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Emerging Futures: Connected Cars and their Impact on our Cities

The term “connected car” is often mistakenly seen as synonymous with “autonomous car”. This is wrong: while most autonomous cars are “connected”, a connected car is not inherently autonomous. So what exactly is a connected car? Standard definitions tend to define it like a normal car that has been made “smart” through the Internet of Things (IoT). If the Internet of Things is a set of physical objects embedded with sensors and/or actuators and connected together through a network, then a connected car is one of these physical objects embedded with intelligence and sensing capabilities through low-cost sensors, low-power, high-capacity processors, cloud computing, and wired and wireless connectivity. Connected vehicles are able to optimize their own operations and maintenance as well as the convenience and comfort of passengers using onboard sensors and internet connectivity.

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A 2016 report by Gartner suggested that connected car production would increase rapidly over the next 5 years. In 2018 we see this prediction becoming a reality, with the total number of connected cars and trucks likely to reach around 220 million by 2020.

When you Google search “connected car”, most of what comes up is about commercial IoT – in other words, how connected cars will change the lives of the individuals who own them.

However, connected cars also offer possibilities in terms of smart urban traffic and parking management, and incident and security monitoring and response. They can help city leaders to comprehensively manage all car-related operations across urban districts – particularly through the capacity of connected cars to “talk” to statically connected infrastructure through V2X (“vehicle-to-everything”) communications systems. By gathering data from all the connected cars on the road – such as weather data, surface conditions, traffic conditions etc. – transportation authorities can analyze and share information about road conditions with connected vehicles, creating more efficient traffic flows, reducing congestion and emissions, and preventing accidents. In this article, we will examine how connected cars are providing alternative ways for city leaders to improve their operations and make urban roads safer and more efficient.

Parking Management

The average time spent looking for on-street parking is approximately 10-15 minutes. According to a recent study by San Francisco City Council, vehicles circling the city looking for somewhere to park makeup roughly one-third of weekday traffic. This means that a lot of inner-city traffic could be reduced if people were able to find parking spaces more easily, presenting city and parking operators with a pressing need to facilitate parking space availability and “findability” – not only for the sake of cutting carbon emissions but also in order to improve quality of life for urban residents.

Parking fraud management is currently difficult for city operators, who have limited resources and often rely on unreliable, costly manual readings. For this reason, smart parking solutions are increasingly being taken up by public and private sector parking operators worldwide. There is a real need for a more streamlined, comprehensive solution to both parking space availability and parking fraud. Connected cars are integral to smart parking solutions because they can act both as moving sensors, detecting parking occupancy across the city, and also as devices that allow drivers to find a parking space more easily. Volkswagen, for example, has launched a pilot project using the existing ultrasonic proximity sensors used by cars for parking to assess the availability of free parking spaces on the side of the road when the car drives along a street. This data is transmitted and uploaded in real-time and matched against map data to eliminate false positives (for example if the parking space is only for disabled people or permit-holders).

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Bosch’s community-based parking solution (photo courtesy of Bosch)

Similarly, Bosch has come up with the “community-based parking” solution through which, via sensors and connectivity hardware, cars can identify available spaces themselves as they drive past. Drivers looking for parking benefit from the data acquired by the “community” – in other words, the other connected cars using Bosch’s smart parking solution – and can be guided to available spaces using the information displayed to them in real time. This saves drivers a lot of wasted time and cuts down on inner-city traffic – and carbon emissions – in the process. Bosch’s solution is particularly useful because it can accommodate the requirements of individual drivers, with a filtering feature allowing drivers to preselect criteria such as parking space size or availability of electric charging stations.

As such, connected cars serve two crucial functions: they can both gather and transmit data that automakers, city leaders, and parking operators can use to better manage traffic and parking around the city, and allow vehicle-users to make evidence-based decisions about where they will park, or the route they will take, through real-time data aggregation and sharing.

Traffic Monitoring

If all cars are one day connected, they will theoretically offer city leaders a comprehensive overview of all traffic in the city, serving as moving “sensors” who report real-time data to a central server. Even with the limited (but growing) number of connected cars out there, city operators can already begin to capitalize on their integrated navigation systems. These systems combine geospatial data with real-time traffic information to help the vehicle find its end destination. They primarily rely on global positioning systems (GPS) receivers, which receive signals from multiple satellites in order to calculate a vehicle’s position (with a 10-meter accuracy).

The reliability of these systems is only likely to improve with time, as researchers create highly precise GPS tracking methods and systems that can capitalize on existing signals, such as cellular and Wi-Fi.

These systems use these tracking methods to automatically reroute a car around traffic jams – offering drivers information about weather, parking, and other points of interest on the road. As such, if connected to a central traffic and congestion management system, they give city operators the opportunity to redirect and redistribute traffic, preventing congestion from building up in certain parts of the city and at certain times of the day. The parking management capabilities of connected cars also help with this.

