With SMLL London, we’re building the future of mobility from the ground up
Last week, more than 4,000 people flocked to Birmingham’s NEC for this year’s Highways UK congress.
The event serves as the premier meet-up for the UK’s road industry. Scanning the list of speakers and attendees for the 2018 edition provides a sense of the true scope of this sector.
Indeed, the resounding message from the show seemed to be that there’s a lot more to roads today than tarmac and asphalt.
A significant proportion of discussion was concerned with how to future proof our transport infrastructure. Technology – as in many other sectors – has a significant role to play in this.
Innovating from the ground up
It’s widely accepted that we won’t be able to reap the benefits of self-driving cars without solid infrastructure to support these vehicles.
This isn’t necessarily a new or unique challenge.
Smartphones provide a good (if limited) comparison here, since increases in their use ubiquity can be mapped against improvements made to the UK’s mobile internet provisions. Or to put it more bluntly: your iPhone becomes a lot less useful without data or Wi-Fi access.
Applied to connected and autonomous vehicles, the argument remains much the same: take away the connectivity, and your driverless car becomes simply an undriven car.
However, connecting cars provides a challenge of much greater proportions than helping people access WhatsApp and Twitter from their palms. A slow-loading page on your phone will likely have lesser consequences than a breakdown in connectivity between an autonomous vehicle and the road it’s riding on.
While failsafe safety features – like emergency stops – will be embedded within the vehicles and available even with a complete loss of connection, clearly reliance on this should be a final resort.
In this way, infrastructure for the future of mobility is less a question of what our roads will look like and more one of how to connect them. When we talk about infrastructure in the context of connected and autonomous vehicles, we’re talking about secure, intelligent networks.
Build and maintain
For this future of connected mobility to become a reality, we’re going to have to build an environment comprising extremely low latency and bandwidth with the capacity to process enormous amounts of data.
Such an environment will incorporate the highest levels of security, as well as a capacity for edge computing – allowing for real-time data analysis and improved application performance, without clogging network traffic or pushing up operating costs.
Compatibility will be key too, given the range of vehicles – both manned and unmanned – that will be using the roads.
This is one of the aims of our SMLL project, with test beds based in Greenwich and Stratford, London.
But simply building a space in which driverless cars can thrive won’t be enough.
Managing the many assets that comprise this new, future-proofed infrastructure is a huge task itself. Predictive analytics and remote maintenance will be vital to keeping traffic flow of the future moving – and moving safely.
As well as the significance of new technologies to the future of the UK’s transport infrastructure, there was another recurring theme at this year’s Highways UK event: the unknown.
For every answered question, there were multiple new ones thrown up.
How can we ensure new and old cars are compatible with driverless infrastructure? Will the UK’s digital divide affect access to driverless cars? Who will be responsible for shaping the policies that govern future mobility?
Working in innovation, this question-led, iterative approach is nothing new to me. But for many, this method will be unfamiliar.
It’ll be up to consortium-led projects like SMLL to instill a collaborative approach to innovation among private and public sector organisations.
To find out more about London’s Smart Mobility Living Lab, visit smartmobility.london