Internet of Things, urban planning, and autonomous cars: equal parts
#automotiveInternet of Things, urban planning, and autonomous cars: equal parts

This is part three of a blog series about autonomous vehicles, for part two click here.

There would be few arguments against the statement that autonomous vehicles will revolutionize the fundamental way that we have looked at cars since they became a mass-produced commodity. When we look throughout the chapters of history, the symbiosis between the driver and the car has been a must for the transportation of people and/or goods to happen. With the advancement of technology, and the introduction of digitalization into the dashboard of our cars, per se, the symbiosis expands and welcomes another organism: cities.

Urban design and architecture were incremental towards the development of the vehicle, even if we exclude roads we drive on. The infrastructure to support free movement between streets, cities, and even countries consists of many things, including the bedrock of the whole system, namely the rules and subsequently, traffic signs. Much like the rest of us, autonomous vehicles have had to learn the basic rules of the road to be able to move around our familiar surroundings. Without scratching the surface, one could assume that there is a lot of uncertainty related to the way driverless cars would be integrated into the current and decades-old system that we have been so familiar with.

Even without the automotive industry bracing itself for the fundamental change of vehicle design to enable cars to drive themselves, cities will have to change as well. As mentioned previously, infrastructure will go through a major change as emissions-free vehicles become more and more popular. Similarly, the integration of autonomous vehicles into the current status quo will have other challenges apart from the trolley-but-it-is-actually-a-car problem.

Threats of cybersecurity

While the wonders of technological advancement have helped humanity to seemingly move mountains and improve our overall quality of life, evildoers, unfortunately, have also found a new medium to play in. As our lives are increasingly become intertwined with various devices, whether it would be a smartwatch on our wrist or a smart energy management system in our house, we can do much more without ever having to touch anything physically. Even cars now have auxiliary heaters that can be turned on remotely, making your trip on a harsh winter’s morning much more pleasant as you do not need to wait until your car warms up.

At the same time, it does open the door to additional security risks. Citing several academic sources, two scholars from the National Technical University of Athens have pointed out that “the threat that arises from such an issue is that if someone manages to hack a driverless car’s system, they could also get access to all personal information of the user and they could even take control of the car,” which in the worst-case scenario, could even be used for terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, data protection has been on the mind of the car industry as well. The Volkswagen Group (VAG), with the introduction of the Volkswagen Golf MK8 in early-2020, introduced its own security protocols called Vehicle Diagnostic Protection (SFD). Following internal research, the company concluded that “there is an increased requirement for protection of data in vehicles,” as previous security measures, namely entering a five-digit login code, “no longer conforms to the state of the art.”

Audi, also part of VAG, has stated that while self-driving cars will be as safe as current cars in terms of their protection against cybersecurity threats, the “impact of a hacker attack on a self-driving car’s safety-related systems can be more serious.” As such, “manufacturers are constantly developing protective measures against cyberattacks and improving the protective mechanisms, both inside the vehicle and outside in the back end.” The Ingolstadt, Germany-based manufacturer did point out that as cars are becoming increasingly connected to their environment, “the effort required to ensure reliable and always up-to-date cyber security increases too.”

Entering the Internet of Things (IoT)

“Internet of Things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects—“things”—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the internet,” Oracle, one of the largest software development companies in the world, described IoT. But is IoT fundamental to the success of autonomous vehicles?

In part, they probably could not exist without it. Even the current autonomous cars, used to test and make the first steps towards independently-moving road participants have more than a few radars on the exterior of the vehicle. While there is a lot of detail to cover in terms of the cameras, light detection and ranging (LIDAR), and other systems used to map out roads, all of them can be summed up with a single word, namely sensors. All of these sensors, much like on any other car, talk to each other to ensure that the car can continue operating optimally and most importantly, safely. With autonomous cars, that is taken to the next level.

If a regular car might have Level 2 autonomous systems equipped, it might be able to slow down following the traffic in front of it with adaptive cruise control. Either a sensor or a camera, usually placed in the front of the car, detects that the car in front is slowing down and communicates that information to the onboard computer to slow down the car. Lane centering works similarly with a different concept – keeping the car in its lane – and communicating between different control units/sensors. Combine the adaptive cruise control and lane centering and you have a car that is considered a Level 2 autonomous vehicle.

However, autonomous cars have to monitor much more than the speed of the car in front or whether all four wheels are between the correct lines. They are essentially replacing our eyes and the computing power on our shoulders, which perhaps is the reason the discussions around autonomous vehicles include some form of the trolley problem. But replacing our eyes with radars on a car is not a plug-and-play situation, especially if the reason why we are looking to introduce autonomous vehicles into the mainstream is to reduce the chances of road accidents happening down to a zero. With IoT, autonomous cars will “talk” with each other, anticipating each other’s moves and informing them of any potential hazards ahead of time.

“In the vehicular network, like in all the other IOTs, when the human control is removed, the autonomous vehicles must efficiently cooperate to maintain smooth traffic flow in roads and highways,” read one article about the future of mobility, prepared by several scholars from the US, South Korea, and France. While according to the authors the outlook is “that the vehicles will behave much better than drivers allowing to handle more traffic with lower delays, less pollution, and certainly better driver and passenger comfort,” traffic efficiency will not be a given. Dynamic and well-organized communication between driverless cars will not only have to cover the basic A to B traffic but also emergencies, whereupon “vehicles must be able to coordinate the evacuation of critical areas in a rapid and orderly manner.”

