First, smart cars. Next, smart transport grids

A new world beckons in which urban transit networks will be able to warn about road conditions or adjust road speeds to relieve traffic congestion.

A system from IBM and NXP Semiconductors gathers sensor data from cars in the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. One result is that city planners get a real-time view of where rain is falling.
A system from IBM and NXP Semiconductors gathers sensor data from cars in the city of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. One result is that city planners get a real-time view of where rain is falling. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Editors' note: Be sure to catch the other stories in this package: on how Google's robo-cars mean the end of driving as we know it , on self-driving cars bristling with sensors , and on real-world experiments with platoons of connected cars .


Haunted by the nightmare of global traffic paralysis, Ford Motor executive chairman William Ford Jr. has a global dream.

Given current growth trends, the world's population is expected to reach 9 billion people by midcentury. That also means a quadrupling in the number of cars to 4 billion by 2050 -- and that, said Ford, is a recipe for global gridlock that he argues will become "a human rights issue, not just an inconvenience."

Self-driving car arrival

What year do you think you'll be able to buy self-driving cars?

For Ford, the executive chairman of the auto company his grandfather founded, the only answer is to create a future where pedestrians, bicycles, and cars become part of a connected network.

The world is still far from realizing that vision, but collaboration between urban planners and technologists is starting to provide the pieces to fit into that bigger puzzle. For instance, city planners in the Dutch city of Eindhoven know from data beamed from cars where roads are dangerously wet. In Lyon, France, the Optimod'Lyon network lets the public pick the fastest way to work. Drivers in Singapore now use location data gathered by taxis for a forecast of the next hour's traffic patterns.

We're only in the early stages of a larger transformation that technologists believe is inevitable given the prominent role that computer technology will play in the car of tomorrow. Some of the infrastructure already exists. Many cities now have central traffic control systems to adjust traffic-light timing and tweak traffic patterns. In the future, the idea is to turn the car into a four-wheeled networked data-collection device, offering city planners accurate information about local conditions so they can better manage urban congestion.

For people who've gnashed their teeth waiting for congestion to clear in downtown Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Los Angeles, or any of the other rush-hour hellholes that have become part of urban life, this sounds wonderful. But quite a bit of work -- and money -- will be required to turn that vision into reality and get getting cars communicating with each other and with infrastructure.

"The challenge is going to be the business model," says IBM's Vinodh Swaminathan, a director of industry solutions work. "We don't have enough money anywhere in the world to fill the potholes, much less to install wireless network communications into yield signs, street lights, and parking meters."

VTT Technical Research Centre's technology can create a real-time map of road slipperiness in Finland based on data from a relatively small fraction of the cars on the road.
VTT Technical Research Centre's technology can create a real-time map of road slipperiness in Finland based on data from a relatively small fraction of the cars on the road. VTT Technical Research Centre

Networks could improve safety, too. VTT Technical Research Centre, a government-owned research organization in Finland, is ready to commercialize technology to monitor road slipperiness and send alerts using data gathered from vehicles themselves, said Kimmo Erkkila, a senior VTT scientist. The technology monitors how much a vehicle's wheels slip using existing sensors such as those found in automatic braking systems.

The first phase of the technology works within an individual vehicle, detecting slipperiness and warning drivers based on data from the car. But it gets more interesting when multiple vehicles report back to a central station that can track trouble spots on the roads.

"The vehicles can actually have that warning before they are going to the slippery parts of the road," Erkkila said. He expects that alerts would cover stretches of road about three miles long so drivers wouldn't be constantly bombarded by alerts about changing conditions.

Singapore uses a system IBM built that marries traffic records with GPS location data from taxis to predict the day's traffic. Advanced analytics factor in historical data, which then get applied to a real-time GPS stream data to predict up to an hour into the future, all with about 95 percent accuracy, according to Swaminathan.

The system is in use in Lyon, too, where city staff can anticipate and therefore sidestep problems instead of responding only after they occur. Using their control systems, they can suggest alternate routes, or change pre-programmed timers on ramp control systems and lights on the arterials.

A system from IBM and NXP Semiconductors gathers car events like use of fog lights and windshield wipers then beams it to city planners who can find trouble spots. It also alerts city residents about nearby problems over smartphones.
A system from IBM and NXP Semiconductors gathers car events like use of fog lights and windshield wipers then beams it to city planners who can find trouble spots. It also alerts city residents about nearby problems over smartphones. IBM

Networked cars make it all possible. Taxi-based GPS data is one mechanism, but IBM also has worked with Vodafone so it could infer traffic density from mobile phones' cell tower usage.

