Without the correct infrastructure, autonomous vehicles won’t succeed. John Frazer, DAV, looks at how cities can approach getting the right framework in place.
The growing number of smart city projects springing up around the world would have you believe that the city of tomorrow is already with us, or at the very least within our immediate grasp.
However, it isn’t really. Although it might be close, there’s still so much that needs to be done at a low level to make future cities genuinely smart. There is also a perennial ‘chicken and egg’ situation that must be overcome. When building or re-architecting a city to be smart, what comes first?
There’s still so much that needs to be done at a low level to make future cities genuinely smart.
Is it the driverless cars, the delivery drones, the automated street sweepers and street lights, or is it the underlying infrastructure that not only makes these individual items work, but lets them interoperate and co-exist as a fluid ecosystem?
For town planners, transport departments and other key infrastructure providers, striking a balance and justifying investment in underlying infrastructure can be hard. Building smart communications, networking, charging and transactional infrastructure before the utilising services arrive is always difficult to agree. This is especially true for cash-conscious public sector bodies. However, without it, the first waves of automated and smarter devices and services won’t live up to their potential, and risk being bottle-necked by an inability to use key services and facilities with the fluidity required.
Smart city projects have largely been technology led to-date. Projects have been localised, and have rarely joined up, further limiting their capability and effectiveness. While projects are in the proof-of-concept stage, that can be forgiven. However, once we move into live public-facing deployments, such as smart motorways and smart transport projects, limitations soon become apparent.
Driverless vehicle pilot projects are hampered by the need for dedicated infrastructures and interoperability, not just a shortage of dedicated lanes or airspace where vehicles can operate without having to contend with unpredictable human elements in the same space.
There are also issues such as access to charging points and entry/exit points from flight paths; spacing between vehicles; and the ability to anticipate through greater awareness of the vehicles around you.
Without underlying infrastructure and frameworks for communication and transactions, smart vehicles and their environments won’t gel together. Before you build the roads, determine the flight-paths, fit the street furniture and buy the vehicles, how do you ensure they can all interact? Also, if you don’t do that first, it becomes harder to ensure every subsequent investment will talk the same – or at least a compatible – language.
Without underlying infrastructure and frameworks for communication and transactions, smart vehicles and their environments won’t gel together.
Take the London Underground for instance. In October 2014, Transport for London (TfL) unveiled 250 “driverless” tube trains, scheduled for introduction in 2022. The new rolling stock will enable faster, more frequent and reliable service, and boost capacity on the Piccadilly, Central, Waterloo and City, and Bakerloo lines. It will do this by running more regular services, closer together, and with more consistency. The trains will also not be as susceptible to strike action.
However, before these can come into service, a wealth of underlying communications infrastructure, signals and sensors have to be fitted to the network to facilitate the integration, automation and train-to-train telemetry.
Smart city communications and interaction frameworks ultimately allow everything to cross-communicate. They can negotiate with each other, book access, charge batteries and bill for the privilege.
Consider this scenario: A major retailer looks to deploy drone-based delivery across a major smart city. For such an extensive drone-based operation to work, those drones need to use infrastructure beyond the warehouse compound they start from. As they weave their way across the city, they need to communicate with each other, as well as drones from other operators that are using the same airspace. This communication will ensure that the vehicles keep a safe distance from each other, and can anticipate the arrival or departure of a drone from the flight path.
What about drones doing multiple drops, or flying to the farthest reaches of the city? Battery technology isn’t there yet to ensure that these delivery drones can stay in the air all day on a single charge, so top-ups will be essential. Without a unified, open source framework underpinning the devices and the territory, there is no assured and compatible way for a drone to find a location to recharge, book time on that charging pad, initiate payment for the service and release the pad when it’s done.
The same applies for autonomous vehicles on the ground too. Automation of transport also requires automation of refuelling, automation of payment transaction, automation of access control and automation of availability. This is all before we get to the matter of automation of the actual vehicle and its intended service.
Ensuring a framework that is open source, technology-agnostic and can facilitate a marketplace for services as well as the communications protocols for different devices to communicate and safely inhabit the same space is key to the smart cities vision.
Without it, your driverless electric taxi will struggle to navigate busy road networks. Your road sweepers risk running out of power. Your delivery drone will see its range curtailed by the reach of a single battery charge. Charging stations risk being grossly underused due to an ability to easily bill the vehicle owner or identify the user.
Ultimately, without an effective underlying communications framework, data that is valuable across different devices risks being siloed.
That is perhaps the biggest obstacle to smart city success.