Earlier this year, Google announced the commission of 100 experimental self-driven cars. Unlike their previous retro-fitted Prius models, this custom-built fleet eschews driver controls entirely. Google’s latest move continues its strategy to drive innovation and dominate the conversation around smart cars, but while driverless vehicles will change the paradigm of America’s car culture, it’s not the only change coming to our streets.
In fact, the streets themselves are changing. Unlike driverless cars, smart road innovations are incremental and inconspicuous; in some instances, changes have already arrived.
Using technology to manipulate and optimize traffic isn’t new. In-pavement detectors and timed traffic lights have been regulating the flow of vehicles for decades. But as the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to reshape how we approach infrastructure, our ability to measure and optimize the driving experience is shifting into high gear.
Smarter traffic, safer roads
A Carnegie Mellon University research team recently ran a “smart signal” pilot project in Pittsburgh. Traffic signals combined motion recognition with signal-to-signal communication capabilities. The results were impressive: 40 percent reduction in time spent stopped while cutting travel times by an average of 26 percent. And less time on the road translates to an estimated 21 percent reduction in exhaust emissions – an added bonus. Smart signals are already being put into practice in cities around the country, including New York, San Jose and Chicago. Singapore has been using smart traffic monitoring since 2009.
Optimizing motor-vehicle traffic flow isn’t the only role that smart devices can play. The Chicago project will monitor air quality, pedestrian crowding, and even wind intensity. Smart roads and infrastructure isn’t just for first world players, either. City planners in Kolkata, India are in the planning stages of an ambitious, wi-fi powered “Quick Response” code system that will use signs and signals to facilitate user navigation and even transmit emergency reporting.
Why smart roads will outpace smart cars
It’s easy to understand why smart cars are grabbing all of the attention – but they also face serious go-to-market barriers. Vehicle development, from conception to rollout is an arduous process spanning years, and it will take time for drivers to become accustomed to a future where they’ll no longer be in full control. The computing and bandwidth requirements for vehicles will be substantial. Throw in risk-averse auto manufacturers, stiff regulations, and disruptive car-sharing revenue models, and it’s easy to see why self-driving cars will remain on the horizon for the near-term. In the meantime, we’ll see increased connectivity at a more tactical level, with Gartner predicting most new vehicles having some level of connected functionality by 2020.
Contrast this with smart infrastructure innovation. Planning, prototyping and developing compact sensor devices is relatively inexpensive and easy. In many cases, existing designs can be slightly modified to accommodate sensors and enable data transfer. Smart infrastructure is highly distributed, with individual devices responsible for very discrete packets of data. These devices can run on solar cells and utilize low-power wireless and radio frequency protocols. A stretch of highway or city block can host dozens of different smart products, each with a competitive ecosystem of manufacturers vying to bring innovation to the market.
In many instances, the first generation of smart roads are already here. Traditionally manned toll booths are being replaced with sensors that read license plates. Radio receivers are being stationed along freeways to measure traffic volume. Apps are currently being marketed that communicate with parking meters to monitor vacancies. The department of transportation is already implementing predictive weather sensors that can communicate advisement to drivers. Chances are, you’re already driving past these innocuous devices, and benefiting from them.
As drivers and passengers, our future is bright. Our red lights will shorten, we will be rerouted around accidents, and we’ll be breathing cleaner air. It’s a little easier waiting for our chauffeured, accident free future, knowing that the biggest changes to driving are already starting to happen – outside of our cars.