The switched on city

Features

A world of hyper-connectivity is rapidly emerging, and digital technology is leading the way. Higher levels of communication between vehicles, the community and the wider environment are fuelling a new kind of metropolis – the ‘switched-on’ city. By Camilla Allen

The United Nations estimates that world population will hit a colossal 11.2 billion by the year 2100. People are predicted to flock to conurbations across the globe, increasing urban population density considerably. But what does this unprecedented growth mean for the city of tomorrow? How are urban planners gearing up for the pressures that rapid urbanisation will put on transport systems, the environment and civic life as a whole? The future may be uncertain, but one thing is for sure: digital technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) is paving the way to the ‘switched-on’ city. This highly-connected vision of the future is set to radically transform the world’s urban landscape forever.

City authorities are increasingly tapping into this high-octane, tech-fuelled vision in a bid to revolutionise metropolitan transport. Autonomous vehicles are being trialed worldwide and steps are being taken to seamlessly integrate smart technology into the wider urban framework. The desired result is streamlined city road networks, minimised carbon emissions, reduced infrastructure costs, and, in theory, improved quality of life for the travelling public.

Apple, Intel, BMW, Google and Uber are just a few of the carmakers and tech-centric companies investing heavily in the electric and autonomous vehicle markets. BMW and Intel aim to develop fully driverless cars by 2021, according to the Financial Times. Sergio Marchionne, chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), says, “In order to advance driving technology, it is vital to form partnerships among automakers, technology providers and suppliers.” FCA is joining the non-exclusive BMW-Intel partnership that calls for all carmakers and technology companies to come together to develop a shared vision. “Joining this co-operation will enable FCA to directly benefit from the synergies and economies of scale that are possible when companies come together,” adds Marchionne.

To lead the ‘mobility’ race, prestigious car manufacturers are striving for data-driven solutions that will meet ever-increasing consumer demands – and collaboration is key. The automobile and digital worlds are fusing to bring futuristic designs to our roads: smart vehicles are being equipped with high-tech sensors, cameras and laser systems to monitor road conditions and relay data, all in real-time; navigation paths are being mapped out by Bayesian Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping (SLAM) algorithms, which collate data from multiple sensors to ensure that the most efficient route is always followed; and some companies are developing microphones to enable ‘robocars’ to detect and react, not only to visual stimuli, but to sounds too.

Self-driving tech company Waymo is currently testing a convoy of autonomous minivans in Phoenix, Arizona, US, and has developed microphones that allow its robocars to hear sounds and intelligently discern the whereabouts of the source. This innovative technology could help vehicles of the future react quickly to approaching hazards, such as ambulances, police cars and fire engines, dynamically rerouting accordingly. So far, Waymo cars have self-driven over three million miles across multiple locations in the US – Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington; and Metro Phoenix, Arizona – and have been trained to drive safely through various real-life conditions. Now, Waymo has launched its early rider programme, inviting residents in the Phoenix area to join the first public trial of their self-driving cars.

Although some companies claim that fully autonomous vehicles will hit our streets within the next decade, there is still a lot to be done before cars governed solely by software are released onto public roads. At present, autonomous vehicles are manned by a driver who is able to override the machine and take control at any time, if needed. These models feature a conventional steering wheel, gearbox and pedals – components that will eventually be stripped out to allow for more space. In ten years or so, passengers may expect to simply flag down a ride via their smartphone, climb aboard, and let the intelligent systems do the hard work. Soon, travel will be easy, time-efficient and safe, including perhaps, drinking while being driven.

However, it is not solely personal cars that are shifting towards autonomy; freight vehicles are too. In August, the UK government announced £8.1 million of funding for trials in lorry platooning, where HGVs will be synchronised via wireless technology and travel in convoy. With trials expected to start towards the end of 2018, the heavy goods vehicles will be under the command of the lead lorry, accelerating, braking and steering when instructed to do so. Trials will initially involve test track-based research before the autonomous trucks are deemed safe enough to take to major roads across the UK.

“We are investing in technology that will improve people’s lives,” says Transport Minister Paul Maynard. “Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users, thanks to lower emissions and less congestion.”

If the Transport Research Laboratory’s (TRL) trials go to plan, fleets of self-driving HGVs closely following one another may become commonplace on UK motorways, benefitting the common motorist as journey times could be cut. Trials of a similar nature have already been successfully carried out in the United States and Europe, but Chief Executive of TRL Rob Wallis claims, “The UK has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world in trialling connected vehicle platoons in a real-world environment.”

Nevertheless, autonomy still remains a frightful prospect for many people. In fact, a recent study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that 66% of people are uncomfortable with the notion of driving autonomously at 70mph. Yet, four out of five people are open to the idea of autonomous vehicles on UK roads, according to TRL.

Much like any new technology, the idea of cars that take control away from the driver and place it in the hands of a machine has divided public opinion. Cynics fear technical malfunction and loss of control may occur, which could put lives in danger. But head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Philippa Oldham reassuringly says, “Not only could the technology help save hundreds of lives, but there are estimates that the overall UK economic benefit could be as much as £51 billion a year due to fewer accidents, improved productivity and increased trade.” Rather than reducing road safety, autonomous vehicles have the power to eliminate human error and mitigate common risks, such as drink driving and tiredness at the wheel.

The Huffington Post reports that by 2020 there will be more than 20 billion connected things sending out data all over the world, despite some people’s reservations. IoT, which involves a network of web-enabled devices, vehicles and buildings, all communicating with one another, is gaining significant traction and is also empowering a smart parking revolution. On-demand data, analytics and visualisations about city traffic flows are being used to make better use of parking spaces.

A commuter survey carried out across 20 cities worldwide found that drivers spend an average of nearly 20 minutes in search of a free parking space, even though there are three to three-and-a-half parking spaces per car – with figures rising to eight spaces per car in some cases. The deployment of sensors and data streaming has the potential to optimise parking by harnessing real-time and predictive information to direct parking on and off roads.

General Growth Properties’ (GGP) mobile app is the first in the retail industry to use heat maps generated by GPS data to pinpoint open parking spaces in close proximity to consumers’ favourite shops and restaurants. GGP Chief Executive Officer Sandeep Mathrani says, “Mobile technology continues to play an important role in the shopper’s path to purchase and GGP is committed to leveraging it to provide shoppers with a more convenient, engaging and positive experience.” The provision of real-time demand and supply data will enable pricing to vary depending on statistics, which will discourage the public from pursuing parking spots when spaces are limited.

 

IoT technology will also be employed in the greater framework of cities by means of smart traffic signalling. New York, for instance, is implementing the initial 400 of over 12,000 smart traffic lights. In addition, it plans to connect 8,000 vehicles – including taxis, freight vehicles, and buses – to the IoT. Traffic sensors embedded in traffic lights and roads could enable transit authorities to customise the times at which lights change, meaning that traffic lights will change from red to green when roads are clear. Stopping and starting vehicles unnecessarily could become a thing of the past.

In fact, this autumn, the phased opening of Manchester’s new smart motorway will begin. 100 traffic sensors have been installed over 17 miles and GOV.UK reports that the smart technology will gauge the state of the motorway and adjust speed limits to match the number of vehicles on the roads. This £208 million Highways England scheme aims to benefit the 18,000 people using this route on a daily basis, increasing the efficiency of the main east-west transport corridor and making journey times more predictable. By reducing holdups caused by stop/start circumstances and sudden breaking, carbon emissions could also be significantly cut.

Innovative schemes like this give us some insight into how the future might look, and that future could be closer than we think. But with change occurring at such a pace, it begs the question: who is in the driver’s seat?