A simple but enduring image from the 1960s conjured the future of travel. In the prelude to The Jetsons, each family has a vehicle that zips effortlessly above the ground, along a predetermined path, as if on invisible rails.

A generation later, Steven Spielberg was much less hopeful about technology: Minority Report showed us self-guided cars, each moving in a pre-ordered line, none able to break free of it.

Today the vision feels different. A constant flow of information now exists to increase what we can wring out of a day, to prepare and excite us, to give us the news of the world, and help us and our social circle participate in it. Information keeps us safer and makes production more efficient.

Yet we often find we lack crucial information–and traffic is one way we feel that. Despite the availability of digital technologies like social media driving app Waze, or the route-finding information on Google Maps, we still find ourselves facing unpredictable traffic patterns and unwelcome delays. Traffic tangles up our workdays, slow us down when we’re doing even simple tasks, and hamper business productivity.  Traffic-free highways still feel like Utopia.

And what about the innumerable businesses that rely on our roads? Almost 14 billion tons of goods traveled on U.S. domestic highways in 2013–the latest year for which figures are available. How to learn if the trucks are on time? If some are delayed (and many are), how to ensure personnel are available to unload shipments once they arrive? How will delays impact customers, contracts, and scheduled fulfillment deadlines? And what about the impacts on end-customers?

Massive volumes of goods. Millions of products worth billions of dollars. Delays mean extra paid wages, endanger customer relationships, and lead to lost profits.

The promised digital highway

Driverless cars are no longer science fiction. And reality will be more simple than the Jetsons–and much more welcome than in Spielberg’s dystopian film. We’ll have a transportation ecosystem in which each separate moving vehicle moves seamlessly in relation to others around it, navigating a complex system of highways and streets, tollways and parking lots, traffic jams and road construction.

Call it the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS): a self-learning, predictive digital system that improves mobility and driver safety for nearly all transportation types: cars, trucks, buses, trains, even motorcycles. It would facilitate seamless urban mobility, turning congested urban areas into functional, manageable sectors. It will allow the type of efficiency at ports and multimodal centers that logistics experts have long dreamed of.

ITS will be an intelligent, ever-expanding network of real-time information that gives individuals and companies expanded visibility into and control over travel times, experience, and safety.

The new commute: A day in the life

The new commuteA manufacturing manager steps out her front door. Identifying where she is in relation to her vehicle, her smartphone unlocks her car. It switches on, unplugs itself from its battery power-port, pulls forward to the footpath, and opens the driver’s-side door.

Simultaneously, the onboard link to ITS begins streaming traffic data to its in-dash system. The system in turn links to her calendar, which checks compatibility with her production schedule and selects the optimal route to get her to the facility on her schedule today. The computer analyzes real-time traffic and weather data while the vehicle cruises along its route, and dictates our manager’s schedule to her while she travels. She pulls into her reserved parking space with time to spare—informed, relaxed, ready to start her day.

Meanwhile, a group of long-haul truckers arrives at that same plant to pick up finished goods for delivery across the country. Their ITS-enabled trucks have received electronic bills of lading, and they’re automatically routed to the location of their containers at the loading docks. Each truck’s system knows when the containers have been loaded, and monitors weather, construction, current traffic patterns and trends; each notifies the driver of the best route to the delivery destination. As delays occur along the route, the driver is notified of the best routing alternatives.

Not the magic fantasy of the Jetsons. But not a glimmer of Spielberg’s dark vision, either. A conceivable, practical future.

And there’s real money in increasing travel efficiencies. According to industry estimates, traffic congestion and delays can result in inventory costs and labor expenses that increase product costs by as much as 12%. The day-to-day implications of a digital Intelligent Transportation System are safer roads, vehicles and and drivers–all participating in the larger ecosystem of smart buildings and cities.

ITS is just around the corner. Learn more in our white paper, “Smart Vehicles Meet Intelligent Roads.” And join the conversation at Digitally.Cognizant.com.

Raj Radhakrishnan

Raj is the Vice President of Cognizant's Manufacturing & Logistics industry services.