Gridlock Guy: COVID-19 didn’t stifle iATL’s 2020 rollout

iATL director Bryan Mulligan in the traffic technology firm’s multimedia studio, built just after the pandemic shut down began. This adaptation allowed them to grow business virtually and more quickly than expected. 1/13/2021.
iATL director Bryan Mulligan in the traffic technology firm’s multimedia studio, built just after the pandemic shut down began. This adaptation allowed them to grow business virtually and more quickly than expected. 1/13/2021.

Credit: iATL

Credit: iATL

January 10, 2020 feels like six years ago. That actually was just over a year ago when the coronavirus seemed like some foreign subject in the “international news” section. But the dreaded COVID-19 had already washed in from the shining sea then and by mid-March, people swarmed to gather amber waves of grain (and white rolls of paper). Then most of the United States hunkered down, as the nation changed its approach to almost every facet of everyday life.

Alpharetta’s iATL - the Interactive Technology Lab - opened to great aplomb that early-January day, with Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan among the dignitaries toasting the innovation incubator. iATL’s mission is to improve traffic safety through connected vehicles and connected traffic infrastructure. The lab is full of different types of traffic lights and street signs and invites corporations and governments to test and integrate these. They also offer a real streetscape in certain parts of Alpharetta to further push the rigors of such cutting edge equipment.

But the virus was a wet blanket for many businesses and citizens. Moving and thinking forward normally don’t supersede survival. But iATL and director and founder Bryan Mulligan not only forged ahead, but managed to capitalize on the push to virtual meetings.

“COVID might have slowed it a little bit,” he told the AJC and 95.5 WSB, saying that the shock of the virus slowed interest in iATL through March and April. “But it might have actually increased the pace.”

Teleconferencing, a mode that many quickly learned 10 months ago, suddenly eliminated companies’ needs to fly in people to explore Mulligan’s products. “The virtualization that has risen out of COVID is accelerating innovation.”

Mulligan and his team decided to build an in-house TV studio on March 14th. They stopped in-person visits March 13th. That swift, forced adaptation set them up to better spread the gospel of their technology in far more effective ways than press releases and expensive visits.

Audi was an early iATL partner. The German automaker wants its vehicles to better communicate with modern traffic technology. That could mean improving self-driving techniques or communicating with crosswalk signs and traffic lights to move traffic more efficiently.

Creating a safer, better moving commuting environment is core to iATL’s mission. This can only happen by growing its private and public partner base. “As the snowball carries momentum, we’re seeing other car companies say, ‘We don’t want to get left behind. We’re not going to yield the space to Audi’,” Mulligan explained.

Other auto companies started noticing the benefits connected technology brings to many parts of society, including cyclists, school children and the disabled community.

iATL recently celebrated its one-year anniversary by announcing its Partner Alliance, which it describes as “public and private organizations with either a direct connection to the lab or actively support the development and deployment of connected vehicle technology.”

In the initiative’s press release, Audi of America’s Government Affairs director Brad Stertz summed it up:

“With iATL partner organizations, we are able to introduce cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technologies that alert drivers when they’re approaching school zones or buses, protecting children. In the future, when C-V2X becomes available to the public it will provide an immediate benefit to vulnerable road users.” Audi is among 26 partners in the alliance. Others range from AT&T and Qualcomm to the City of Alpharetta and the North Fulton Community Improvement District, to traffic technology and safety outfits, to Mulligan’s own Applied Information company. Mulligan said that the Georgia Department of Transportation has been a big iATL promoter and so have the cities of Marietta, Sandy Springs and Atlanta. Connected technology corridors along MLK Jr. Dr., Campbellton Rd. and North Ave. are proof of the city’s and the state’s buy-in.

The road map for connected vehicles and infrastructure involves a careful dance with the government and industry. The public sector rightfully shapes policy, Mulligan said. But, he added, “The business of the pace of change of technology — that belongs in the private sector.” Very simply, innovation and technology transform far faster than the bureaucracy can process it. The private sector, now fueled by the efficiency of teleconferencing, can comparatively sprint in this marathon.

Fully autonomous cars are closer than they seem. Mulligan recently drove from Tifton to Duluth without once touching the pedals of his Tesla. Tesla automatically updates the car’s software every six weeks with, among other things, new tweaks on how its cameras read the roads and communicate with other cars and connected technology.

Commuters can “connect” their vehicles by having the proper apps on their smartphones, which then communicate on “behalf of their cars.” iATL has spearheaded ways to give California cyclists preferential treatment at some traffic lights via the same app. That same innovation already exists in some Atlanta Fire Department engines and some Georgia and Massachusetts transit buses. CV2-X tells vehicles to stop around loading school buses and occupied crosswalks.

The Great American Shutdown ravaged the hospitality and trade show industries, among others, last year. And the pandemic continues belching negativity into 2021. But the hope of a safer streetscape is on the horizon, despite Georgia’s current deadly stint on the roads.

iATL, with the support of the private and public sectors, is helping work to make Metro Atlanta a technology hub and the best place on the east coast to do business. Mulligan’s lab is also expanding into many other cities, a contagion far more desirable than COVID-19. The daily commute will benefit from this, no matter where we situate on the fruited plain.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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