Smart Traffic: a Key Step Towards Smart Cities

February 17, 2017

Cities are getting smarter every day, but generally in incremental fashion, such that the pace of change is barely perceived. With rapid uptake of connected vehicles now plainly on the horizon, this is set to change. Perhaps one of the first way smart cities make themselves truly felt will be in traffic management.  Last year’s decision by the automobile industry to adopt the GSMA’s Embedded SIM Specification signalled a transformation in the market for connected cars, which, according to Machina Research, is now set to grow fourfold by 2020, to a total of more than $150 billion. This exponential rise in smart vehicle numbers will have to be met by rapid expansion of the infrastructure needed to draw on their capabilities.

As the global urban population rises – and cities around the world become increasingly congested – there is growing recognition of the need to manage traffic in a dynamic way. To assist that end the GSMA has produced the Smart Cities Guide : Traffic Management, which outlines the role mobile operators play in delivering this crucial development in urban planning.

Success here will yield considerable gains. Smart transport systems, built around flexible network technologies, offer opportunities not only to reduce congestion; they will also help to minimise accidents, through intelligent traffic planning, and contribute to more sustainable environmental impact by way of greater efficiency.

The chief prize remains in freeing the economic productivity currently locked into sluggish transport routes. Existing traffic management systems tend to measure traffic at fixed locations, lacking the intelligence to establish root causes of congestion further up the road. Mobile data, combined with information captured by connected sensors – long-life devices which transmit readings to central servers – will soon enable far greater predictive power to those managing congestion.  Connected sensors can not only be placed in a wider variety of locations, including the road itself – and collect a more sophisticated array of data – but their deployment in vehicles themselves offers a far more complete picture to traffic controllers.

Connected sensors can provide detailed information such as when a parking space is free, how many cars are in a column of traffic ahead, or how many occupants a bus contains at a given time.  There remains today a degree of reliance on self-reporting of conditions by drivers, which is unreliable and fragmentary; the use of connected sensors allows real-time processing of comprehensive data. Appropriate action can then be taken as a result, for example turning a light green automatically. When assessing the location data captured by mobile networks, analysts can determine patterns in speeds and vehicle types through real-time and historic data, allowing them to create tools and perform predictive analysis.

With an existing command of global communications networks, mobile operators are well-placed to help create these smart transport systems, and pilots are already in operation around the world. The city of Shanghai, for instance, is on smart parking trials, using sensors based on a form of Mobile IoT (low power wide area solutions in licensed spectrum) technology known as NB-IoT.  This allows motorists to search for, book, and navigate their way to a parking space, and pay directly with their mobile handset. The city administration can then monitor parking usage in real time, provide that information to other drivers, and reduce the opportunity for missed payments. Smart parking solutions of this kind can enable dynamic pricing in response to a drop in occupation, and diminish congestion by reducing the number of vehicles on roads seeking a parking space.

Smart traffic management promises to make urban driving far less of an uphill struggle, and allow people that thrilling sense that they are indeed ‘living in the future’. As smart cities evolve, and different systems within them become able to communicate with each other, services and infrastructure will over the next five years become increasingly integrated. With their extensive capability and expertise ready to bring this about, mobile operators will prove indispensable partners in this exciting new development.

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