Several lumps loom on the road to smart cities

Smart city technology is thought to be a key part of autonomous driving but it requires a massive (and probably expensive) overhaul that could slow or prevent deployment. From stop and yield signs to traffic lights and everything in between, new infrastructure is needed to transform cities into smarter, technology-filled destinations.

Rod Davenport, chief technology officer for the State of Michigan, said that smart city upgrades are “fairly straightforward” from a purely tech perspective but there are bigger questions that will decide the fate of any new infrastructure plans. “It’s a societal prioritisation question,” said Davenport. “Do we, the residents of Michigan, want to prioritise this with tax dollars or not? I think we are certainly supportive of advancing infrastructure and trying to make things better and more modern. I think it’s really a question of pacing and timing and prioritisation.”

Door-to-door mobility is one of the primary goals of driverless car developers, who hope to eliminate the pain points of the daily commute. Parking is scarce in many cities, making it difficult for consumers to visit quickly and comfortably. It’s a problem that is expected to get worse as the world’s population grows and it has inspired a number of start-ups to develop ambitious concepts with the hope of solving these challenges. One of them is Next Future Transportation, which developed a modular vehicle concept that could reduce the need for parking.

“I don’t think there’s anything from a physics or technology perspective that says that’s not possible,” said Davenport. “I think you have to look at it in terms of the level of consumer adoption. Some of the challenges would be scalability.” For example, if autonomous vehicles eventually dominate the roadways, there may not be much room left for traditional automobiles. Davenport added: “I think for that future to become a reality, we would all have to decide that that’s what we want.”

Alternatively, Davenport said that autonomous vehicles could be deployed in niche environments, such as airports and amusement parks, allowing consumers to navigate their massive parking lots more easily. “In some ways it’s not that different from mass transit except that you’ve got this last mile problem that is potentially solved,” he said. “I think it can happen but whether it will happen is really dependent on us, as a group of people, deciding: is that something we want?”

Multiple solutions

If self-driving cars prove to be safer than human-driven automobiles, some states may be tempted to designate road space to their deployment but Davenport said he is “not aware” of any such plans in Michigan.

He said: “If you’re going to have a lane that’s dedicated to something that’s not used for other things, you would have to match the demand for it. You don’t want to just have one autonomous vehicle in the lane. A lot of this is rooted in consumer adoption and the density of the autonomous vehicles. Where does it make sense to do something like that? I think at this point it’s good to keep all options open.”

It is not yet known how autonomous technology will impact driver safety but the current crop of ADAS features don’t seem to be making a difference. Deadly car accidents are on the rise as consumers shuffle from one distraction to another, most notably their mobile devices. Davenport is hopeful that will change as additional cars become equipped with new safety features.

“I think some of them become more impactful when more people have them,” said Davenport. “As the market share of that increases, we should start to see the benefit from them. I don’t know that there’s many cases where you have a fender-bender and someone says, ‘Oh, that was my fault’. It’s always the other guy. Thus, if you have a higher concentration of vehicles that have those technologies, then you’re safe on both sides. It’s not just you preventing it but also the other person preventing it as well.”

Challenges are not state-specific

Snow and ice are obvious hurdles that driverless vehicles must overcome yet aside from elements that are completely out of an automaker’s control, Davenport does not think that Michigan is any more or less challenging than other states.

He explained: “I think there needs to be a maturation of development of the technology. There needs to be a greater level of comfort for the consumer, and show that it’s safe and going to be cost-effective for them. There will be some things that end up working well and people will copy them; there will be other things that maybe appeal to more of a niche consumer.”

Long-term, Davenport expects autonomous vehicle adoption to follow the path of any other fresh technology. “Before the iPhone was invented, people didn’t really know that they wanted it,” he said. “I think that, as friends and family members got it and you started to play with it yourself, it certainly increased your level of comfort.”


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