Redefining transportation

4 mins read

Presented with an acute need to tackle congestion and greenhouse gas pollution, along with the ongoing objective of reducing road fatalities, the field of road transportation is about to go through what is certain to be the biggest shake up since the internal combustion engine was invented.

With government initiatives, private sector involvement and in-depth academic research, there is no shortage of impetus behind the modernising of transportation.

Increasing density of urban populations is placing ever greater strain onto existing infrastructure and the hope is that technology will mean that resources can be better utilised in order to mitigate these issues.

Based on this, the global market for intelligent transportation systems is expected to grow dramatically over the course of the next 5 years – going from an annual worth of about $23 billion today to over $34billion by 2025 (according to a Global Market Insights study).

There are several key dynamics characterising the smart transportation era. The migration to electric vehicles (EVs) plus the progression now underway towards heightened levels of autonomy will both be fundamental here. So too will be the supporting vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) network technologies.

It is estimated that during 2018, on average, British drivers lost almost 180 hours stuck in traffic jams. A recent report (compiled by navigation service provider TomTom) saw Edinburgh come out as the UK’s most congested city, with commuters facing 40% longer journeys during rush hour than at off-peak times. It was closely followed by London, Hull, Belfast and Brighton.

Despite being recognised as one of the world’s foremost exponents of smart city technology, Bristol still suffers from heavy congestion. Having seen an 11% increase in its population over the last decade, it is taking decisive action.

Spearheaded by the University of Bristol, with funding from InnovateUK, the FLOURISH consortium is developing cyber-physical infrastructure that will support connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs), and enable more responsive traffic management. For the last 3 years it has been carrying out research into the use of fog-based computing to facilitate the rapid sharing of data between CAVs in relatively close proximity of one another (as well as roadside hardware).

This would eliminate the need for transferring data to and from the cloud, which is simply too slow when time-critical manoeuvres are required. Even with the arrival of 5G, the ultra-low (sub-millisecond) latency aspect of this is still going to be under development for several years before it features in the protocol (plus there will be considerable operational costs to factor in, not to mention security threats).

By taking a fog-based approach, the serious latency and security implications associated with conventional centralised cloud topologies may be avoided. As a result, CAVs will be able to react to any changes in road or traffic conditions in real-time, and make better-informed decisions about what route to follow or what manoeuvres might be called for. With more awareness of what other vehicles are intending to do (as well as constant updates on their speed and direction), it will be possible for inter-vehicle spacing to be extended and traffic flows to move significantly quicker.

“On-board sensors can only deal with line-of-sight data acquisition. However, by having access to local data transported wirelessly, each CAV will benefit from augmented sensing – gaining a detailed, all-encompassing picture of everything that is happening within the immediate area,” explained FLOURISH’s Professor Roberto Piechocki. “This will enable intention sharing, so other road users are aware of a CAV’s planned manoeuvres. It will also mean that situations affecting traffic movements can be responded to appropriately. These may result in fairly small improvements in vehicle flows at the micro level, but when applied to the macro level the efficiency increases witnessed city-wide could potentially be huge,” he concluded.

Trials are currently underway at the university’s campus, to explore the full scope of possibilities this technology offers. The consortium is then looking to cooperate with telcos and municipalities on creating a platform upon which more effective traffic management systems, and various related microservices, can be implemented.

Above: The FLOURISH fog computing systems for CAVs

Meanwhile, in the nations’ capital there are numerous other projects underway. The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) is tasked with formulating technological and strategic innovations within the transportation sector, then subsequently gauging the impact they will have. Working in conjunction with a series of commercial partners (most notably Cisco), along with Transport for London (TfL) and Loughborough University, it has founded the Smart Mobility Living Lab (SMLL) within the south eastern London borough of Greenwich. When its build phase is completed, at the end of this year, it will act as a multifaceted testbed in which new transportation concepts can be experimented with.

Instead of the closed environments in which most other tests are conducted, this will allow the amassing of valuable data from within a real-world setting, making use of public routes. The aim is that knowledge gained here will help accelerate public acceptance of CAVs. As Chris Kettell, Chief Technologist at TRL, explained: “Before getting to a point where CAVs are on our roads en-masse, it will be necessary to verify they’re going to operate as expected whatever the scenario. Now microsimulation tools will give you a good idea of what will happen to a road network under a certain set of conditions, but there will be limitations when trying to analyse CAVs to the degree of granularity actually needed.

“What we’re looking to do with SMLL is create somewhere that companies in the automotive sector, technology providers, government agencies and those involved in transport services can all exchange ideas and collaborate with one another,” he continued. “Through this, it will be possible to formulate business plans for future mobility solutions, then prove their validity by direct engagement with the travelling public.”

A little over a year ago Bosch, with backing from TfL, established its London Connectory operation in Shoreditch. Its primary function is to acquire data direct from vehicles as they move around the city, in order to combat congestion and air quality problems. Among the activities it is undertaking are ones that look to reduce emphasis on private car ownership and encourage citizens to make greater use of public transport options.

Extensive trials conducted in Greater Manchester on mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) also had this intent. The findings suggest people are willing to dispense with car possession as long as the alternatives available are viable enough. This opens up opportunity for on-demand services. However, the hailing of self-driving taxis to take individuals to work isn’t really going to solve the congestion issues that currently blight many UK cities.

Ridesharing would mean that available CAV capacity may be better utilised; as fewer vehicles will be needed and less miles will be clocked up covering the required number of commuter journeys. Assets could be better deployed, so the places where they are most needed at that particular time are attended to.

This could be a potential minefield too though. Now of course in principle transportation becoming more demand driven sounds ideal, but given that across the UK (particularly in remote rural communities) bus routes have already been axed to save money, will this invite further rationalisation? Could future smart transportation end up being another case of haves and have-nots, with the government and commercial enterprises only looking serve a certain proportion of the populace, and the remainder having very limited access to it?

Whether embracing CAVs or opting for another form of transportation, it seems beyond doubt that all of us will have to make substantial lifestyle changes in the years ahead. Everyone needs to completely re-evaluate how they think about transport, and how society as a whole will continue to gain from it.