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Connected and autonomous vehicles, are we nearly there yet? Yes, we are

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Priscilla Boyd, Product Manager, Siemens ITS.

The thought of driverless cars populating our roads is no longer one that only belongs to futuristic blockbusters. With support from Her Majesty The Queen in the State Opening of Parliament last year and the staggering, multi-million figures thrown at this field by market players of all sizes, the development of this concept has evidently been very rapid.

Whilst research in the field of connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) has been pumped up thanks to various governmental incentives in the form of competitions for funding, it is clear that the opportunities in this space are attractive enough to bring fresh concepts to the mix.

There is much more to autonomous vehicles than their benefits to road safety, namely the data produced by systems and the services that can be offered in return, the desirability of such novel vehicles, the interesting complexity surrounding human factors and the smooth integration to other means of transportation to ease passenger journeys. With great potential in different areas, it is no surprise that the breadth of knowledge and skills brought by those involved in growing the concept of CAVs is invaluable – communications, robotics, artificial intelligence, big data and cyber security are only some of the areas of interest being developed. So industry seems to have it all covered and is working towards it, but where do cities currently stand? Are they ready for the challenge?

Cities understand better than anyone else how to manage their own environments, how to control their traffic, their weaknesses and strengths. However, when it comes to the adoption of new technologies, following the same pace of industry can understandably be difficult given the constraints in funding and resources that most local authorities face in recent periods of austerity.
One of the incentives for cities to encourage CAV uptake is to replace physical infrastructure by making better use of data. An example is to substitute expensive gantry signs with virtual signs that can display tailored messages in the car to the driver instead. The virtual signs can be dynamic, constructed with information from infrastructure and data from vehicles, orchestrated by cities to help direct their traffic flows in the most appropriate manners to meet their targets, whether on congestion, pollution or passenger satisfaction. This information can also help deliver full autonomy, allowing vehicles to plan their journeys safely and more efficiently using real-time information.

CAV technologies may help cities in different areas including the reduction of costs associated with infrastructure, but it is extremely important to recognise the need for continuous maintenance once these systems are implemented – not just on the roadside, but also in the vehicle. With significant increase in cyber threats over the years, CAVs will certainly be appealing targets for malicious activities, putting the need for every component in the system chain to be regularly and thoroughly checked to ensure vulnerabilities are promptly addressed.

In much of what seems like a chicken or egg situation, cities then face the question: should they invest in the infrastructure now or should they wait until a critical mass of vehicles is equipped with the technology?

Waiting until the adoption levels have substantially risen is, by and large, the easiest solution in the short-term as it gives cities time to work out their long-term strategies that include the roll out of CAV technologies. However, there are risks associated in following such a passive approach.

With the degrees of investment observed in this sphere, there is a sense of urgency from industry to get these vehicles rolled out quickly in the hope to maximise their returns on investment. This could result in the devolution of traffic control from the cities to vehicle manufacturers and system providers. The latter can thus choose how to monitor and manage traffic to please their customers in a way that can increase revenue. On the other hand, the funding obstacle can be a hurdle for cities to overcome, but there are ways around it.

Over the past five years, Siemens has been at the forefront of roadside CAV technologies, working with cities in the UK, Europe and in the USA as part of collaborative research projects. In the UK, demonstrators in Newcastle (Compass4D project) and Coventry (UK CITE project) were facilitated by European and UK government grants, with Siemens helping accelerate advancements in this area, investing further in the UK market and gathering feedback from cities first-hand.

With the Chancellor of Exchequer’s 2016 Autumn Budget having £390 million allocated for low emission vehicles and CAV technologies, there will undoubtedly be more opportunities for both industry and cities to work together and help the UK be at the forefront with connected and autonomous vehicles.

When asking if we are ready for CAVs, we can say “yes”. The technology is here and seen in many demonstrators, the cars are being commercially equipped and the use cases are being developed. However, without cities on board, there will just be more demonstrators rather than the real, wide-coverage roll-outs. There are opportunities for local and road authorities to deploy these concepts and Siemens will continue to work with those cities to help make it happen sooner rather than later.

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