Driverless cars can only take you so far. This is how smarter cities are being built

Tel Aviv, Israel, Smart Mobility Summit
Tel Aviv, Israel Ilan Shacham/Getty Images

In the sunny climes of Tel Aviv, Israel, the Smart Mobility Summit, held from October 29 to 30, brought together city administrators from across the globe, research institutions, major car companies, and stealthy startups. They all came not just for the balmy weather but to exchange ideas and discuss new innovations. Digital Trends was there, too. Here are some of the highlights – companies, agencies, and other entities with goals of making our cities smarter, and how they plan to do it.

Small companies, big ideas

There were the established players at the Smart Mobility Summit – from Ford and GM to Nissan and Honda, and MIT to the U.S. Department of Energy — and then there were newcomers like Tactile Mobility, which was at the conference discussing ways of advancing the progress and safety of future autonomous vehicles, while helping cities become smarter in the process.

Tactile, a company with offices in Israel, Germany, and the U.S., has developed software that culls data from the advanced driver assistance systems of cars (like electronic stability control) and makes precise determinations about the status of the vehicle, such as the exact grip level of its tires at any point in time.

“We do the analysis, not the driving action,” explained Tactile CEO Amit Nisenbaum, in an interview with Digital Trends. “And we can track a vehicle over time.” It’s that function that enables the company to also create something Nisenbaum called the “surface DNA” of a road, determining current road conditions, including locations of potholes and other road maintenance issues — all from data collected automatically as cars cruise around the city. The technology could not only help create safer roads, but also alert drivers on where to avoid and municipalities on what needs repairing.

Map of Haifa, Israel Tactile

Tactile has already conducted two demonstrations for municipalities — in Haifa, Israel and Singapore — to show what can be accomplished simply by enabling the technology on municipal government vehicles used by departments like the city parking authority.

5G will be the communications standard of smart cities

Also on hand at the Smart Mobility Summit were major auto systems suppliers, including Continental. The company has expanded its vision beyond making complex electronics for car companies and acquired firms like the car-focused cyber security company Argus. Continental has also been working with more municipalities, such as Columbus, Ohio, and its smart intersections where traffic sensors and lights can communicate with cars and the city’s infrastructure.

“We’re working with [dedicated short-range communications],” said Werner Koestler, a senior VP of mobility services strategy at Continental. “But we believe more in 5G.” Koestler pointed to China as a major proponent of the next-generation 5G cellular services that will also deliver car-to-car and car-to-infrastructure communications.

Learn how Honda and Marysville, Ohio are developing smart intersections using dedicated short range communications (DSRC) and 5G.

City planners on the challenges of building smart cities

City planners and administrators were on hand, sharing insights and goals. Some towns see smart city initiatives as a way to rejuvenate their municipalities.

“We needed to attract innovative companies, and to do that we needed an environment where bureaucracy is low,” said Paola Pisano, head of the innovation department for the city of Torino in Italy. She cited examples such as allowing tests of drone-based services and autonomous vehicles.

There are multiple and varied municipal agendas and goals. Consequently, it can be difficult to change government regulations.

Indeed, the city started testing AVs last February on a pre-approved 35-kilometer (approximately 22 miles) circuit of public city streets. Pisano said that it was also critical for cities to share information, including with other government efforts, so Torino has formed a partnership with nearby Modena, which is better known as the home of Ferrari and Lamborghini.

“Mobility is much more than moving people from A to B,” said Rikesh Shah, head of commercial innovation at Transport for London, in England, emphasizing the importance of an integrated approach.

There are multiple and varied municipal agendas and goals, Shah said, from health issues to managing growth and urban sprawl. Consequently, it can be difficult to change government regulations. Still, cities like London already have years of experience in autonomous transportation, such as 36 driverless trains in the city.

Public comment and public awareness programs were also seen as intrinsic to the success of many smart — or just smarter — city projects. Pisano noted that Torino has a rapidly aging population, with needs that will be different from younger towns.

C-V2X is designed to extend vehicle’s ability to see, hear and communicate further down the road, even at blind intersections.
C-V2X radio technology is state-of-the-art cellular technology designed to extend vehicle’s ability to see, hear and communicate further down the road, even at blind intersections. Continental AG

“So you have to involve citizens in the changes, ask them where they want a ride sharing station, and where they want a charging station,” she explained.

Shah also noted that freely releasing information from new programs is critical to promoting smart city initiatives. Making London’s transportation data available, such as the timing of bus arrivals, has led to the creation of 700 apps from private developers, he said.

Implement now, or wait and see?

Cities also don’t have to rush to be first, according to Michael Lee Sherwood, the director of technology and information for Las Vegas, Nevada. Sherwood pointed out that it took the city years to adopt a policy that would allow ride-hailing services, like Lyft and Uber, to operate in Las Vegas. It’s taking a similar cautious approach to electric scooters.

That approach seemed wise, given that the host city for the summit has become overrun with the silent scooters. Pedestrians complain that e-scooters are jamming sidewalks, drivers have been vociferous about the new road hazards they present, and people all over Tel Aviv have complained about riders simply dumping rental e-scooters, like those from Bird, at random on paths and sidewalks. (Lime plans to launch its service in Tel Aviv soon.)

Innovation just for innovation’s sake is not the way to proceed.

So, Israel has found itself scrambling to catch up and rein in the disruptive effects of e-scooters, as well as the tremendously popular e-bikes. The country’s ministry of transportation recently had new regulations approved that include mandatory registration and licenses for electric bicycles, training courses, and imposing helmet requirements. Israel’s road safety authority said that 16 people have been killed on e-bikes so far in 2018, already double the number of such fatalities in all of last year.

Slowing down and developing a long-term view can be critical to a project’s success, said Transport for London’s Shah.

“It’s not a four-year plan,” Shah said. “You need a 20-to-30-year plan and vision.” He noted that the city’s combined smart city efforts are aimed at reaching zero carbon emissions, but not until 2041.

“We are now building parking garages with the ramps on the outside of the main structure, in anticipation of a future where we won’t need as much parking and can then re-purpose the garages as residential properties, just by tearing off the outer ramps,” said Las Vegas’ Sherwood

In spite of such efforts and foresight, not all changes are welcome. London, for example, has become the poster child for congestion pricing. Cars entering and leaving the urban center during certain daytime hours are charged an extra toll for entering heavily congested areas. It has not been a popular program with everyone and has received mixed success in other cities. Shah admitted that a critical part of getting people to accept such changes is to offer “good alternatives,” like efficient and reasonably priced public transportation.

Las Vegas’ Sherwood agreed that innovation just for innovation’s sake is not the way to proceed. City’s have to take a wider smart city view.

“We have to always think about how we connect all walks of life to transportation,” Sherwood said.

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