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  • Urban Mobility – Innovative Solutions to Tough Challenges

    Challenges of urban mobility are not only traffic congestion and accidents, but also pollution level, energy efficiency, cleaner, safer, and reliable environment. Cities in Asian region, specifically India and China are struggling to control extra-high level of pollution on this date. In Delhi, the first brute force attempt to control air pollution is by curtailing the number of cars plying on its roads by half on any particular day; of course after causing significant inconvenience to people. And the reality is that the population of urban cities is ever-increasing all over the world. What if we had a comprehensive integrated approach towards solving these problems?

    Such problems, impacting our society at large cannot be solved without the use of innovative technologies. Regulations are necessary; however they need to be effectively implemented in time, and also support business model for the technologies to be viable and become commercially successful. There was a nice debate on available technologies and regulatory bottlenecks to improve urban mobility in a panel discussion on “Future of Urban Mobility” in CES 2016. I was happy to replay the panel video on-line from my office

    There were interesting demos about adaptations of technologies in work by Robert Bosch, Qualcomm, and Mobileye. They included not only autonomous driving, but also how safety measures can be taken and your car can become your personal assistant by connecting it with your home and social environment.

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    Mobileye’s Shield+TM technology uses artificial vision smart cameras which can detect any object in blind-spots to avoid collision. It ignores inanimate objects and pedestrians in safe zones, thus avoiding false alarms. Also the Shield+ is connected to a telematic system to record the locations of alerts which can be used as real-time data points to remove deficiencies and improve infrastructure, thus reducing hotspots.

    Qualcomm and Bosh videos were high on connectedness, IoT, smart, secure and seamless environment which can be envisioned in an smart city with self-driving, eco-friendly, and energy-efficient vehicles, and how your car can act as your personal assistant. Bosch even had a near term realizable goal of autonomous parking.

    In the panel, there were thought provoking ideas - an example, why do we expect zero accidents by autonomous cars when we are living with 600000 fatalities the world over and 35000 in US alone in a year; why should an autonomous car drive slowly, hesitantly, let every other car overtake it, and become an object of joke? In reality, when an autonomous car can reduce accidents by multiple orders of magnitude, it must let run autonomously and let society learn from it about how to deal with it. There were also ideas about cars infused with AI (Artificial Intelligence) which can let them learn for themselves Let me reflect on some of the nice ideas coming out of this panel.

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    [From left: Prof. Amnon Shashua, Chairman of Mobileye; Steve Mollenkopf, CEO of Qualcomm; Secretary Anthony Foxx, US Dept. of Transportation; Dr. Volkmar Denner, CEO of Robert Bosch; and Kent Larson, Director of MIT Media Labs]

    It was a grand panel of experts moderated by Kent Larson who also introduced about various initiatives being taken and inventions done by MIT Media Labs; such as shared bikes, portable eScooters and three wheelers, autonomous PEVs, light small electric cars, mobility-on-demand, and so on.

    Secretary Foxx provided rationale about recently announced ‘smart city challenge’ by his transportation agency where decision makers as local levels can imagine and bring up ideas on how new technologies can improve mobility, safety, reduce impact on environment etc. Companies are excited to partner and sponsor this initiative. Mobileye will install Shield+ on all transit buses of the winning city.

    Prof. Shashua said it will solve two purposes – i) alert before collision to avert it, and ii) use big-data on cloud (all collision alerts) to analyze, plan and change infrastructure based on real data to avoid future collisions.

    Dr. Denner updated about a number of Bosch’s pilot projects with different cities, but problems in implementation decision, funding, and business model. He also cited about additional use-cases with LED street lamps which can help optimizing traffic flow, but who should pay for it? It needs to be piloted to find a right business model.

    Mollenkopf pointed to a bigger and complex problem which needs significant co-ordination to solve. Everything needs to be smart, intelligent, and connected; it’s mission critical in space and time. It needs big connectivity, spectrum, and bandwidth. It’s less technical and more public policy and infrastructure issue. What network will connect everything, who will provide that network and who will buy it? A significant problem is in data accessibility and sharing protocol.

    It was heartening to see government transportation agency collaborating with technology companies, listening to them to understand issues, and solve problems in technology deployment and regulation.

    An interesting, may be provocative question by Larson was about which industry (between automotive and electronics) is better positioned to make vehicles in the future. Prof. Shashua beautifully articulated it by saying that electric vehicles have lowered the bar for producing cars, but the car industry has no room for imperfection. Consumer electronics on the other hand has to go from single board to multiple boards, and produce without any imperfection in the first version; that’s a DNA change for consumer electronics. At the end Prof. Shashua voted for putting his money into Car industry.

    When will the technology be ready for autonomous driving in all conditions? Can autonomous driving be mixed with human driving? How will the transition take place?

    Definitely full autonomy is not in sight in this decade. I liked Bosch’s progressive milestones where they plan for autonomous parking by 2018, autonomous exit to exit drive by 2020, and more later. Of course full autonomy will be more exciting when Uber type business model and shared mobility can evolve; that can automatically and efficiently reduce the number of vehicles on roads.

    Mollenkopf brought up a great point about aircrafts being connected between themselves and ATC system, a key component to increased safety. Infrastructure wide regulations should not hold building such systems for surface transportation.

    What could be the game changer to improve lives in fundamental way?

    Future cars will be smarter and human-like. They will have learning capability, and they will act like personal assistants. For example, they will interact with your smart home; check heating system, video camera, security systems etc. before your entering home.

    Cars can have much better information about weather and other environmental conditions to better control movement and traffic. Information about entire population of vehicles can be a very powerful data to manage a city.

    With connected vehicle system, intermodal transportation can become very easy and convenient. One can easily change the mode of transport with simple app and not remain stuck into traffic jam for long.

    How about mass transit and logistics of moving goods? You can buy goods on-line through internet, but their delivery can be inefficient?

    Here comes the Drone industry, Mollenkopf was prompt in pointing out. Drones are easy and cost-efficient, but need regulation. They also need to provide safety, and need co-ordination and human acceptance from psychological viewpoint. It’s difficult to experiment; certain places are easier than others. It needs industry and community leadership (as part of smart city challenge) to experiment and evolve this as a solution.

    The future is to have electric autonomous vehicles with zero emission, much lower noise, and more efficient power trains; connected system without collision and congestion; greener and cleaner environment; and multiple intermodal options for transportation.

    How cool it will be for a traveller like me who does not drive in non-native places with different driving rules? I can pre-book all modes of my transportation sitting in my office, and can change it on the way as the situation demands. It takes away all my worries and also makes the traffic smoother.

    The complete one hour panel video can be accessed HERE.
    Also read: IoT Innovation Enters Public Infrastructure


    Pawan Kumar Fangaria
    Founder & President at www.fangarias.com