“This requires the ability to efficiently communicate with each other and also to discover where the needed resources are (e.g., ambulances, police vehicles, information about escape routes, images about the damage that must be avoided, etc.),” the four authors of the research paper pointed out, adding that “communications must be secure, to prevent malicious attacks that in the case of autonomous vehicles could be literally deadly since there is no standby control and split-second chance of intervention by the driver (who may be surfing the web).”

Integrating driverless cars into our cities

It is certain that to integrate autonomous vehicles into the daily rush hours across the world, they will have to adapt to our current systems and cities to truly improve the traffic situation globally.

For one, the preliminary figures from the European Commission (EC) from March 2022 showcased that while year-on-year (YoY) road fatalities grew by 5%, it was 13% fewer compared to 2020. But according to the EC’s paper titled “IoT components in connected and autonomous vehicles” from October 2020, “about 90% of the 40,000 yearly road fatalities in the EU are caused by human error.” The same paper notes that there are at least five different advanced driver assistance system types working in unison to help with safety, with some of them partly enabled by IoT-based technologies. These systems range from the aforementioned adaptive cruise control, and park assistant, to more advanced LIDAR-based systems such as environmental mapping as well as surround view. Combined, they “aid safety of the driver as well as his surroundings,” read the paper. While cars are increasingly becoming connected, as the EC highlighted that “100% of new cars are expected to be connected by 2022,” they have to be integrated into our current and future cities.

City planning has long been influenced by the car, as naturally, planners were interested in ensuring that residents could travel or commute to work easier. But lately, a pushback against car usage in cities has been on the rise in some cities, case in point could be London, United Kingdom (UK), where the Low Emission (LEZ) and Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) were enacted to reduce the pollution within the capital of the UK. Transport for London (TfL) expanded the ULEZ in October 2021, which, at least according to a recent report by the City Hall of London, resulting in “NO2 concentrations in inner London are estimated to be 20 per cent lower than they would have been without the ULEZ and its expansion.”

A study, prepared by three authors from the Urban Mobility Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), examined how 25 of the largest cities in the US, as well as surveyed 120 transport and planning officials from various cities within the country were preparing for the integration for autonomous vehicles, found that “few local governments have commenced planning for AVs.” Still, larger urban centers “were more likely to be prepared,” for the transition, “while local officials are optimistic about the technology and its potential to increase safety while reducing congestion, costs, and pollution, more than a third of respondents worried about AVs increasing vehicle-miles traveled and sprawl while reducing transit ridership and local revenues.”

Even if we are asking ourselves how cities can integrate driverless cars into our habitable spaces, perhaps we should turn the question and instead consider how city dwellers will benefit from the deployment of the latest technology in the automotive industry. 

The indirect causation – and a “tail” that has been following the development of autonomous cars – is that fewer people would need to own cars, as ride-hailing or sharing services would eventually replace car ownership. As a result, cities would be able to “recapture” land that was lost to parking lots or spaces due to autonomous vehicle-driven car sharing running non-stop and serving as the primary means of commuter transport. Even now, car sharing has been attempting to replace car ownership with some extreme cases being that vehicles – not sold in a specific market – are brought to purely be focused on short-term rents. One such example is the Citroen Ami, a quirky and little EV developed by a subsidiary of Stellantis. The car is not available for sale in the US, yet a subsidiary of the automaker called Free2move enabled consumers to drive the vehicle around select cities in the country.

Urban planning with autonomous vehicles

While recapturing lost public spaces is a very strong argument for lawmakers and citizens alike to hasten the development and integration of autonomous vehicles, another is that with IoT and autonomous vehicles, cities will become increasingly efficient in utilizing their current spaces.

As anecdotal as it might sound, one city in California, US, developed a smartphone app to alert drivers when a light at the intersection they are currently at turns green. Called EnLighten, the app emits an audible cue to inform drivers when the light turns to green at an intersection they are at, as live traffic is monitored by the city’s systems. Even if it does sound like an April Fool’s joke ¬– it has seen real use since April 2015 – it is a very basic example of how IoT can integrate into the daily lives of commuters. The communication between three devices, namely the city’s traffic monitoring system, the traffic lights at an intersection, and the drivers’ smartphones can interact with each other to at least attempt to try to ease the congestion on the streets. While the effectiveness and whether it is not a distraction is a worthy discussion for another time, such a basic system can lay the foundation for more advanced traffic management in the future.

But as much as autonomy will revolutionize city infrastructure, we should come back to the Citroen Ami example. The sharing economy, together with driverless vehicles, is more likely than not the push for even wider usage of cars as a service.

“Another important factor is the expected change in mobility use: In metropolitan areas, some autonomous vehicles will belong to mobility providers instead of to individuals,” Audi reverberated that point in its release, which explored myths related to autonomous vehicles. If it does become a reality that car ownership will collectively fall in the upcoming decades, designing the modern-day city will go through changes as well. While Audi does point out that “self-driving cars won’t require less parking space,” but rather will use the currently available space more efficiently, does not that warrant a fundamental change in our way of thinking about our cities?

“The most important step to augmenting the advantages of autonomous vehicles is ensuring that they are also shared and electric. Sharing is a critical component in the question of whether autonomous vehicles will increase or decrease total vehicle miles traveled,” said an article by the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University (CARS). If total vehicle miles will decrease, it means cities will have more space to develop communal spaces such as parks and other types of public spaces. And once, not if, autonomous vehicles will move us around in emissions-free transportation, it will result in cities becoming cleaner and more livable.

“Without strong planning and policymaking, this technology could also continue to lead us on the same path of the last 60 years of urban development, putting cars first and people second,” warned the same article by CARS. Nevertheless, whatever the case might be, the development of autonomous vehicles, our cities, and the technologies that surround us will be interesting to watch and participate in.