Telematics and air pollution in China

Telematics and air pollution in China

Once called the Celestial City, Beijing is now the city of smog. It is far from alone.

According to the Asian Development Bank, fewer than 1% of China’s 500 largest cities meet the World Health Organization’s air quality standards; seven are among the 10 worst polluted in the world. And things are bound to get a lot worse as China’s economic growth shows little signs of letting up and automobile ownership rates continue to climb.

To be sure, China’s booming construction industry and the clouds of fine dust it kicks up is, by far, the biggest culprit. And so are the country’s power-generating and industrial sectors. Still, in the confined spaces of China’s overcrowded cities, the ever-present automobile is a big problem.

It is also a problem authorities can actually do something about – through telematics.

Monitor and regulate

In most Chinese cities, authorities already monitor traffic flows via roadway sensors and video cameras, providing real-time traffic updates to drivers through roadside digital screens, websites and auto navigation systems. Places like Beijing have started limiting new car registrations. And wealthy enclaves like Hong Kong are experimenting with electrified bus and taxi fleets.

Yet, to have a serious impact on traffic congestion and pollution, intelligent transportation systems using sophisticated telematics to manage traffic flows are what’s needed, experts say.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics offered a glimpse into what can be accomplished. At that time, transport leaders launched an automatic traffic incident alarm system, an automatic traffic diversion system, and a bus priority control system, according to Sheng Hao, a computer science scholar at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, one of the country’s leading engineering institutes.

The first two systems, both of which rely on telematics, are still in place. The bus priority system was only a temporary solution to the games’ vast transportation needs.

Beijing Olympics, the day after 

Now cities all over China are looking at just such solutions. Their primary focus is on delivering reliable traffic information and up-to-date maps, but more sophisticated solutions are likely to emerge.

(According to Sheng, traffic congestion in China has gotten so bad in recent years that the average vehicle speed is now just 20 km/h, and, on some road sections, even between 7 and 8 km/h.)

Sheng is currently working on a new navigation and guidance system that will be launched later this year and provide users with real-time information, via smartphones, on the most congested roads, and offer a route optimization planner. The system will be launched in the Chinese capital, in the northern city of Taiyuan and in Shenzhen, which borders on Hong Kong.

Other researchers at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics have teamed up with the Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport, Toyota’s research center in China and the Beijing-based CenNavi Technologies Co., Ltd. to develop and test a new traffic-flow simulator designed to guide drivers, via portable devices, around the capital’s most crowded roadways. Starting in July, test autos will be fitted with electronic toll collectors that charge drivers higher tolls for taking unapproved routes that are heavily congested.

(For more of our Asia coverage, see Telematics in China: Making sense of the marketTelematics in Southeast Asia, part ITelematics in Southeast Asia, part II and Telematics opportunities in Southeast Asia.)

Current maps are of the essence

In the east coast city of Shanghai, the local government has singled out telematics as a strategic sector, and systems that provide real-time traffic data to connected cars are becoming more and more popular, according to Michael Liu, a senior market analyst with the international research consultancy IHS Automotive.

Up-to-date maps are essential as a massive building boom continues to remake Shanghai. “The infrastructure and the roads often change,” Liu says. “If you leave Shanghai for several years, and then return, maybe many of the roads have changed.”

Over the next five years, Liu forecast, demand for navigation units is going to spike in Shanghai.  And, if a growing number of drivers uses this telematics equipment to avoid the city’s worst-clogged arteries, he adds, pollution and fuel consumption will fall.

In the south coast city of Guangzhou, transport authorities are offering drivers electronic maps that chart the ebb and flow of traffic patterns and even a live feed of images from traffic monitors that crisscross the city.

(For more on intelligent transportation systems (ITS), see New markets for fleet telematics, part I and New markets for fleet telematics, part II.)

Further on down the road

CenNavi, which is affiliated with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, is working with the Guangzhou government on providing traffic information and route-planning services to navigate the constantly expanding megalopolis.

In Hong Kong, BYD Company began deploying its e6 pure electric taxis. According to the Chinese vehicle and battery manufacturer, electrifying all of Hong Kong’s 18,000 LPG taxis and 12,000 diesel buses would result in a 56% reduction in vehicle emissions.

Markus Waibel, a scholar at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, says a World Wide Web-like cloud computing platform he is helping develop for robots and autonomous vehicles could, one day, coordinate a sophisticated network for intelligent transportation.

According to him, this RoboEarth Cloud Engine could in the future be linked up with telematics systems, emissions sensors and pollution monitors that send continuous readings to the central controller, which could, in turn, direct an entire city's traffic to minimize the concentration of pollution.

The system could include expressway speed limits that vary in inverse proportion to air pollution levels. “If air pollution hits a certain level,” he explains, “that could automatically lower the speed limits.” The entire system “could increase in complexity as you go along,” Waibel adds.

European imports

Meanwhile, Ralf Hug, a telematics expert who heads the Chicago-based Trajectory Group, says pollution could be also lowered through telematics systems that provide drivers with “eco-scores” based on how their driving habits and choice of routes affects emissions.

According to him, these systems are now being tested in Europe and could easily be transplanted to China to encourage eco-friendly driving. The same goes for “pay-how-you-drive” plans, based on telematics and offered by American insurance firms. These could also be adapted to cover China’s connected automobiles and drivers, according to Hug, and encourage drivers to go easier on the gas pedal.

But these schemes would have to cover a substantial proportion of the driving public in order to effectively combat the smog and snarled traffic. And for that to happen, Hug says, the government would have to mandate that all new cars produced after a certain date must be equipped with advanced telematics systems

According to IHS analyst Michael Liu, such a move is not likely any time soon.

Kevin Holden is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich, V2V & V2I for Auto Safety USA 2013 on July 9-10 in Novi, MI, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago,Telematics Russia 2013 in September in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013 in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.

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