Cities around the world are choking with traffic. New pilot projects are now testing self-driving cars in urban areas. But autonomous vehicles aren’t the only high-tech way for cities to fight traffic chaos.
It’s the ultimate test for self-driving cars: safely navigating a busy city – narrow one-way streets, confusing intersections, crowds of pedestrians, bulky trams and crazy bike couriers. Most field testing of autonomous vehicles has been limited to less chaotic spaces like highways and rural roads. Until now. Starting in May 2018, the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg has designated a new test route including urban areas. Worldwide, some 100 cities are preparing for autonomous driving, according to data collected by the Aspen Institute think tank and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization set up by the former mayor of New York City.
60 PERCENT FEWER CARS
No wonder: Cities have never faced worse traffic jams. According to the UK financial comparison website Gocompare, drivers in Moscow spend 91 hours stuck in traffic each year – more than anywhere else in Europe. London comes second with 73 hours. Self-driving cars can help reduce this wasted time. A simple example: Vehicles waiting in a long line at a red light can only start driving one after another when it turns green. This takes up a lot of time. However, connected cars constantly communicating with each other can accelerate simultaneously, clearing the street that much faster.
Moreover, driving at a constant speed also allows such vehicles to travel packed more closely together. That, in turn, means more space on the roads, less stop-and-go traffic, less air pollution. Known as “platooning,” this technique is predominately being tested with trucks. Autonomous carsharing fleets could also play a large role in reducing urban traffic congestion: Collecting passengers at home, they will make private cars superfluous for many people. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and World Economic Forum estimated in 2016 that autonomous driving could help reduce the number of cars in cities by 60 percent.
RIDING THE GREEN WAVE
Real-time navigation is another area offering great potential. Currently, such navigation systems can display new traffic jams, but they still send all vehicles on the same alternative route, potentially creating more congestion. To avoid this, all vehicles taking a detour must be coordinated in order to spread them across the entire street network.
Not just cars are getting smarter – so is the transportation infrastructure they rely upon. Dresden, for example, uses over 1,000 sensors to determine how many cars are currently on the streets, enriching this picture with data from taxis and public transit. This information allows the traffic authorities to adjust the traffic lights automatically: It extends green light phases when there’s lots of cars and gives trams priority upon request, as long as other traffic won’t be unduly burdened. Such systems can also give trucks priority, so they can make it through an intersection before the light turns red. This is because truck take longer to stop, pollute more and are noisier than cars.
FINDING A SPOT WITH SAMRT PARKING
In the United States, for example, carmaker Audi offers an application showing drivers how long the next light will be green. This allows them to drive the exact speed necessary to ride the green wave. Smart parking apps can also help drivers find parking spots with minimal stress. Deutsche Telekom, for example, helps drivers navigate in Hamburg – and soon in other cities – thanks to networked parking infrastructure showing the quickest way to a free spot. Paying for and extending a parking meter is easy with a smartphone app. Such high-tech innovations don’t just improve the traffic in urban areas, they also provide extra service for drivers when they’ve reached their destination.
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Digitization and the Internet of Things are among the favourite topics of Daniel Kunz. He has been with Deutsche Telekom since 2017 and regularly writes about technology trends and many exciting topics, especially for the retail trade and the logistics industry.