You Can’t Have a Smart City with Dumb Roads

One of the big challenges that cities face when contemplating the "smart city" future, is what to do with all the vehicles that most communities rely on to transport people and goods. The reality is that even in relatively well-developed metropolitan areas, most roads still remain fairly dumb.

Traffic is choking many cities in more ways than one — between the economic cost of lost time and the negative health impacts of engine exhaust, it is difficult to find the upside in roadway congestion. For cities to move forward into a more sustainable, livable future, it is essential that they find ways to move vehicles more efficiently. One area that many urban areas are beginning to address is the opportunity to make their roads and highways much smarter.

It should come as no surprise that most cities are somewhat pre-occupied with traffic management, and that it figures heavily into many smart city planning efforts. As with most smart city initiatives, the application of information and communications technology (ICT) to roadways is a promising avenue (pun intended) that many municipal governments and their partners are exploring. But what does a smarter roadway look like?

For many observers, the answer would be an intelligent transportation systems (ITS), a concept initially developed in Europe, but in use worldwide, where ICT is applied in the field of road transportation, including infrastructure, vehicles and users. Many municipal, regional and national highway agencies are looking to new, advanced ITS as a key part of their efforts to make travel on roadways more efficient and — more importantly — safer. The development of ITS depends on the use of advanced communications networks. These networks provide the needed connectivity between control centers, vehicles, drivers and passengers, work crews and both existing and emerging roadside equipment, such as digital signage, emergency communications, closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, and tolling systems.

Ultimately, the idea behind ITS is to help track and manage traffic on highways and provide real-time information on road conditions, the status of construction projects, traffic snags and other impediments to movement. By extension they can also help reduce the likelihood of accidents and cut down on pollution by keeping traffic flowing and helping eliminate long lines of idling vehicles.

To make this possible, the services and equipment deployed along the roadways need to be able to interact seamlessly, sharing data feeds and capabilities. However, the typical way of deploying highway infrastructure and services has been to have a dedicated communications network to support each individual service.

When just a few services were in use, such as emergency roadside calling, this approach made sense. Today, however, with new applications being developed and introduced all the time, this strategy is increasingly impractical. An alternative is to deploy a single, converged, multi-service network that can support a range of applications simultaneously. In addition to supporting more seamless interaction between applications, this approach offers a variety of operational and cost benefits.

There are of course challenges to this strategy. Some applications require “always on” connectivity and exceptional performance, while in other cases “best effort” is more than sufficient. Naturally, highway agencies need a way to manage this relative prioritization, ensuring that each service and data type is supported with the levels of bandwidth, latency and availability demanded.

One option for addressing these challenges is the use of Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) technology as the foundation for the ITS. IP/MPLS can support the needed quality of service level for any given application, ensuring that the most critical services — including those on which lives may depend — get priority on the network over less essential applications. This ability to differentiate service delivery levels is one of the key benefits of IP/MPLS, and is among reasons it is emerging as a technology of choice for highway agencies.

It is important to note the “IP” in IP/MPLS as IP networks are particularly well suited to delivering bandwidth-hungry services such as real-time video. They are also backward compatible with older, legacy applications like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), which are used in a variety of operational settings. Services such as SCADA have typically been supported by technologies that are now nearing end of life, such as TDM, SONET/SDH and PDH; which also lack sufficient capacity to support the kinds of applications being developed today.

Although the services on these networks still have substantial utility, and it would be impractical to replace them all at once. IP/MPLS offers highway agencies the capability to support these services until they ready to pursue a more aggressive evolution.

Some people might wonder why the network is so important. Autonomous vehicles are already being tested on public roadways, and despite some well-publicized growing pains, these systems are virtually certain to be in commercial use fairly soon. Won’t these smart vehicles eliminate the need for smart roadways though? The answer is: not really.

Yes, there are certainly benefits to autonomous vehicles — increased safety most notable among them. However, the rollout of self-driving vehicles will take time. As important, the in-vehicle systems of automated vehicles of all kinds will still need to communicate with roadway infrastructure, drivers and each other. In-vehicle systems alone are not sufficient to unleash the full potential of automated driving. As importantIn fact, a more prevalent, near-term trend is likely the rapid move toward connected vehicles; which can enable a wide range of safety, efficiency and convenience features that are just beginning to become available.

Connected vehicles, of course, depend on connections, which is where ITS comes in. A growing variety of connectivity options are becoming available — from 5G wireless broadband to internet of things technologies (complementing existing 4G networks) — which will make it possible for highway agencies to offer drivers and driverless vehicles alike a wide array of smart services.

As city and regional planners lay the groundwork for making their cities smarter, it is important that they not forget their roadways. Intelligent transportation systems can play an important role in addressing the vexing problem of traffic congestion, and even lay the groundwork for the implementation of a broader, more efficient and diversified city-wide transportation system. Raising the I.Q. of their roadways would be a smart move for any city.

#roads #traffic