Autonomous vehicles have a pivotal role to play in the development of smart cities, but maximising their potential demands a complete, connected infrastructure. Evolution or revolution? It’s a conundrum facing vehicle manufacturers, technology companies, city planners and, of course, fleets, as the world moves towards the development of smart cities. At stake is the way that roads, and indeed entire urban transport systems, function. The ultimate goal is clean, efficient, safe and congestion-free driving, which would be a huge benefit to fleets as the heaviest users of cars, vans and trucks on urban streets.
City planners describe a smart city as a place where smart solutions ensure that assets, resources and infrastructure are used with maximum efficiency. Autonomous vehicles are essential to achieve this goal, but without a coordinated approach from all parties involved, the opportunities presented by self-driving cars could be squandered on the very streets and roads where they are most needed.
“For a self-driving car, the biggest challenge is going to be a city driving environment,” said Arunprasad Nandakumar from Frost & Sullivan. “You will start to see self-driving cars on highways and parking lots and in controlled environments, long before a city. The more uncertain the driving conditions, the more challenging it is for self-driving technology. You have to reduce these uncertainties, and the best way to do this is by serious communication between the various nodes.”
Autonomous vehicles that merely communicate between themselves to avoid collisions, for example, would not qualify as a smart city solution. For safe, free-flowing roads, smart cities require information services that cover parking, traffic management, electric vehicle recharging, payment systems and integration with other modes of transport to create a truly connected system.
“Only with high definition technology, high definition mapping and geo-fenced areas will smart cities harness the maximum benefits of autonomous vehicles,” he added.
Drivers, too, require seamless connectivity to optimise the time they spend in their vehicles. “We need to look at much faster band width,” said Arunprasad Nandakumar. “There is, for example, technology that helps cars connect to WiFi much faster than the 4G network via a SIM card. A self-driving vehicle can work independently, but to maximise the opportunities it needs seamless connectivity; not just traffic data, but the ability to sit and work in a car just like you would in a coffee shop or in an office.”
The stepping stone to a smart city environment is likely to be lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles, separating self-driving cars from the rest of the vehicle path. Perhaps the sight of smooth-flowing lines of traffic through congested city streets might even accelerate the uptake of autonomous technologies, as more drivers want a smarter solution to their transport through urban areas.