Mind the gap between roads, cars and data

Mind the gap between roads, cars and data

The City of Seattle is replacing the failing Alaskan Way Viaduct with an underground tunnel that will transform the waterfront with new parks and amenities.

However, construction of the tunnel means frequent lane closures for the existing highway and massive traffic jams – unless you're a user of the INRIX mobile app. That’s because INRIX hoovers in data from a variety of sources including connected-car devices, road sensors and traffic cams, it is able to warn app users of delays and suggest alternate routes.

As roads get more congested, effective traffic management is imperative and road operators are contemplating how they can move toward connected management systems that will use data more effectively while bringing personalised traffic-control messages into vehicles.

The global market for traffic management is projected to be more than $22Bn (£15Bn) by 2021, according to TechSci Research, with the biggest spending to be on roadways.

Today and tomorrow

Today, highway agencies are using INRIX's data and predictive modelling services to see how travel patterns will change when they shut down a road, look at real-time data, historical traffic or predictive. They also are instantly sending incident alerts to drivers via INRIX. Says Mark Pendergast, director of product management: "We can alert drivers to dangerous conditions before they occur."

In the future, says Tim Steck, INRIX director of channel development: "Your Tesla could be driving autonomously and query a traffic light to see if it's in the middle of its green cycle." If it is, the car could maintain speed and cruise through the light. If it was about to turn orange, the car could gradually brake. (Assuming the driver was willing to let the car behave so politely).

However, neither Pendergast nor Steck foresee providing data from INRIX's multitude of sources directly to a connected car's embedded systems. In the first place, Pendergast says: "Most automotive OEMs don't have or seek direct relationships with highway authorities. They prefer an entity in between."

That data middleman can coalesce the data, clean it and normalise it for ingestion by automotive navigation systems. Aside from OEM preferences, data normalisation is required because different road authorities distribute their data in slightly different formats, within states, countries and even cities.

Steck points out that even metropolitan districts like Los Angeles or Seattle are actually composed of smaller municipalities that might have disparate systems or equipment, such as for adaptive traffic light controls. OEMs, meanwhile, have mostly moved to global platforms for their vehicles.

He says: "If you making a car, you want one platform worldwide and you want worldwide standards. That will take multiple players coming together in a complex way.”

Opening data silos

Cisco is another company that would like to be that worldwide platform. Its year-old Connected Roadways solution is a converged network infrastructure architecture that smart cities can use as framework for planning and building an ecosystem of vendors and partners, according to Barry Einsig, global public sector and transportation executive for Cisco.

"The goal is to build one common converged network that can also handle autonomous systems," Einsig says. The potential result is greater road capacity and improved traffic management with the potential to integrate a variety of systems.

Einsig doesn't see the fragmentation of software, hardware and systems among road managers and vehicle manufacturers to end any time soon. And globally, rather than creating standards, he says a more viable approach is to harmonise standards among countries and regions.

Of countries that are making progress, Einsig sees two categories. Countries like Singapore with a strong, centralised government have been able to progress with smart-city initiatives. "They can make decisions more unilaterally, so they are moving faster. They see a compelling reason to move forward and don't have as much governance structure to impede it," he says. Other countries, like Austria, simply have the cultural will to modernise.

He thinks the size of a country doesn't matter as much as its density. Countries that have more rural areas, such as Brazil, the United States, Canada or China, will face more of a challenge.

Besides the lack of standards, another barrier to bridging the gap between road data and drivers is the lack of ROI information for road authorities that are considering new technology.

Einsig says: "They don't necessarily have clear answers to what's the trade-off. If I buy this technology and get improvements in traffic flow or safety, is that better than doing something like lane widening? A cost-benefit analysis is not available to them at scale."

He adds: "No single company will solve this on their own. We need the other companies that have unique applications, the start-up community and vehicle manufacturers to be in this together and prove out the value."

Info increases road capacity

Be-Mobile is a start-up that wants to do that. In tests, it's found that dynamic routing and alerts on speed changes can increase road capacity by 30%, according to CEO Jan Cools. Be-Mobile fuses data from road sensors, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) systems and connected-car devices to monitor traffic flow.

Cools notes that when traffic density is high, traffic jams are most likely to occur. When one car brakes, cars behind it also brake beyond the point where they need to.

"We want to be able to predict when these situations will happen and slow the vehicle down before this event is happening," Cools says.

This so-called dynamic speed harmonization and dynamic capacity optimisation would calculate an optimal speed for each vehicle depending on where it was in relation to cars in front and behind it.

This information could be sent back to drivers with messages like, ‘Don't drive faster than 40mph’, or ‘Keep your lane’. Tests in Belgium have shown that, if drivers will heed these warnings, road capacity could be increased by up to 30% during commute times.

Cools posits that eventually such information could be transmitted directly to an autonomous vehicle's motor management system, enabling it to drive not only safely but more efficiently in traffic.

In the meantime, he says, bridging the gap between roads, cars and data "takes a lot of effort, ambition and perseverance."

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