Smart Cities’ Head Start On The Mobility Future

Autonomous cars are only one part in creating a transportation revolution.


Even if autonomy is still mostly in the R&D, balky-science-project phase, vehicle connectivity is increasingly here today. And that’s good news since connected cars deliver a meaningful subset of the societal upside promised by their eventual fully autonomous future selves, especially when it comes to safety, traffic management and navigation. But beyond the dashboard, as the world becomes vastly more urban, the real star when it comes to transportation, including mobility services, and connected and eventually autonomous vehicles, may well be the smart cities.

See what Marcus Welz, president and CEO of Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems, has to say on this in this short interview at the Movin’On World Summit in Montreal recently.

All the many benefits that are ascribed to our self-driving future – lower carbon emissions; remade, human-scale cityscapes with parking lots giving way to parks; dramatically lower cost-per-mile traveled; personalized door-to-door services available to a much wider swath of the population – perhaps depend more than anything else on an increasingly intelligent civil infrastructure.

Some of the gains and goodness are here now and just because of burgeoning vehicle to infrastructure connectivity. For example, reactive traffic signals and traffic management software are helping the Seattle Department of Transportation reduce travel time on so-called “worst commute days” by a whopping 40 percent along a particularly congested corridor. The benefits add up dramatically over time, especially in a city with some of the nation’s worst traffic. In an average year of 260 days of commuting, shaving just 10 minutes a day gives a Seattleite back 86 hours annually.

And more benefits, especially related to safety, come from so-called connected vehicle technology that links vehicles, smartphones and traffic signals. Here’s how it works: a 5.9 GHz dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) device in the car (either factory-installed or aftermarket, or possibly a 5.9 GHz-enabled phone carried by the driver) broadcasts basic data about vehicle location, direction, speed and a host of other information.

This data is picked up by roadside equipment that in turn sends traffic signal countdown information back to nearby vehicles, warning drivers of potential red light violations, or of pedestrians, cyclists and even animals on the road ahead. The technology can go so far as to suggest the car initiate automatic braking and collision avoidance based on calculation about a potential crash with a moving object ahead.

Here’s Pri Boyd, Siemens ITS senior product manager, giving a great TEDx Oxford talk on this last year:

Siemens connected vehicle technology is being tested in New York City, Tampa, Ann Arbor, Columbus, Tampa and most recently in Las Vegas. The United States Department of Transportation Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 80 percent of crash scenarios involving non-impaired drivers could be addressed with this sort of two-way, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication.

Expect the story to get that much better as autonomous vehicles begin showing up in these cityscapes, with radically improved abilities to make decisions in real-time based on fused high-resolution sensor data about the surrounding environment and powerful AI and neural networks. Smart city and connected car technologies will augment what these robot cars can do on their own, especially as more vehicles are plugged into the network.

Metcalfe’s law says that the value of a telecom network increases proportionally to the square of the number of connections. And that law holds true whether these connections are from human users of laptops, tablets and phones, or from AI-powered cars, trucks and shuttles.

From Tesla to the world’s largest automakers, nearly all manufacturers have promised to launch autonomous cars within a decade. Public trust in the technology, which had slowly risen in recent years, hit a speed bump in early 2018, likely due to a spate of well-publicized fatalities involving self-driving cars, including the world’s first pedestrian fatality, a topic I wrote about last month. A much-cited April 2018 survey by AAA found that 73 percent of Americans don’t trust autonomous vehicles, up from 63 percent in late 2017.

Some of the reticence may come from an uncertain legal and regulatory environment, though likely some of the on-the-record concerns are more than the realm of dystopic science fiction than fact. Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America told The Verge: “We live in a new reality where autonomous vehicles can be weaponized. On AV cybersecurity, Congress is simply asleep at the wheel.”

Of course the last tectonic shift, from the horse to Henry Ford and his vision for affordable cars for the masses, wasn’t without its hiccups and notable critics. Winston Churchill, for example, declared that “I have always considered that the substitution of the internal combustion engine for the horse marked a very gloomy milestone in the progress of mankind.” (It bears noting that Sir Winston, an early member of the Royal Automobile Club, was known as an avowed automobile enthusiast who used his advance for his World War I memoir, well over $150,000 in today’s dollars, to buy a Rolls Royce Cabriolet.)

Sure, there is no shortage of self-driving buzzkills even now, likely because the hype cycle is in full swing when it comes to the autonomous future. However, the billions of dollars of pre-orders for the Tesla Model 3 suggest that enthusiasm for cutting-edge technology remains as strong as ever. And the example of autonomous technologies which have taken root in aviation, shipping and rail service over the years, mostly unquestioned by the public, suggest a template that might be followed in the auto industry, once the marketing frenzy dies down and the regulators wake up.

For now, across the spectrum of manufacturers and suppliers, massive investments are being made that are helping to solve previously unassailable problems in various technical domains. I’ll have more to say about these domains in the fall in a forthcoming Siemens PLM whitepaper, from which this article is excerpted. And just a note: we’re launching a 10-episode podcast series on the future car shortly, and Marcus and Pri are guests on one of the episodes. Stay tuned for more and Tweet us at @Mentor_Auto.

Here’s a bit more on what Pri is up to:

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