Connected streets empower connected cars

The evolution of the connected car has moved at a clip none of us would have dreamed even just a few  short years ago.

Recent news has celebrated advances in the technology and reported on the deployment of self-driving cars in American cities like Pittsburgh. And, according to Business Intelligence, over 380 million connected cars will be on the road by 2021.

Like many urban pundits and observers, I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid and wondering, with the excitement of a 15-year-old boy, how soon until I have my first autonomous driving experience.

And I’ve watched how smart and connected features have gone through what many see as the following evolution:

Hands on

Hands off

Eyes off

Mind off

Driver off

This evolution implies that most of the smart car functionality is embedded within the vehicle. But when discussing the phenomena with researchers in the smart city segment, it becomes clear that the vehicle is the focal point now only because the development of connected streets is in its infancy.

“Connected cars have reached critical mass, and their interaction with the transportation infrastructure within Smart Cities is ongoing,” said Heather Ashton, research manager for IDC Manufacturing Insights.

In a recent interview with Ruthbea Clarke, research director for IDC Government Insights Smart Cities Strategies, I learned that the true revolution will come with the convergence of smart streets and smart vehicles. According to Clarke, there are only two cities in the U.S. that have evolved to connected streets. Like myself, you might be surprised to learn that the leaders are Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

The term “connected streets” can be described in a number of ways. In the most literal sense, streets are physically connected so that users experience few gaps between points A and B. This permits a free range of rapid movement between work, housing and transit stops, whether by foot or by vehicle.

In the digital sense, the connected street relies on data feeds and Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors to help drivers and pedestrians better navigate the street grid. Those familiar with the app Waze understand this technology at a consumer level. At the governmental level, machine intelligence can be used to analyze feeds from street grids and other disparate sources to gain insight into patterns of movement.

Research presented by Smart Growth America has found that urban connected grid design can be counterintuitive as it relates to safety. For example, newer cities that have designed “more efficient” streets, allowing higher volumes of traffic in a few major roadways, have a higher number of traffic accidents than older cities with a greater number of intersections.

While I understand that higher-speed traffic is likely to cause more severe accidents, I’ve also felt  I’ve taken my life (and those of pedestrians) in my hands when driving on smaller, crowded streets with hundreds of pedestrian-packed intersections to cross before my destination.

Enter the convergence of connected street and connected vehicle!

“Automotive OEMs and Smart City leaders will need to work closely to ensure the continued development of, and support for, connected car capabilities and services such as vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications that will increasingly include autonomous operations,” said Clarke.

Leading the charge on the connected car-to-infrastructure front is car component supplier Lear. The company plans to develop and ship a unit that lets vehicles communicate with other cars on the road, as well as city infrastructure, including connected roads and traffic lights, and cloud-based services. The part would be modular, meaning automakers could easily install upgrades.

The challenge now for city hall is to prepare for this connected future.

In my interviews with city leaders and technologists, the greatest obstacle to remaining on the cutting edge is the extended municipal procurement cycle. By Moore’s Law, the processing power of a technology could double from the time a request goes to bid to the time it’s deployed, but the bid likely hasn’t built in this difference.

Lastly, as with any digital technology, issues of privacy and security are concerns. The exponential data exhaust created by connected vehicles and connected urban infrastructures could be a treasure trove for hackers and cyber-criminals. Taxpayers will want assurances that their personal information and movements do not fall into the public domain.

Despite these organizational and security hurdles, there continues to be tremendous momentum in the vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle marketplace. In order to navigate these issues the most important element will be strong leadership by smart city mayors and transportation planners who know the future is connected.

Are you preparing for the convergence of connected vehicles and connected streets?

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