Professor Eric Sampson CBE, Senior Programme Advisor at ERTICO, has actively contributed to many successful ITS Congresses across the globe since he led the very first one held in Paris in 1994. This interview marks his long-term path with ERTICO and his devoted involvement in developing the event series of ITS Congresses. From his initial set-up of a European Programme Committee to the establishment of his team of rapporteurs, advising high-level sessions and speakers as well as assembling the closing summaries and post-Congress reports, Eric has an infinite number of memories and stories to share. We spoke with him a few days ago to get a better grasp of his astonishing journey before we separate paths and finally wish Eric a great retirement.

Eric, explain more about your role at ERTICO. What was your involvement in the first ITS Congresses?

My current position at ERTICO started in 2012 with Vienna, but my involvement began much earlier, back in the early 1990s when I worked for the UK Transport Ministry. At the time, there was a growing interest in accelerating the application of innovative research in computing and telecoms to transport. This prompted a big initiative to establish a European-wide Telematics Coordinating Organisation, which formed ERTICO – ITS Europe, signed by 15 parties. I had the great pleasure to be part of this on behalf of the UK Ministry and the forthcoming period with the evolution of the ITS Congresses was equally exciting.

The notion of ‘an ITS Congress’ was first proposed by a Japanese Professor who believed that all stakeholders would benefit from coming together under one roof to share ideas and thoughts. It emerged during an international conference where a group of us discussed the problems of planning and managing transport: demand outrunning not just supply but Society’s ability to pay and Society’s willingness to accept the intrusion of transport infrastructure.  We rapidly realised three things:

  • We all had the same problems;
  • We all thought we had some of the answers;
  • We knew we did not have the time, the money, or the skilled people to test all possible options before committing ourselves technically, politically or financially.

So, we began talking about ways to share ideas, experiences and costs.  It was, of course, the obvious way to make progress: Association, not antagonism, cooperation instead of conflict, synergy instead of separation.

After ERTICO was founded, there was great enthusiasm in establishing the first Congress. In 1992, as Chair of the ERTICO Supervisory Board, we began the preparations for the first one in Paris two years later. I was setting up the first Programme Committee with European representatives and ERTICO experts. It was also a great honour for me to act as Master of Ceremonies at the Congress. I remember the cheering after the opening speech, which mirrored the 31st Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘Dream’ speech: “Thirty one months ago a number of experts met for the first time to organise this event, and we agreed that ‘We have a dream’, and today it is happening”.

During the first ITS Congresses, what sort of technologies were discussed and how has it evolved until today? Do you think there is anything new in ITS, or is it a series of recycled or repurposed ideas?

At first, we concentrated on key technology opportunities, such as improvements in position fixing and advancements in communications technologies which emerged from declassified defence material. The following Congresses focused on reporting individual work and achievements based on that, but then the importance of looking from the users’ perspectives began to appear. This marked a turning point as the subsequent discussions became more consumer-oriented, and the idea of providing better mobility services emerged instead of focusing on the technologies that made them work. As time went on, that focus shifted again towards debates on accessibility, affordability, and adaptability. There is a greater emphasis on connecting data sources and leveraging new technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) which are still very relevant today. It is not necessary to have new technologies to produce new services.  Think of Rembrandt – he used the same paints and brushes but produced very different pictures with them.

I believe ITS is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In the early days, the emphasis was focused on visibility and showcasing of accomplishments rather than converging the technologies, innovations and services provided today. The waves of innovation keep swirling, and one example of this is the unmanned air vehicle which was not really heard of before the ITS World Congress in Hamburg 2021. Other examples of emerging technologies include 5G, big data analytics to process and find patterns, and, as I mentioned before, AI and IoT. The industry’s emphasis on connectivity and reliability has driven its evolution.

Looking back at this incredible journey, what are some of your best memories of the ITS Congresses?

I have many fond memories, and the first comes from Paris when I saw the long queues to register on the very first day and realised “it’s happening”. I also recall the phenomenal soundtrack at the Turin Congress 2000 – Maria Callas singing Casta Diva. Also, Turin, some of us were allowed to drive on the roof of the Lingotto building (but limited to 20 kph). Sydney 2001, coming after the 9/11 atrocity, was also a special event’. It had a remarkable Opening Ceremony with a choir of small children, some sheep, and the ‘swagman’ on a horse. Another that sticks in my mind was the Opening Ceremony in London in 2006. Although I was in charge, the team would not tell me about the planned entertainment. Sitting there quietly, we suddenly heard the ‘tick tick’ of a drummer’s sticks and then a glorious wall of sound from (half of) the Band of the Grenadier Guards. I was excited by a conversation in Detroit in 2014 with a first-time attendee who described the event as “first aid for the brain” because of all the knowledge he gained in just a few hours of meeting and speaking with new people and learning about new things.

On a final note, can you tell us about the unique ties you have created and collected over the years?

It all started with Paris. I bought a very bright and colourful tie before the Congress, which was admired by the President of ITS Japan.  I said I would send him a similar one, which I did, and later I received a beautifully calligraphed thank you letter from the Japan Embassy in London. Since then, I have commissioned a tie from my supplier Jane who paints them with motifs of the city where the Congress takes place. They are wonderful souvenirs and reminders of the many Congresses I have attended, and one of my favourite ones is from Copenhagen, where the symbolic Congress globe is used twice as cycle wheels. For the ITS European Congress in Lisbon, I will have two new ones.

Any last thoughts?  You will get them in Lisbon.  It has been a privilege and a pleasure working with ERTICO as adviser and as Chief Rapporteur, but it is time to share that with someone younger, so I’m handing it over to Wolfgang Hoefs.