Connected cities key to an autonomous future

A connected city would feature traffic signals and vehicles that communicate to each other.

By toronto star Wheels.ca

Feb 29, 2016 3 min. read

Article was updated 7 years ago

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When the City of Stratford, Ont., installed smart hydro meters in all houses and businesses a few years ago, it had to agree on a way to let the meters report their hourly use to a central computer. Instead of using chips to phone in the stats over a cellular network, the city expanded its existing fibre-optic network, laying 80 km of cable that connected everything that uses power.

Today, Stratford is completely connected, and automotive researchers are taking notice.

“We’ve already got two or three networks running across the Wi-Fi and through the fibre,” says Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson. “To add connectivity, vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-signalization, is not a stretch.”

He’s describing a city of the future, where vehicles communicate with each other to describe road and traffic conditions, and where communicators at intersections and crosswalks inform vehicles of what’s happening at their location.

In such a city, there are no surprises. The traffic lights tell cars when they’re changing, to slow them or even let them turn off their motors during a long wait. The crosswalks tell cars when pedestrians are on the road. The street lights update mapping programs and warn of reported potholes.

There has to be an infrastructure, however, and Stratford recognizes this.

“Connectivity’s where it’s going to be,” says Mathieson. “The backbone for us is to support the smart meter, but its unintended consequence — our net benefit — is that we now have built a connected city.

“There’s over 80 kms of (fibre-optic) cable laid, and 300 access points. It’s a wireless mesh network. Of those 300 points, there are probably 60 of them hard-wired to fibre and the rest act as repeaters.”

He estimates the total investment was at least $2.5 million and perhaps up to $4 million, but that was money that had to be spent anyway.

The high-tech University of Waterloo opened a Stratford campus in 2012, and autonomous driving researchers are also eyeing the city’s potential. It’s a community of 35,000 people with a wide variety of traffic conditions.

“We’re considering it,” says John Wall, vice-president of engineering and services for BlackBerry’s QNX software division. “What they’re doing, taking a lead on putting in the infrastructure that’s necessary for vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure (communications), is pretty interesting.”

This puts Stratford ahead of most municipalities, including Toronto.

“Sometimes, there’s a downside to being an early adopter, and there’s some value to waiting until things have matured a bit,” says Steve Buckley, Toronto’s General Manager of Transportation.

“We’re monitoring the situation closely, but we’re not ready to make that sweep that this is the time to make large investments.”

Buckley points out that some autonomous driving requires a physical infrastructure to make it work better, while vehicle-to-vehicle communications does not, if it’s working effectively. The Google car, for example, is a self-contained vehicle.
RELATED: Google envisions self-driving cars for the masses in 3 to 5 years

Toronto is, however, considering installing equipment at traffic lights that will warn of the light changing, but liability is an issue. “We could offer it as a service,” says Buckley, “as long as the city can protect itself so that vehicles are not dependent upon our infrastructure.”

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