50 years of VTI

VTI's anniversary logo

On 1 July 2021, VTI celebrated 50 years as a public authority. It was in May 1971 that the Swedish Parliament decided to establish a new institute by merging the National Road Institute with parts of the National Council for Road Safety Research. By 1 July of that year, activities were already underway, and the new organisation was dubbed the Swedish National Road and Traffic Institute.

Gradually, the abbreviation VTI began to be used. It has stood the test of time and survived the adjustment of the name in 1993. That year, the word “traffic” was replaced by “transport research”, resulting in the current name, the Swedish Road and Transport Research Institute. This was done both because transport can be considered to be a broader concept than traffic and also to illustrate the institute’s more research-oriented activities.

“It’s fantastic that the institute has succeeded in continuously developing and driving research forward for so many years,” says Director General Tomas Svensson.

“All our employees, both past and present, have participated, and continue to participate, in important and far-reaching contributions to society an important and far-reaching contributions to society. Especially now that the world is facing major challenges associated with climate change, facts, data and research are needed for us to be able to have a transport system that is accessible and sustainable, both now and in the future.”

The move to Linköping

At the same time that it was decided that VTI would be formed, it was also determined that the institute be located in Linköping. This decision was taken for regional policy reasons, and VTI was not the only government authority that moved from Stockholm to Linköping. Linköping had a university college with technical, medical and philosophical faculties, something that was important to the ability to recruit educated staff. The newly formed organisation therefore had to immediately start planning for a relocation of the old road institute and its offices and laboratories, which were scattered across four different locations in Stockholm. The move to Linköping in 1975 (the same year as the university became Linköping University), meant completely new and spacious premises that were adapted to the institute’s activities from the very beginning, along with associated test equipment. A new crash test laboratory and a new road material laboratory were built on-site. In Linköping, there was also plenty of space for the advanced driving simulator, the development and construction of which were already being planned. It was completed in 1984, nearly ten years after the move, and has had several successors. Today, there are three major driving simulators at VTI. Like their predecessors, they are versatile and powerful tools for research on driver behaviour in different environments and situations. The newest driving simulator is located at VTI in Gothenburg, which is one of three offices in addition to the head office in Linköping. The other two are located in Stockholm and Lund. During the years 1998–2019, there was also an office in Borlänge. It was the first office to be established in another location.

More areas of expertise

Around the time of VTI’s founding in 1971, its activities were also expanded. The investigating and research staff broadened their focus, from primarily looking at road technology and maintenance to also examining what happened on the road. Over time, traffic and transport became established research areas and staff with behavioural science and economic expertise were hired. As early as the 1960s, the institute’s predecessor, the National Road Institute, had conducted studies on traffic and traffic safety (among other things on behalf of Högertrafikkommissionen the National Right-Hand Traffic Commission in connection with Sweden’s transition to driving on the right-hand side of the road), but now the newly established VTI received increased resources to develop and strengthen traffic safety research. Transport economics also began to develop into an important field of research and became even larger when the Swedish Board of Transport was decommissioned in 1991 and VTI took over some of the council’s functions. Over time, research into virtually all aspects of infrastructure, traffic and transport has been added, and although the legacy of the Swedish Road Institute remains strong, projects focused on railways, shipping and aviation are becoming increasingly prevalent. VTI is now an interdisciplinary institute, and research is conducted regarding all modes of transport, examining them both individually and in projects that span two or more modes.

Railways on the rise

Some decade after its formation there was an interest at VTI to create and develop a department for railway research, and towards the end of the 1980s, various research and traffic policy bills laid the groundwork for this to become a reality. The fact that VTI was chosen as one of the performers of railway research was partly due to the fact that the Swedish Government’s investigators believed that the institute’s expertise and experience from the road traffic area could be utilised and applied in the railway area. Just as in road traffic research, VTI has used its breadth and blend of theoretical and practical knowledge to develop simulators for train traffic. Among other things, the simulators were used to study ride comfort on the first X2000 trains and are currently relevant for research related to the railway’s new ERTMS signalling system.

Contract research

VTI’s research projects have long been funded by external clients and funding bodies. However, this has not always been the case. In the early days, the institute received its own appropriations for conducting research. This changed with the 1993 research bill, which proposed transferring the majority of appropriations for research at institutes and authorities to research funding bodies. The aim was to increase the opportunities for competition. The Swedish Parliament approved the proposal, and despite the fact that VTI had also previously carried out commissioned research and development work, this meant a radical change for many people at the institute. Some challenging years including redundancies followed But in the end, the institute managed to recover to its role as a performer of contract research. Thirty years later, contract research is now a well-established approach, and the institute has developed both scientifically and in terms of its research subjects, in competition with universities and other research organisations. The demands and wishes of the national research funding bodies have meant that VTI is now often included in large projects with several actors. Sweden’s accession to the EU in 1995 also brought increased opportunities for international research collaborations within the EU’s framework programmes.

Text: Hillevi Ternström
Translated by: Semantix AB