The prospect of all this technology spreading into a new market has tech companies salivating. "In the automotive industry, we're seeing a shift from building cars to selling travel time well spent -- where the connected ownership and driving experience becomes a key differentiator," said Andreas Mai, director of product management for Cisco Systems' Smart Connected Vehicles program. "To connect millions of vehicles to other vehicles, to the roadside infrastructure (traffic lights, parking spots, etc.) and to the Internet, the industry will need highly scalable network architectures."

That's why NXP Semiconductors is interested, too, with an active program to develop chips and other electronics that can monitor car behavior and link back to the central network.

With that data, city planners can alter driver behavior through financial incentives, something now in testing by Eindhoven where users opt in to a system allowing traffic managers to see where they are heading. The early evidence is promising. City planners have been able to influence changes in driver behavior with the right kind of pricing incentives.

That's just for starters. The system also allows car to transmit all that data about the car's performance. That includes information about the number of times the high beams go on or the speed of the windshield wipers. Sound a bit too Big Brother-ish for your tastes? Perhaps, but with millions of bytes of data streaming into urban control centers, cities will be able to save lives by lowering speed limits when road conditions turn dangerous.

The VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland is commercializing a technology to detect slippery roads to warn drivers not just of the car with the detector, but others with a network connection, too.
The VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland is commercializing a technology to detect slippery roads to warn drivers not just of the car with the detector, but others with a network connection, too. VTT Technical Research Centre

"The vehicles can actually have that warning before they are going to the slippery parts of the road," Erkkila said. He expects that alerts would cover stretches of road about three miles long so drivers wouldn't be constantly bombarded by alerts about changing conditions.

Singapore uses a system IBM built that marries traffic records with GPS location data from taxis to predict the day's traffic. Advanced analytics factor in historical data, which then get applied to a real-time GPS stream data to predict up to an hour into the future, all with about 95 percent accuracy, according to Swaminathan.

The system is in use in Lyon, too, where city staff can anticipate and therefore sidestep problems instead of responding only after they occur. Using their control systems, they can suggest alternate routes, or change pre-programmed timers on ramp control systems and lights on the arterials.

A system from IBM and NXP Semiconductors gathers car events like use of fog lights and windshield wipers then beams it to city planners who can find trouble spots. It also alerts city residents about nearby problems over smartphones.
A system from IBM and NXP Semiconductors gathers car events like use of fog lights and windshield wipers then beams it to city planners who can find trouble spots. It also alerts city residents about nearby problems over smartphones. IBM

Networked cars make it all possible. Taxi-based GPS data is one mechanism, but IBM also has worked with Vodafone so it could infer traffic density from mobile phones' cell tower usage.

The prospect of all this technology spreading into a new market has tech companies salivating. "In the automotive industry, we're seeing a shift from building cars to selling travel time well spent -- where the connected ownership and driving experience becomes a key differentiator," said Andreas Mai, director of product management for Cisco Systems' Smart Connected Vehicles program. "To connect millions of vehicles to other vehicles, to the roadside infrastructure (traffic lights, parking spots, etc.) and to the Internet, the industry will need highly scalable network architectures."

That's why NXP Semiconductors is interested, too, with an active program to develop chips and other electronics that can monitor car behavior and link back to the central network.

With that data, city planners can alter driver behavior through financial incentives, something now in testing by Eindhoven where users opt in to a system allowing traffic managers to see where they are heading. The early evidence is promising. City planners have been able to influence changes in driver behavior with the right kind of pricing incentives.

That's just for starters. The system also allows car to transmit all that data about the car's performance. That includes information about the number of times the high beams go on or the speed of the windshield wipers. Sound a bit too Big Brother-ish for your tastes? Perhaps, but with millions of bytes of data streaming into urban control centers, cities will be able to save lives by lowering speed limits when road conditions turn dangerous.

The VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland is commercializing a technology to detect slippery roads to warn drivers not just of the car with the detector, but others with a network connection, too.
The VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland is commercializing a technology to detect slippery roads to warn drivers not just of the car with the detector, but others with a network connection, too. VTT Technical Research Centre
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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