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Self-driving shuttles and traffic safety are good IoT bets

Las Vegas, Arizona and Utah are moving ahead with sensor-based technology to improve transport.


The Internet of Things (IoT) is a lot more than sensors that control heat and lights in a home or skyscraper.


Tech experts normally speak of IoT as a vast collection of small sensors that detect motion, temperature, pressure, water volume and more. The data such sensors collect is then fed into various networks, sometimes the public internet or private, secure networks. Lately, cities and companies are touting artificial intelligence (AI) to help interpret the data at the speed of light with the help of cloud computing.


The way that intelligent systems analyse the data can produce various efficiencies and cost savings – improving traffic flow, sewer flow, pedestrian flow or cutting energy costs. In some cases, the collection of data has raised privacy concerns, making it harder for governments to move ahead with IoT innovations.


Here are two outstanding examples of IoT that have made a big impact on traffic safety and transit. They are well beyond the testing stage.


Las Vegas’ autonomous downtown shuttle


Self-driving vehicles that rely on IoT technology and wireless communications are all the rage for carmakers and traffic-glutted cities globally, even after some well-publicised accidents involving test vehicles in the U.S.


One of the more successful projects with autonomous vans started in November 2017 in downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, the gambling and entertainment capital in the southwest U.S. City officials, working with private sector supporters, will soon expand the free van service – now running several times a day on a one-mile loop – to a much larger area after seeing early positive results.


The single, 11-passenger van initially made up to 20 trips a day and had served 23,000 passengers as of the end of June. More vans will probably be needed for the expansion.


“The autonomous shuttle is our pride and joy and has been a huge success,” said Michael Lee Sherwood, the city’s director of information technologies. “The city has benefited as the shuttle has brought individuals from all over the world to downtown Las Vegas to experience the technology and see the vehicle in action.”


The Vegas downtown area is an older portion of the city, separate from the famous Las Vegas Strip with its elaborate casinos. Downtown is undergoing extensive urban renewal, including a striking new City Hall building. While the Vegas shuttle now serves mainly as a way to bring tourists to the downtown area, what the city and its private partners learn about the technology will help inform decisions for self-driving passenger vehicles, vans and trucks of all sizes in Vegas and other cities.


Although long-distance highway driving with an autonomous vehicle is a clear objective of passenger-vehicle makers like GM and Audi, cities are increasingly interested in using shuttles to connect ‘last mile’ journeys from subway stops to homes or workplace, or to supplant the need for more taxis or Uber cars.


On the bus


The Vegas shuttle runs on electricity and battery power and is made by Navya in France. Each vehicle costs around $250,000. Passengers enter glass sliding doors on the side and sit in a circle facing inward. Four wheels run on two axles and all four wheels turn for sharp cornering.


The shuttle’s operator, Keolis, has served hundreds of thousands of passengers with self-driving technology in France and other countries. Keolis and AAA (the U.S. auto club) have funded the Vegas project thus far.


The primary IoT technology in the Vegas shuttle involves eight different sensors that use LIDAR, a technology, similar to radar sensors, that can identify barriers on the street and street markings. Navigation comes from an onboard computer that interprets what the sensors are “seeing” but there is also GPS location and communication with downtown streetlights over DSRC (Dedicated Short-Range Communications).


In the state of Nevada, self-driving vehicles must still provide an attendant on-board in case of emergencies, but the long-term scenario in Las Vegas calls for complete self-driving.


Here’s my first-person account of riding the Vegas shuttle in early 2018.


Utah and Arizona: Traffic cameras spot wrong-way drivers


Cameras and other sensors have been used to detect traffic and movements of crowds of pedestrians in cities for many years, but newer IoT technology is expanding capabilities.


In Arizona and Utah in the western U.S., thermal cameras have recently been deployed along major highways to detect when drivers are travelling the wrong way. The number of wrong-way driving fatalities has increased by 30% in recent years in the U.S.


“Wrong-way driving accidents are not very common, but when they do happen, the results are devastating,” said John Leonard, traffic management operations engineer for Utah.


Arizona’s success with thermal cameras along a 15-mile stretch of Interstate 17 in Phoenix to detect wrong-way drivers led Utah to begin its own testing recently. Thermal cameras like those supplied by AM Signal of Colorado provide greater resolution and accuracy than previously used radar detectors, Leonard said.


Arizona installed 90 thermal cameras at a cost of $4 million. In June, after six months of operation, the results were “promising,” officials said. Over that period, the state’s traffic operations centre in Phoenix received alerts of 15 wrong-way vehicles. Those drivers self-corrected, perhaps because they saw background-illuminated wrong-way signs that had lit up when the cameras detected the wrong-way cars.


The alert system with thermal cameras is “much faster than waiting for 911 calls from other motorists,” said Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Doug Nirtzel.


These thermal cameras include software that can detect an anomaly in a pattern, such as a car moving in the wrong direction. That information is sent via wireless or fibre optic cable to an emergency operations centre, as in the case of both Utah and Arizona.


Emergency centre operators can then immediately post warnings to other drivers on variable message signs. In Utah, officials can shut down highway access via signals on highway ramps. In both states, police can be notified to intervene if necessary, even crashing into a vehicle travelling the wrong way to bring it to a full stop.


The wrong-way driving detection technology in Utah and Arizona and the Las Vegas shuttle are just two examples of how far IoT technology has come in just the last year.


In the cloud

In two of the most ambitious transportation-related examples, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Hangzhou, China, are both using Alibaba cloud technology in conjunction with elaborate citywide networks that detect and measure movements of car traffic, pedestrians and mass transit to provide real-time analysis.


Using that information, emergency vehicles can respond more quickly to accidents while commute times can be shortened.


There’s a question, though, as to whether cities in most Western countries would adopt similar tech because of privacy concerns.


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