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Cars are the building blocks of a smart city

Author: Jess Shanahan
Category: Smart cities
Published: 07/07/2016

City populations are growing rapidly and our transport systems are feeling the pressure. Roads are increasingly gridlocked, buses are busier, and subway carriages are crammed to capacity during peak hours. With so many people tugging on the same resources, the need for smarter solutions has never been greater.

Connecting smart cities with smart cars is a vital next step.

Becoming a smart city

Autonomous cars will be a vital source of information in the future

Enabling people to get around efficiently isn’t as simple as just adding more roads or increasing public transport links. Technology has a big role to play, especially the Internet of Things.

Already we’re seeing cars get smarter with lane assist systems, blind spot monitoring, automatic parking and GPS that automatically reroutes to avoid congestion. These are all ‘building blocks’ which, when combined with vehicle-to- vehicle communication (V2V), will help improve and modernise cities.

Several UK cities, such as Southampton, Glasgow and Bristol have already begun updating their infrastructure to make this happen, but it’s Milton Keynes and its MK:Smart initiative that is pioneering technology closest to the global vision of a smart city.

“It’s really interesting what MK:Smart is doing with cars and its Motion Map – that’s the kind of initiative we need, whereby they’re gathering general information from city run services such as buses or from people doing the road works,” explains Robert Guest, global product director at embedded software company ACCESS.

“This data can be augmented with crowdsourced information so it’s less about Big Brother watching us and instead is closer to collaborative mapping apps where users add information on their smartphones. This data can then be used by other people in the city.”

The building blocks

Autonomous cars will be a vital source of information in the future. Interestingly, not much will have to change to accommodate these vehicles, as they will be intelligent enough to assimilate into smart city life. While they will certainly benefit from modernised transport networks, they are ultimately being designed to make informed decisions about any kind of environment or climate they find themselves in. In other words, like humans, except, it’s fair to say, far better.

In fact, as Rachel Skinner, development director at consultancy WSP & Parsons Brinckerhoff, explains, smart cars will be a catalyst for cities to get smarter: “Most of these changes will be long-term and evolutionary, accruing more benefit as a larger proportion of vehicles become equipped to operate in a driverless and then autonomous environment.”

More immediately, embedded camera systems on cars and public transport could be used to read the road, gather data and relay that back to the relevant local authorities, drivers and citizens.

“If there is a traffic delay, the local authorities can dial into the vehicle at the head of the queue to see exactly what is happening thus determining the best way to reroute other traffic flows, or even remove the obstruction,” explains Mark Patrick, chief technology officer at Digital Barriers.

“Not having to maintain thousands of traffic cameras will reduce costs for the councils. Even more importantly, if there is a critical incident requiring the emergency services; video can be streamed from nearby vehicles to give them a real-time overview of the area as they travel to it.”

Connected but not quite smart

Soon we could see the vehicles we drive – and those that drive us – seamlessly communicating with the world outside

While some cities such as Milton Keynes and Boston in the US – which is using crowdsourcing data to help find potholes and improve road surfaces – are making steps to collect data about road conditions, traffic and vacant parking spots, there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially if we’re to get to the stage where all cars are communicating and using the cloud to store data.

This is a sentiment shared by ACCESS’ Guest. While he believes that cars are becoming more and more connected, he acknowledges that we’re only just getting started: “The connected car is a reality but a truly smart car is still coming and that will be the push in the next few cycles.

“We’re only now getting to the stage where in-vehicle infotainment systems are able to provide the kind of services consumers are used to on their smartphones. With the rise of 4G, 5G on the way, and Wi-Fi all over the place, we’re only going to see more connected apps over the next five years. But we’re not quite there yet.”

A bright future

One of the key questions surrounding future connectivity is whether current mobile internet speeds and Wi-Fi are quick enough to handle so much data. But there’s another option. Li-Fi, which harnesses light for wireless communication, has ample potential. As founding father of the technology Professor Harald Haas explains:

“Car headlights and tail lights are steadily being replaced with LED versions. This offers the prospect of car-to- car communication over Li-Fi, allowing development of anti-collision systems and exchange of information on driving conditions between vehicles.

“Traffic lights already use LED lighting, so there is also the prospect of city wide traffic management systems. This would enable cars to download information from the network and have real time information on optimal routes to take, and update the network regarding conditions recently experienced by individual vehicles.”

This kind of quick communication will increase the amount of data that can be sent between cars and cities, further improving communication and interaction. Cars will help to drive the smart city revolution forward and soon we could see the vehicles we drive – and those that drive us – seamlessly communicating with the world outside.

Jess Shanahan is a freelance journalist who specialises in motoring and travel.