Incident Management

Connected cars are less likely to be involved in accidents because they contain diagnostics systems, which allow for predictive maintenance of the vehicle. They also tend to have blind-spot detection systems, which again help to prevent collisions. In addition, in most connected cars, V2X systems convey important information to the driver about road conditions, such as accidents or oncoming ambulances or police cars. Emergency vehicle warnings are particularly useful as it can often be difficult for drivers to move out of the way of first responder vehicles, particularly at risky intersections where oncoming traffic is unaware of the emergency vehicle. Several cities— for example, Palo Alto—are already working with the company HAAS Alert to alert drivers in real time about upcoming ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks through V2V communications. These systems can send automatic warnings to cars, letting the driver know that an emergency vehicle is behind them and that they should move over.

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GM’s OnStar Crash Response (photo courtesy of GM)

Connected vehicles also help with crash responses. Some connected cars have crash response systems, such as GM’s OnStar, which contain built-in sensors that can predict the severity of injuries from the crash and direct emergency services in the right direction in the event of an accident. Moreover, other connected car services, such as smartphone apps (see SOSmart and CamOnRoad) use smartphone sensors and past crash data to detect when a car is in an accident, find nearby hospitals, and notify authorities. Many automakers are also now including electronic data recorders (EDR)—also known as “black boxes”, like those in planes— in their connected cars. These boxes record information about the vehicle and driver behavior during an accident – for instance, car speed, whether braking occurred, and whether the people in the car were wearing seatbelts. These technologies will probably all eventually be used in conjunction with each other, perhaps as part of an overarching V2X communications system, warning drivers of approaching accidents, potential collisions, upcoming traffic, dangerous road conditions, and other dangers. We are also likely to reach a place fairly soon where connected cars will call emergency services automatically in the event of an accident.

Connected cars can also be linked to roadside assistance applications, which quickly connect drivers to the nearest available tow truck. For example, Urgent.ly and Honk offer on-demand roadside assistance services, using systems which locate the driver and the nearest facility or vehicle assistance truck, often charging based on distance. Where Honk only offers connectivity through drivers’ smartphones, Urgent.ly has just been integrated into some connected car platforms – such as AT&T’s systems. This kind of integration is likely to happen more and more in the future.

Security Management

In the past, if a car was stolen the only way to locate it was through number plate recognition, CCTV and eyewitness accounts. Nowadays, with the advent of connected cars, vehicle recovery systems allow drivers and authorities alike to track the position of the stolen vehicle in real-time and piece together the history of where a vehicle has been, in order to track down its current position.

Vehicle manufacturers offer a range of vehicle recovery systems, such as GM’s OnStar, BMW Assist, and Toyota Safety Connect. Alternatively, some companies offer post-purchase options, such as LoJack and Zoombak. Most current vehicle recovery systems use a GPS transmitter and cellular transmitter to locate a vehicle’s position. Others, like LoJack, use a radio transmitter and a series of radio receivers to track and recover a vehicle.

As the technologies in connected cars improve and they become ever more connected to each other and other assets/devices, new anti-theft measures – like engine ignition cutoff and remote control and locking – are becoming more viable. Combined with geolocation information, these new measures are offering automakers, drivers and authorities new tools to stop thefts and locate stolen vehicles. For example, BMW located and disabled one of its cars through its ConnectedDrive platform when it was reported as stolen in 2016, trapping the thief inside until police arrived. The new technologies employed by connected cars, therefore, promise to significantly restrict the ability of thieves to successfully steal cars.

Conclusion

The benefits of the connected car will be myriad: from improving the user’s experience to cutting CO2 emissions in cities to locating stolen vehicles as soon as they disappear, connected cars open up a whole new future for both drivers and city operators alike. Connected cars are clearly the future, but they will only be useful to society as long as policymakers are proactive in addressing concerns about public safety, data protection, liability, intellectual property, data standards, interoperability, among others, in ways that support safety but also innovation. The true potential of the connected car, and in particular V2X communication systems, will only be unleashed if governments modernize – and digitize – public infrastructure in order to enable connected vehicles to connect to something more than the user’s smartphone.

One of the ways in which governments and city councils can digitize this infrastructure is through Operational Intelligence (OI). OI can be defined as a form of real-time, business analytics that gives greater insight into business operations through digitizing assets. OI solutions digitally connect existing systems, sensors and teams and enable operators to make evidence-based decisions through real-time intelligence. This allows them to better understand the performance of distributed infrastructure, make predictions, improve efficiency and even prevent incidents. Operational Intelligence will be key to the future of connected cars. If appropriately instigated in cities, it will allow city councils to capitalize on the growing number of connected cars to improve all of the above areas (parking management, incident management etc.) through communications between public assets and systems and moving private vehicles.

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