Are we standing on the precipice of an artificial intelligence-driven industrial revolution? Has the pandemic forced the hand of technologists and cities alike to adopt cutting-edge new urban mobility strategies that were pipedreams as little as two years ago and from the realms of fantasy fiction as recently as 2012? Intertraffic spoke with three experts from different compartments of the urban mobility stratosphere to ascertain what the near future has in store.
“Since the turn of the century, the amount of data trails people leave behind have increased massively,” says Keith McCabe, a transport expert with over 40 years’ experience in the sector. “This is particularly the case when you get something like a connected vehicle that spurts out masses of data on all kinds of things that it's observing in real time. It generates such a gargantuan volume of data that it just isn't really possible for a person to use their Excel spreadsheet to make a few calculations and say, ‘Aha, that's what it means for urban mobility.’ What you need is to be able to train some artificial intelligence (AI) to be able to detect patterns within that and then have those patterns interpreted to understand the trends that are going on a regular basis,” he explains. “The next step is to look at the exceptions on a daily basis to see what's different about what's happening there.”
McCabe, CEO of Huddersfield, UK-based SimplifAI Systems Ltd, is extolling the virtues of AI and how its increasing use in urban mobility settings is changing the parameters of what’s possible.
‘98% of all data ever created has been created since March 2019.’
“If you can use the right AI tools at the right time in the appropriate way you can see what seems to be like massive, unconnected data trails and turn them into something useful and intelligible.”
All about the process
But when it comes to data it’s more a case of interpreting it more intelligently and intuitively rather than discarding it because we don’t understand it. There’s an oft-quoted but potentially apocryphal statistic that goes something like ‘98% of all data ever created has been created since March 2019.’ So, does AI help process that data and make it usable, useful and feasible for authorities, travelers and the urban mobility sector as a whole?
“Funnily enough,” says McCabe, “the pandemic has actually been quite a good expression of that example in that prior to Covid-19 travel patterns changed in a relatively predictable way. However, during the pandemic, it was difficult to see a pattern and to then decide from that vague pattern, what had changed and what was the same. I think that's an appropriate setting in which to use AI to learn from the new patterns, to understand the new normal, or the new abnormal or whatever you want to call it.
“AI helps you plan how many trams you might need in the morning, or what your maintenance cycle should be on the buses to understand, under these new conditions, when the most buses are needed. This applies to any other form of transport where you need to undertake some planning; what you need to glean from all that data is what it is you're actually planning for.”
Back to normality
McCabe’s ability to explain even the most complex technological computations in a manner that's easy to understand is something to behold. In explaining the many benefits of integrating AI planning into urban mobility settings he’s opened a whole new can of smart city worms.
“Then you need to know when it changes and how it's changed - and what that means for what you've got to provide, in terms of service. That's from of public authority point of view, but also from the position of an individual who, may be later in the summer, is faced with either going back into the office for the first time in 15 months. Their journey to get there may be very different from the last time they ventured into the workplace.”
The considerations of travel have radically altered and, as McCabe puts it, the traveller can now believe in some of the findings from this data that's been processed by AI to come up with predictions of how long it might take to really make sure they can plan what they're going to do and how they are going to do it better.
“Without that analysis you're then relying on anecdotal evidence of who was or wasn't there last Wednesday and what it was like. Analyzing a few data trails and coming up with something useful might be the best way to do that. It has to be used in a careful way and you need to not think that you can understand everything from it. Certainly, the pandemic’s been particularly challenging, because a lot of AI systems look for a pattern, so if there is no pattern, it's difficult for the AI to learn.”
Something in the air
Looking at things like air quality associated with optimum urban mobility systems, is this a case where the AI can change the traffic signal cycles? So for example, at three o'clock in the afternoon, on a busy suburban road, there might be significant congestion so there's a lot of pollutants in the atmosphere, it's school going-home time, children will be coming out of the school premises into the increasingly polluted air, can those traffic lights be held on red two junctions further back for that time between three and four o'clock? Is that where AI can make decisions that positively affect the health of the population?
“I think potentially it can work in a number of levels” McCabe suggests. “It can work at that level of detail where you need to make some local tactical change, and certainly, as CEO of SimplifAI systems, I have to say that we have a system that does exactly what it is that you just described, making local tactical decisions using AI. But I think that's just one piece of the jigsaw. I think the advances in weather forecasting mean that you would know a reasonable amount of time in advance when those problems are going to occur. So you can start to do things, maybe change the travel demand a few days in advance. Certainly over the last year, the increase in working at home, rather than being the exception for a few people, is something that most people in kind of clerical type roles or non-manual work roles have done at some point in time. So to be asked to do it again, in three days time, doesn't actually seem that big an issue as it might have done 18 months ago.”
“You can prioritize particular modes of transport that probably don't pollute the atmosphere on that day. An electric tram system is probably going to create less pollution than a diesel van. AI also allows you to make broad-brush decisions about low emission zones, for example, such as change the emphasis on particulate matter, as far as a lot of that can be done. There's a lot of different pieces to be pulled together. So you do need some form of higher-level technology control and the various forms of artificial intelligence lend themselves to that.”
Low emission zone
So could a system such a SimplifAI change or tweak the parameters of a physical low emission zone (LEZ)? There’s no physical barrier for London's LEZ, it's just a series of signs telling motorists that they are entering a low emission zone and that they will be billed if their vehicle doesn’t comply. Could an AI-enhanced system change the virtual and physical borders of a LEZ on a daily basis?
