So goes the refrain: Autonomous spaceships will take us to Mars! What? No? You want to figure out terrestrial autonomous transportation first? Wow. Okay. Got some luddites over here, huh? Seriously, though, before we start seriously talking about Daddy Musk’s Autonomous Rocket Factory, it’s perhaps more useful to think about some of the systems involved in making these things work in the first place. Such was the focus of a webinar last week that brought together the City of Detroit, Canadian company Miovision, and, of course, Amazon Web Services, through whom all interweb is possible. This is the unglamorous part of the infrastructure of tomorrow, and it aims to do something that we should all be able to appreciate: improving traffic safety and reducing congestion.
The Basics: Safe and Connected Systems
Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS, comprise a broad range of technology used in traffic control. There’s a lot of tech that has existed in some format for decades, while explosive growth in the past decade has catapulted the industry forward into a brave new world of possibility, risk, and excitement. Think about approaching a red light from a side street at an intersection with a major street. The stop light is usually green on the major street to keep traffic flowing. But did you ever wonder how the stop light “knows” that you’re there?
There are a few technologies that can determine this, with various drawbacks and advantages. The inductive loop is a common thing that is physically buried underneath the ground. You might recognize some sort of hatched, octagonal shape cut into the pavement in front of a crosswalk. These are neat, but they can only detect heavy vehicles, meaning that cyclists or possibly even motorcycles might not be detected. They’re also more expensive to install in that they have to be buried in the pavement as opposed to a pole-mounted sensor that can be easily upgraded, replaced, or adjusted.
Of course, each type of sensor has its own issues, too. So, what technology do you use? Infrared? Microwave? Visible spectrum? Lidar?
Miovision, Arbiter of Visual Spectrum Traffic
Miovision’s product specifically is a camera connected to a Roadside Unit, or RSU, that then connects to The Cloud. Miovision “knows” whether it is looking at a vehicle or at a pedestrian. This is enormously useful in understanding where city engineers can prioritize things like transit signal priority (TSP), pedestrian or bicycle signal priority, or, most generally, improving traffic flow and making streets safer. Remember the vaccine site at TCF? They’re using this technology there to respond to congestion or increased demand.
The technology isn’t looking at the complete route of each traveler. Rather, it’s looking at how paths across the city work by way of the intersection, specifically. Intersections are where collisions and therefore fatalities are most likely to occur. They’re also where cars have to start and stop, which can create congestion.
Reliability and security concerns
Okay, so, what if someone hacks into the traffic systems and turns off all of the stoplights? Didn’t they do this in the remake of The Italian Job? (Honestly, pretty ahead of its time as far as realtime ITS in that movie!). Just as there are fewer things that can go wrong with a crank-style car window than with an electronic one, there are fewer things that can go wrong with infrastructure that is not connected. A locksmith once told me that a skilled thief can break into any system– it’s just a question of how long it’ll take. The same is more or less true with electronic systems, with the exception that there are certain additional safeguards that can be applied that don’t work for things like, well, doors on a house.
Redundancy is one solution. Why have one when you can have two for twice the price? This means a system might still work even if a truck crashes into an RSU. Of course, it also costs more! Distributed structures are another option. Could you complete this particular analysis “on site”, or locally, instead of shipping it to a data center to process it? In other words, can you bring the cloud to you? Of course, insourcing is a complicated thing. It requires technological infrastructure, but it also requires expertise to develop and manage it (“but who’s gonna fly it, kid?”).
Risks associated with 3rd party clouds?
There’s another risk involved as far as having all of your stuff run by a giant, transnational corporation that invariably builds in high switching costs and may well engage in anticompetitive behavior. Liz Warren may yet have her day in the sun, as the Biden Administration may well go after antitrust litigation against Big Tech, in an action that would invariably please both liberals and conservatives. But that, my friends, is a story for another day.
Another point to be made here is that traffic safety ultimately needs to come from reducing our reliance on single-occupant vehicles and designing streets that passively encourage better driver behavior. This means better marked crosswalks, better signage, and traffic calming!
In the meantime, drive safe– and remember to use your turn signals.