paul, 3M began worldwide promotion and distribution throughout its Intelligent Transportation Systems business. In November of 1969, Popular Science magazine published a feature titled ‘Fire Engine Has Built-In Traffic Cop’, promoting Opticom’s features and functionality. The article notes that several cities were already using the technology and that number continued to grow as 3M promoted the pioneering product. In 2007, 3M divested the Opticom technology and GTT was formed, dedicating more focused investment and development towards the Opticom solutions.
An optimistic future
GTT is now firmly looking to the future, while celebrating its 50-year legacy, Lund said.
“We’re determined to continue pioneering new solutions, just like Opticom’s creators did all those years ago,” Lund said. “To that end, our vision is to provide a clear path to greater mobility by empowering people to get from where they are to where they want to be with smart solutions designed to solve and evolve.”
The term “Smart City” has gained popularity in recent years and covers a wide range of technologies that try to optimize everything from power grids and water systems to transportation, health care and communication networks. GTT is well-positioned to be a leader in the smart cities space, particularly in connected vehicle applications, Lund said.
“Opticom was one of the very first vehicle-to-infrastructure – V2I – communications technologies,” Lund said. “Because of that pioneering legacy, we see Opticom helping to change the way entire cities move. It’s not just preemption and priority, but a more holistic approach to how all people and goods move throughout a city.”
To that end, GTT has made significant investments to develop cloud-based tools that will help cities gain valuable insights into how traffic flows within a city. Those insights, combined with other data sources and tools, can give cities more control and the ability to solve their mobility challenges.
“Opticom has come a long way in 50 years,” Lund said. “And I want to thank everyone who has worked to make Opticom what it is today. We all look forward to working with our current customers and partners and welcoming new ones as Opticom continues to evolve.”