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Smart vehicles in a smart city

Smart Vehicles and Smart Cities

It is obvious that an important element of a smart city from a transportation perspective will be the use of autonomous vehicles. These will include private cars, transit vehicles and freight vehicles that are able to operate without a driver. It is worth looking ahead to what could be the shape of a smart city that incorporates autonomous vehicles.

It seems to me that a possible scenario for autonomous vehicles would be in support of on-demand transportation services. This would reduce the need to own a vehicle and extend the concept of “as a service” from information technology to transportation. The concept could emerge as driverless Uber or as an adaptation of the current rental car approach, with rental car companies operating a fleet of autonomous vehicles to provide on-demand transportation.

A subscriber would be able to use a smart phone app to summon a vehicle on-demand and sophisticated algorithms (I’m sure Uber has these already) would allocate the most appropriate vehicle and dispatch it to the subscriber. Under this scenario, it is likely that there would be more miles traveled by a lesser number of vehicles. The basis for my thinking is that autonomous vehicles would operate 24 hours a day 7 days a week, generating more miles than current vehicles. This would obviate the need for people to own their own vehicles, hence reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

While it is also possible that individuals will acquire their own autonomous vehicles, perhaps this fleet approach represents a useful transition strategy from driver to driverless. The operation of an autonomous fleet by professional managers and operators would help with the smooth introduction of the technology. Fleet operation of autonomous vehicles could also have significant impact on transit services and freight delivery services within a smart city. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on some concepts for applying big data and data analytics to the needs of the transportation disadvantaged. There is significant potential for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of on-demand transportation services for those people who cannot use conventional route services.

It seems to me that there is a convergence between the operation of an autonomous vehicle fleet and these needs. While considerable publicity has been generated by the notion that freight in urban areas could be delivered by flying drones, it is more likely that freight will be delivered by “driving drones”. Of course, all this will be taking place within the context of a smart city where technology has been harnessed to improve the quality of life for citizens and visitors.

Looking at this wider context, one can imagine that from a transportation point of view, a smart city would offer a range of complementary services supported by smart phone apps a sophisticated communication network and processing and analytics capability. Smart city services will be driven by a deeper understanding of the demand for transportation and current operating conditions.

This will be enabled by a richer stream of data and by more sophisticated analytics. Infrastructure based sensors would be an integral part of the smart city, but equally important would be the data generation possibilities from autonomous vehicles and connected vehicles. It is not difficult to imagine a smart city the delivers a range of useful services to both citizens and visitors based on this new understanding of what’s going on and what the needs are at any given time.

This also leads me to the thought that a really smart city would be aware of what’s going on in the surroundings as well as within the city boundaries. The sensing capabilities of a smart city should extend to the original origin of visitors to the city and be able to understand where they’re coming from, why they are traveling and what they do when the get to the smart city.

As is the case with all emerging technologies, there is a temptation to identify a solution and then look for a problem. So the really smart city would apply services based on identified and defined needs, issues, problems and objectives.

I’m working with the Emerging Technologies Forum of ITS America to provide support materials on this very subject. Along with a group of people drawn from both the public and private sectors, we are defining a checklist of services that would be expected in a smart city and a catalog of use cases that can be incorporated into smart city plans. A use case is simply a description of a problem that can be addressed and how it can be done.

It seems to me that autonomous vehicles have an extremely important role to play in the future smart city and that the introduction of this technology will have a dramatic effect on how we use transportation and ultimately on urban land use. It is likely that progress with autonomous vehicles will be mirrored by progress in back office automation, as our understanding of demand and operating conditions enables a higher proportion of automated event triggering.

The smart city of tomorrow will make use of an Internet of Transportation to provide a higher level of decision support to transportation operators. Will we look back in 50 years’ time and wonder what the transportation profession and automotive manufacturers were thinking in allowing people to actually drive vehicles?