“In one sense yes, but it could only do that with the agreement of the people who administrate the city and of the public,” McCabe responds instantly. “Technically to do that, and to communicate that both to the public and to vehicles that are using it and to maybe change delivery routes, is quite possible. But it does need the political and institutional support of the people who put various zones in place, because the nature of having a zone around something is that there has to legislation to go with it – there are rules, and everything has to fit together. As long as the flexibility in approach is there, the flexibility is inherent in the AI system to manage it.”
One such scenario would be with in-vehicle signage. Rather than having physical road signs, the warning pops up on a virtual dashboard informing the driver that that's where the low emission zone begins today, such as it's 400 meters further west of Zurich than it was yesterday.
“The thing is,” says McCabe cautiously, “many years ago I did some of the primary research on variable message signs. The big limitation there is how much you can read in a couple of seconds and continue to concentrate on driving. So the messages have got to be very short, a limited amount of characters. However, if you're sending a message to a machine, and the machine is influencing the direction in which something travels, and that could be both an autonomous car or a navigation system within a vehicle, which is then telling the driver which is the best way to go, those messages can be a lot longer and a lot more complex, and give really quite sophisticated information to the vehicle. The real importance of it now is to warn people that something important has happened. With AI making those decisions it’s possible to send the micro detail to the system in the vehicle.”
Harriet Tregoning, CEO of the New Mobility alliance, is a firm believer in the disruptive powers of new urban mobility solutions. The recent creation of a set of Shared Mobility Principles has added further power and significance to the movement.
“Both NUMO and the Shared Mobility Principles were created to help cities leverage disruption — from new technology to new mobility services and the data they generate. Since then, disruption has only accelerated — and that is including the COVID-19 pandemic as both a devastating public health crisis and a massive disruption to the way we live, work, and move. The pandemic also highlighted aspects of our society that should have been disrupted decades ago, like how our streets are designed to prioritize moving cars over people, and how our transportation systems, especially in the US, are built around and perpetuate personal automobile ownership, excluding anyone who cannot afford or who does not want to own a car from participating in the economy and accessing daily needs.
“At NUMO, we believe that disruption can be leveraged to create opportunity — opportunity for change, for advancing equity and for tackling some of the greatest challenges of our time, including our rapidly changing global climate.”
“Mobility is freedom,” she explained to Polis’ Alessia Giorgiutti and Madlyn McAuliffe in Thinking Cities magazine, “and that we should be able to move around our cities in ways that are safe, active and bring smiles to our faces. During the pandemic, we have seen the proliferation of slow streets, expanded bike lane networks, ‘streateries’, and myriad other reallocations of street space, some of which are becoming permanent, that prioritize walking, bicycling, and using other modes, getting outside and recreation. Now as we enter the next phases of recovery, we would be loathe to give the streets back to car use. Let us take that sense of freedom into the future and better plan our cities for joy and community.”
Talking about a revolution
Smart mobility consultant Bob McQueen is an advocate of the theory that we are on the verge of a smart urban mobility revolution – it’s not just a “gamechanger”, either. It’s a lifechanger for many.
“A new level of awareness and a higher degree of agility will be required to adapt to the smart mobility revolution,” he says with unerring confidence. “The smart mobility revolution is happening now. Examples include a switch from predominantly public sector funding, to private sector funding for smart mobility applications. This is changing the nature of business models and the relationships between the public and private sectors. Another example is the application of sensor technologies, telecommunications and smart devices to provide Mobility as a Service. This involves the delivery of decision-quality information to travelers regarding modal choice, reliability and cost of service, as a way of improving the quality of decision-making. Some of the most radical changes are occurring in the fields of autonomous and connected vehicles where significant progress is being made towards the implementation of fully automated vehicles.
“Smart mobility offers to deliver highly valuable services within the context of a smart city. If we are to harness the effects of smart urban mobility effectively, it is important that we build on lessons learned from prior implementations of advanced transportation technology and major transportation projects from the past. As we embark on the next stage of smart mobility by delivering integrated systems that cover all these aspects and more, a reference source on what has gone before combined with guidance on how to move forward is particularly valuable. The timing is also important as the emergence of smart city programs around the world has placed a renewed focus on the application of advanced technologies within urban environments.”
Smart mobility has an important role to play in the successful and effective application of advanced technologies that will improve the lives of citizens and visitors in urban areas, says McQueen.
“There is also a tipping point at which the focus shifts from making the technology work, to devising appropriate strategies to extract value from the technology. The industry is at that tipping point, making it essential to communicate appropriate strategies to the practitioner community.”
The smart mobility revolution is taking place within a wider context of rapidly accelerating technology change. Some of this is captured in the emergence of a term known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.
“As I see it the fourth industrial revolution is an umbrella label that covers new and emerging technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, advanced communications and Internet technologies. In fact, it could be perceived that smart mobility is a subset of the fourth industrial revolution as it involves the application of a combination of technologies to achieve dramatic and relatively sudden results. In addition to the application of technology, this combination of technologies is also likely to have socio-economic impact. Marketing professionals are already talking about adopting a market segment of one, in which big data and advanced analytics makes it possible to deliver mass customization.”
McQueen continues: “The public sector should become more aware of the opportunities and challenges presented by the smart mobility revolution. Building on this awareness, it will be important to acquire additional knowledge that will drive momentum for application. This in turn should lead to the development of action plans and strategies for harnessing the power of smart mobility to improve safety, efficiency, awareness and user experience in urban areas.”