The next big thing

How PennDOT plans to use emerging technologies to address everything from equity and climate justice to work zone safety



The next big thing

By Mark Kopko, Director, Office of Transformational Technology | Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s Office of Transformational Technology’s goal is to make the process of exploring and implementing emerging technologies as seamless and easy as possible for our DOT. Ultimately, if we do our job right, the DOT will have integrated select technologies to the point our office can move on to the next big thing.

Our office is among only a few in the industry charged with looking holistically at how technology impacts transportation. However, we may see other agencies take a similar approach as automated and connected vehicles, drones and other advances edge closer to becoming realities in our world. The following information about our office’s origins, best practices and goals may be helpful.

Why we set up shop

PennDOT is a large agency. We oversee highway, rail, freight, air, public transit and vehicle registration and licensing. The Office of Transformational Technology elevates the importance of emerging technologies within the DOT and evaluates them from an enterprise-wide perspective. Our office serves as subject matter experts and integration specialists for emerging technologies. We help determine if and where a technology might fit and how to best plan for its integration.

We lead initiatives in automated vehicles, connected vehicles, platooning transit vehicles, smart cities, broadband and personal delivery devices. We support other agencies’ initiatives involving shared mobility, drones, vehicle electrification, hyperloop and mileage-based user fees.

Taking an enterprise-wide approach avoids patchwork adoption, siloed expertise and compatibility issues that could arise if each business unit operated independently. Plus, our office relieves others in the DOT of the need to become technology experts in addition to their day-to-day roles and responsibilities.

Determining which technology to pursue

Technology is continually evolving. That makes the task of determining which technologies to pursue a challenge. Going “all in” on a specific technology only to learn after significant investment that something newer, faster, less expensive or more universally applicable is taking its place is a major risk.

To avoid going down the wrong road, our office implements three mitigation strategies:

  • Seek input from a variety of stakeholders. For decades, auto manufacturers made the vehicles, consumers drove them and states built the roadways. Each entity stayed in its respective lane. Today, connected and automated vehicles, drones and personal delivery devices are blurring the lines and dictating industry and DOTs take a more interdependent, collaborative approach. We chose to incorporate this concept in our process. Instead of researching and deploying technology in a vacuum, we partner with sister agencies, private-sector businesses and academia. When we consider their insights and research in our assessments, we make better, more informed choices of where and when to invest taxpayer dollars. One of our best examples of collaboration, and one of our most significant achievements, is PennDOT’s new connected and automated vehicle policies. Our partners helped us update our testing guidance, create policies and procedures for platooning transit vehicles and develop operational constraints and procedures for personal delivery devices.
  • Invest in relationships. We have been surprised at our partners’ willingness to collaborate and share what they know. It indicates their understanding of technologies’ ability to do significant good. However, we’ve also learned there is a limit to the amount of proprietary knowledge the private sector will divulge. The auto industry’s job is to advance technologies with the altruistic goal of improving safety, fuel efficiency or battery life, but they still must make a profit. For competitive reasons, these industry partners are hesitant to show all their cards. We must respect those boundaries and work to earn their trust.
  • Take a conservative approach. We take incremental, foundational steps that will benefit taxpayers regardless of how a technology evolves. For example, PennDOT is developing a strategic plan to install fiber to facilitate infrastructure connectivity with vehicles and potentially support automation. But at the end of the day, we still need to connect maintenance sheds to district offices, ITS equipment in the field to traffic management centers, etc. There are other use cases we have for that fiber. So, we’re identifying use cases now, and we can say, “Okay, we can put this here to meet our current needs, but it also will make this corridor prepared then for the emerging transportation technology.” That puts us in such a better position.

Using automated vehicles to increase equity

Emerging technologies could help Pennsylvania’s transportation system work for everyone by addressing many of the socioeconomic and geographic inequities we face today. For example, personal delivery devices have the potential to help alleviate the issue of food deserts.

PDDs are ground-based, driverless delivery devices manufactured to transport cargo or goods. Pennsylvania state law now allows PDDs to operate in pedestrian areas, on select shoulders or berms of roadways and on select roadways.

We see a future where PDDs shuttle fresh, nutritious produce and goods to residents in urban areas who do not have access to grocery stores or farmer’s markets. But we need the help of our partners to make it happen. Again, we are convening stakeholders to get a sense of how the technology would be used. Our private-industry partners have their business models, and we respect them, but we also want them to be aware of the geographic inequities our citizens face and to realize how their technology could help create greater quality of life for all.

Addressing climate justice with vehicle electrification

PennDOT welcomes the transition to vehicle electrification, although we realize its implications for DOT operations and funding. But before electrification can be a viable personal, public and commercial alternative, we must have the right resources in the right places.

Currently, we are working with a variety of stakeholders to create a strategic plan for deploying EV infrastructure that is safe, reliable and readily accessible. Part of the plan focuses on locating charging stations to facilitate short- and long-distance travel and eliminate motorists’ concerns of being stranded by a dead battery.

Using high-definition maps to create safer work zones

Every motorist has negotiated a work zone where traffic cones and signs contradict pavement markings. Humans know to follow the channeling devices, but machine visioning may not. The inability of automated vehicles to adjust to a work zone is a big industry concern. That’s why PennDOT applied for and received an $8.4 million federal grant; we want to positively influence work zone safety through improved connectivity, machine visioning and high-definition mapping.

Through the department’s oversight, it has become clear that AVs do not perform well in the work zones and routinely require human intervention. In many cases, testers try to avoid work zones altogether.

We intend to develop a consistent approach for AVs to operate safely in work zones. For example, most automated vehicles use high-definition maps as the foundation for operations. But a map is only as good as its accuracy. The second a DOT sets up a work zone, the map is no longer accurate, at least temporarily. We are studying how to share basic work zone information, such as where backups are forming, when the next lane shift or closure will occur and what the configuration will look like. Our goal is to create real-time high-definition maps from which automated vehicles can navigate safely.

To demonstrate the viability of a solution, we will perform demonstrations in a variety of work zone configurations with varying scale, complexity and duration. Our systematic approach to verify proposed AV solutions includes:

  • Running all solutions and approaches through multiple simulations
  • Conducting demonstrations in a controlled, closed-course environment
  • Safely integrating successful solutions into limited, small-scale demonstrations

With the help of a comprehensive team of subject matter experts, including Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State University, engineering consultants, auto industry partners and various government entities, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, we hope to create a future where automated vehicles can navigate new or existing work zones at least as well as if not better than humans do.

Parting thoughts

Emerging technologies can significantly advance major industry initiatives, such as safety and mobility, while catering to equity and climate justice needs. Identifying and integrating the right technologies requires a dedicated team, executive leadership support, educational institutions and public and private partners who share a collective desire to leave the world better than we found it.


Mark Kopko is the director of PennDOT’s Office of Transformational Technology. He manages all activities related to emerging technology, including the deployment of connected infrastructure, development of policies and standards and the authorization of automated vehicle testers, platooning operations, personal delivery devices and automated work zone vehicles. Contact him at or (717) 783-1903.