The Value of Smart Cities

When you think of smart cities, one of the first things that springs to mind is autonomous vehicles driving along a wide expanse of road - but what about the smaller, more subtle technology that allows cars to drive and park themselves without being preyed upon by parking enforcement officers. 

There has been a lot of talk in the media around smart cities, with London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, announcing last month that he wanted the capital to become the world’s leading ‘Smart City’, calling on the tech community to help improve public services and solve social and environmental challenges faced. Yet sweeping statements such as this still leaves people confused as to what a ‘Smart City’ is.   

For most, the term conjures up an image of robot receptions, under lit roads and self-cleaning skyscrapers. The reality, however, is that truly smart technologies are more about the process than the physical outcome - from hard infrastructures, to social capital and digital technologies, they make cities more liveable and resilient. The best, most effective smart technology is not flashy and attention grabbing, but rather is something that works in the background, focusing on seamlessly improving day-to-day experiences.    

It is this subtle technology which needs to be prioritised ahead of autonomous cars, as these vehicles will only be as powerful and effective as their surroundings.   

BMW, Apple and Tesla are amongst some of the powerhouses racing against the clock to create the first road worthy driverless car, and sales estimates are already set to reach 10 million worldwide by 2030. Yet, we still have a number of years before these cars will be arriving on our roads, and steps need to be taken to ensure our cities are ready. Uber has had some very public issues during its trialling of driverless cars in San Francisco, with the cars being unable to cross bridges or react well with other obstacles on the roads- for example, becoming baffled by a family of ducks crossing the road. These issues highlight the need to create a connected infrastructure that can track and share information amongst these smart devices.   

Singapore is a prime example of a city that has taken great steps to becoming a smart city. You can order a Robocar, one of the first public trials to bring self-driving cars directly to the consumer, using the Grab ride-hailing app; or move into a new government-built housing development which will include smart lighting, pneumatic waste collection and sensors to monitor elderly people who have fallen down. While Singapore’s move to becoming a Smart Nation has stalled due to government reshuffles and high costs, it has clearly shown that the best approach to turning a complex and large city into one that is leading the world in technology is to start from the bottom up rather than the top down.   

In Europe, London has made some of the biggest advances, being named as the top European smart city by the IESE Centre for Globalisation and Strategy. Plexal has opened at Here East to support 800 technology start-ups and corporations specialising in urban innovation and The GLA has also launched a £1.6 million clean tech incubator, Better Futures, to tackle the effects of climate change and kick starting the development of clean-tech clusters in London.   

Alongside these incubators, small, but vital steps have been made in smart hardware. Cities, including Coventry and London’s Westminster Council, have introduced real time parking availability, which while not flashy, is an essential step towards helping autonomous cars park. Using information gathered by sensors in parking spaces, drivers can cut down the time spent searching for a space, reducing congestion and pollution. AppyParking has also partnered with Westminster Council and The Department of Transport to launch One Click Parking. This is the world’s first frictionless pay-as-you-park connected car solution, which reduces traditional parking times from 20 minutes to 30 seconds. This technology, which only charges drivers for the minutes parked, not only work on existing vehicles we have on our roads, but this can also be incorporated in autonomous vehicles to allow them to identity a space and pay for itself, without the driver having to do anything.    

The US has also prioritised getting its cities ready for driverless cars, most noticeably in Nevada, which was the first state to pass driverless car legislation and has recently been the home of the autonomous bus testing. It has become the destination of choice for automotive giants Audi and Tesla, who have been using the state’s roads to further develop their autonomous vehicles. While working on driverless cars, Audi has also recognised the importance of working with the state to make the surrounding area ready for the vehicles, creating a traffic light countdown that appears on the cars dashboard as they approach a light. The countdown will give the driver a warning when the light is about to change to help cut down sudden breaking and people running red lights. This interaction between the car and the Nevada traffic light system might seem small, but it actually a big step towards creating a connected network for autonomous vehicles. Audi were able to create this link by working closely with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, who shared the city’s traffic data. This Commission has also partnered with Nexar, who are working to build a system in which cars can communicate with each other through their AI Dash Cam.    

These are all fantastic steps in the right direction, but we need to ensure that governments and organisations wake up to the virtual roadblocks ahead. The current disjointed nature of these trials highlights the need for greater communication and cross-country solutions, otherwise we face the very real possibility of the technology becoming redundant as soon as a driver enters another city or county. Once we overcome this, we will finally be ready for driverless cars and for humans to sit back and enjoy the ride.    

Dan Hubert, founder and CEO of AppyParking 

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock