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Friday, June 12, 2015

A Dialog of Car and Highway

As reported by BITS: One peek at all the electronics under the hood is proof that today’s car is as much computer as engine. Examine the larger picture, and you’ll see how much the stuff around cars is becoming smarter, too.

Smart roads, toll plazas, traffic lights and signs are all increasingly connected to cars. Connected cars are talking to one another, and to the devices over and around them. Often the reasons for this will involve cost savings and faster-moving traffic. Travel will be safer, too, advocates say.

“Cars won’t be by themselves anymore, they’ll be connected to the road and each other,” said Eric-Mark Huitema, a manager in IBM’s “Smarter Cities” initiative. “Eventually there won’t be many accidents, which means you can reduce the weight of a car by 70 percent, all the metal we put in there to protect people. Cars might be made of glass.”

That is a decade or more away, but already IBM says it has helped reduce traffic by 25 percent in Stockholm, in part by examining traffic patterns and telling people the best times to drive. In Singapore, there is a pilot project to override traffic lights when the roads detect an accident. At IBM buildings in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, the company monitors bicycle use among employees in some locations, giving bonuses to people who forgo autos for bikes on a daily basis.

There does seem to be both money and enthusiasm for more of the same, in the interest of polluting less while managing larger populations. Navigant Research, which looks at clean technology markets, estimates that spending on smart cities will reach $27.5 billion by 2023.

In some ways, the future is already here. According to the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, by next year some 210 million cars on the world’s roads will be connected wirelessly in some form to the Internet and to services like OnStar, General Motors’ connected-vehicle subsidiary.

The Federal Communications Commission has since 2003 reserved a segment of radio spectrum for communications among cars, and between cars and the surrounding infrastructure. While the spectrum cannot send information far, it can send exceedingly fast signals, so that high-speed traffic can be followed and adjusted.

“This will be amazing,” said Byungkyu Brian Park, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Transportation Studies. “Right now the sensors aren’t two-way, and get used for things like toll tags, but soon you’ll be approaching an intersection and the car will know how long a light will be green. If the driver is elderly, it could lengthen how long the light is yellow.”

But the trade-off could well be the independence long associated with driving a nice car.

The number of connected vehicles goes much higher if you count the smartphones people have in their cars. Behavior can be monitored through driving apps like Automatic from Automatic Labs, which evaluates a person’s safety habits, like braking and acceleration. Sometimes those apps already share information, in making real-time maps of congestion during rush hour. It is an easy thing to increase the amount of data.

“We live in a world where your car is talking about you,” said Rob Ferguson, director of engineering at Automatic Labs. There is also technology inside cars, like adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, that if it isn’t online already could be made into two-way feedback systems with sensors in pavement and signs to manage traffic.

The goal is steady flow, which works out better and faster for all concerned. Digital signs of congestion ahead could compel drivers to slow down, trading autonomy for a faster commute for all.

The movement from individual vehicles to networked systems is already happening with trucks, ships and trains, and may be further ahead. That is partly because the owners are usually not the ones operating them and have more interest in efficiency than operator autonomy.

In Europe, many trains are already equipped with information about which cars have the most available seats. In Shanghai and Rotterdam, incoming ships notify the networks running the docks, and are advised which docks have the most available space. That is coordinated with fleet trucks, which pull up to load cargo.

Research by the University of California, Berkeley, on trucks traveling together found fuel savings of 5 to 20 percent in convoys because the vehicles move at a uniform rate, saving the fuel needed in acceleration, and because of reduced air resistance. In addition, about 40 percent of accidents happen at intersections, and smarter traffic lights could help manage that flow better. Those insights will probably affect what happens to cars.

“Seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes and stabilization systems were all mandated for safety,” said Steven E. Shladover, a researcher at Berkeley’s advanced transportation technology program, who has been studying technology and transport for four decades. “Roadsides will tell you the most efficient speed to use. Traffic lights will choose whether to keep a yellow light on and let a truck through.”

Because trucks weigh much more than cars, they can tear up pavement with hard braking and slow traffic with their gradual acceleration. Traffic lights may be programmed to let large vehicles through. Pavement for convoy trucks could be hardened, leading to less wear on highways.

Rush hour may be faster, but it also may be a lot more dense. In his research, Mr. Park at the University of Virginia has determined there is a minimum delay of about 1.8 seconds between cars, which means 2,000 cars an hour can flow through a single lane of highway, if there’s no congestion. If cars become cooperative and managed, he thinks, that can be decreased to 0.6 second, or 6,000 cars an hour.

“You’ll have cooperative cruise control, more efficient parking, priority at traffic lights to people sharing rides,” Mr. Park said. “It will be a huge change.”