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Smarter transport: Driving

There's nothing smart about driving. Congestion costs the UK economy £12 billion every year, with road accidents adding a further £9.3 billion and poor air quality somewhere between £4.5-£10.6 billion, according to the UK Automotive Council.

It's time for some smarter driving. Lessening congestion, pollution and road accidents is key to any city's attempts to introduce 'intelligent mobility', an ambition that logically divides into three key areas; traffic management, intelligent cars, and smart, wireless charging for electric vehicles.

The intelligent car

Huge smart city projects that totally re-design, re-build and re-image our city's infrastructures are few. In recession-hit democracies that lack both investment and centralised decision-making, the smart city will need to evolve citizen by citizen – and that's where the connected car comes in.

“The appearance of connected systems within cars is accelerating,” says John Miles, Chairman of the UK Automotive Council’s Intelligent Mobility Working Group, and group director at Arup. “All the major manufacturers now recognise the importance of providing Internet and mobile communications as embedded capabilities within their latest vehicles.” Sensors embedded in next-gen cars will allow both car-to-car communication and a link to a central information system, but likely to be just – if not more – important are smartphone apps. Miles thinks a bottom-up, viral world of interconnected and intelligent vehicles can happen without arguments about systems, standards, enforcement – or public funds.

Embedded apps and communication in cars will take a new generation of vehicles, perhaps, but who hasn't got a smartphone? This is the smart city in anarchic retro-fit mode.

First will come infotainment – in-car TV and web surfing for passengers – and telematics that enable pay-how-you-drive insurance. The latter is almost available, while reto-fit sat-nav style devices, expected to soon be all the rage, will allow stolen vehicle tracking, automatic toll or congestion charge payments, and on-the-fly routing using real-time traffic conditions. Driving will get smarter sooner than you think.

Traffic management

Further down the road, a second wave of 'connected car' driving tech will involve some degree of loss of control, primarily to let traffic flow more freely and, perhaps most importantly, predictably. A car that adjusts its speed automatically if another car is too close should reduce accidents, while further in the future is 'platooning', when the car at the front of a group of vehicles automatically dictates the speed of everyone behind.

A centralised network of cameras called J-Eyes allows authorities to react to congestion.

Taking control of the wheel away from individual drivers is probably the eventual goal for intelligent mobility in the long term, but for now city authorities are firmly taking the reigns. In Singapore, authorities offer a parking guidance system and a system called J-Eyes that watches junctions and collects data on driver behavior, re-routing traffic accordingly.

Meanwhile, scientists at Xerox research labs have been analysing real-time data – including video of traffic and parking patterns – and come up with apps that help motorists find parking spaces, reduce congestion and increase safety. “Adding intelligence to systems is how government and transportation agencies around the world can do more for less,” said Cees de Wijs, Xerox group president for International Transportation and Government.

Xerox researchers have developed an automated image-based prototype that identifies how many people are in each car, thereby allowing single drivers to use car-sharing lanes by paying a toll. Xerox says that video-based image recognition of number plates can eliminate toll booths, too. Xerox has also come up with a parking pricing engine that adjusts parking rates based on demand for spaces and availability; drivers can pay for parking using an app called Merge.

Electric vehicles & smart charging

Low carbon vehicles are vital to our urban future, but for electric vehicles (EV) to become more popular, we need something like wireless EV charging (WEVC). “It has the potential to change the layout and design of cities – enhancing space, security and convenience and reducing street furniture,” says Dr Anthony Thomson, VP Business Development & Marketing at Qualcomm Halo, whose WEVC solution is built around resonant magnetic induction to charges a car's battery. “WEVC enables ‘little and often’ charging at home or in a supermarket car park,” says Thomson, who thinks that on-the-move charging would be the next step. Qualcomm has already announced a trial of the tech in London.

A nationwide network of charging points is needed if electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf are to take-off.

A universally accessible charging grid is seen as key to encouraging the adoption of EV in the UK. With the help of Critical Software Technologies, Engenie and Schneider Electric are trying to establish one of the first national charging networks in the UK by installing rapid DC charging systems at Roadchefs throughout the country. The first one opened at Roadchef Clacket Lane in May 2012. Critical Software has already supplied the back-end to a nationwide charging network in Portugal that at around 1,300 charging points is considered to be the largest in the world.

“The adoption of electric vehicles in the UK to date has been discouragingly low,” says Jeremy Littman, Managing Director at Engenie. “This is partly due to the 100 mile journey limit in terms of battery capacity and a lack of suitable, accessible and reliable charge points (but) projects such as this one will help to overcome that hurdle.”

The Ford FocusElectric get a smartphone app for keeping on top of battery power - but that's just the start for connected cars.

Drivers will increasingly get their first taste of electric vehicles when they rent a car. Calling smart mobility solutions 'essential' for prosperity, Neil Cunningham, General Manager at Hertz UK & Europe Off Airport, thinks that greater usage of bikes and electric vehicles and other forms of compact motorised vehicles can have a huge impact in cities: “For example, electric vehicle rental through car sharing clubs such as Hertz On Demand is reducing the overall number of vehicles on our city’s streets, enabling consumers and businesses alike to make London more sustainable and ultimately healthier places to live and work.” The car sharing rental scheme was recognised in a recent WWF report, ‘Green game-changers’. “We also believe that mobility players should work together to launch a comprehensive educational campaign on the benefits of EVs, informing the public of the extensive charging network now available in London and growing across the UK,” adds Cunningham.

Collaboration between car manufacturers and software developers should help usher-in a new era in convenience for drivers, though it's going to take time, patience – and plenty of intelligent technology.

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