Much has been said about how the vast majority of the human population will soon live in cities and how important it is to leverage information technology to enhance city services, increase urban safety and improve overall quality of life. What is less obvious is how we can make cities smarter when local governments and municipalities are often under heavy financial strains and lack resources to invest heavily in new infrastructure. But it turns out that the cheapest solution to both acquire massive amounts of actionable urban data as well as to expand wireless coverage for everyone in the city may be to rapidly connect as many vehicles moving around the city as possible. Here are five reasons.
- Connected vehicles are ideal Wi-Fi hotspots to expand wireless coverage. Vehicles can be found pretty much everywhere where street level connectivity is needed. They have large batteries that keep recharging. And in many countries a piece of spectrum has been reserved for intelligent transportation systems, yet is currently under-utilized. By turning buses, taxis and other vehicles into Wi-Fi hotspots, we can help bridge the digital divide and contribute to a more inclusive society.
- Connected vehicles can gather terabytes of data a day for smarter and safer cities. All vehicles today already come out of the factory with 60-100 sensors each. They can be used not only for predictive maintenance and usage-based insurance, but also to acquire key knowledge about a city. We can learn about the quality of the road infrastructure, micro-weather data as well as levels of pollution. Moreover, a vehicle equipped with an onboard wireless unit can connect to in-vehicle sensing devices or cameras, using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to gather and send back to the cloud even more high-resolution data for key smart city applications.
- Connected vehicles are the perfect data couriers for the Internet of Things. When vehicles move around the city they can easily exchange data with other Wi-Fi enabled devices such as environmental sensors, traffic lights, cameras or screens. They can serve as mobile gateways to get critical data from those devices to backend servers in the cloud.
- Connected vehicles can mesh with each other and stay connected in case of catastrophe. Even if the power grid collapses, vehicles will continue to have batteries that can operate for a few hours. Provided there is a large enough density of connected vehicles, it is possible to form an emergency network that can last long enough during the critical early hours of a catastrophe to potentially make a huge difference for all the residents of the city.
- Connected Vehicles can avoid collisions and warn each other of hazards and accidents. By establishing wireless links between themselves, vehicles can send warning beacons and share each others’ positions and speeds to maximize road safety. Safety messages can propagate in milliseconds within the wireless mesh of connected vehicles, assisting drivers in making the right decisions at the right time.
Whereas this last argument for connected vehicles has been heavily supported by the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the European Commission, among other institutions, the first four use cases are still at an infant stage. To reach the full potential of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication, the key question is how to get to a critical mass of connected vehicles that can mesh with each other and support a wider range of smart city applications.
A closer look at how the city of Porto, Portugal, has rolled out its urban-scale mesh network of connected vehicles reveals a viable strategy: focus first not on consumers and private vehicles but rather on commercial fleets, such as public buses, taxis and waste collection trucks. After my company Veniam connected such vehicles with multi-purpose, multi-network onboard units in September 2014, this real-world mesh has served more than 4 million Internet sessions. It proven to be a real asset as Porto strives to overcome the digital divide, increase safety, reduce pollution, and control traffic.
Since roughly 26% of the world’s 1.2 billion vehicles belong to enterprise fleets that generally travel many miles every day, starting with commercial vehicles appears to be the best strategy to scale the number of connected vehicles. Add to that the current trend towards mobility as a service – which will probably be provided in the near future by fleets of shared autonomous vehicles. Soon this strategy may actually be the only one we need to create vibrant connected cities worldwide.
João Barros will be among the speakers at Techonomy NYC on May 26 at New York University. (Request an invitation here.) He is CEO of Veniam, based in Silicon Valley, Porto, Portugal, and Singapore.