Weekly Brief: Smart City Joins the Ranks of the ‘Rationalized’

Google parent company Alphabet cancelled its ambitious smart city project in Toronto, Ontario, last week.

It cited the “unprecedented economic uncertainty” of the Coronavirus pandemic as the root cause. Dubbed ‘Quayside’, the project envisioned a complete transformation of a twelve-acre, former-industrial stretch of Toronto waterfront into a futuristic city. Here the cars would be self-driving, the skyscrapers were made of timber, the traffic lights were embedded with smart sensors and the trash cans were so technologically savvy that they could interact with owners and communicate their needs to Toronto waste management. Alas, none of it will come to fruition, at least not in Toronto anytime soon.

It’s another reminder that, as countries begin to relax their virus restrictions and their economies churn back into motion, there will be casualties in the form of businesses that don’t re-open. Shuttered factories that will never see daylight stream again through the depot doors and once promising projects that will never get taken off the shelf. Automakers are likely to survive but the leading edge of technological innovation within the automotive and transportation industries will take a hit. Moon-shot flying car projects will be cancelled. Smart city projects will be abandoned. Self-driving car projects will be scrapped. Last week automotive supplier Bosch confirmed that many of its automaker partners have already suspended investment in autonomous technology. For more, read Paul Myles’ coverage here.

The pandemic may not destroy nascent industries but it is likely to winnow the field. At the same time, when it comes to Quayside, it is important to remember that Alphabet’s project had a lot of problems with it. The Coronavirus pandemic may be more of a convenient way for Alphabet to save face than the real cause of the back out.

Local residents weren’t thrilled with the idea of their data being used for technological experiments, surveillance and capitalistic exploitation. Civil and digital rights activists rallied against the project.

Alphabet’s subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, claimed that every bit of data generated by its smart city infrastructure would be stripped of identifying information and then distributed for public use. Enough people were skeptical, however, that the project had lost momentum, while it continued to gobble up tens of millions of dollars of investment. The company’s former CEO and co-founder, Larry Page, was a big proponent of Sidewalk Labs and the Quayside project in particular. With Page gone, new CEO Sundar Pichai was quick to pull the plug.

In other news last week, Volvo announced that some of its 2022 lineup will come with all the necessary hardware to enable fully autonomous driving. The upgrade is thanks to a partnership with LiDAR firm Luminar. Volvo says that any vehicle manufactured on its modular Scalable Product Architecture (SPA2) will come with LiDAR sensors built into the roof, starting with the 2022 XC90. Hardware is one thing, software is another. Volvo says that although the cars will be equipped for self-driving, they won’t actually be able to drive themselves until Volvo releases the necessary over-the-air software update, which it won’t be doing in 2022. It may not do it in 2023 or 2024 either. You can read more about Volvo’s now-you-have-it, now-you-don’t announcement here.

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