As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
Most people would agree that the purpose of technology is to make our lives easier and better. Smartphones, smart utility meters, smart washing machines, smart speakers, and smart everything else: The more “intelligent” our devices, the more convenient and simple our everyday routines will become, right? It is somewhat of a contradiction, then, that the United Kingdom is abandoning its “smart motorway” system because, according to the chief executive of Highways England, Jim O’Sullivan, it is “just too complicated for people to use.”
The program was designed to alter speed limits and available traffic lanes according to the number of cars on the road at any time. The purpose was to “monitor traffic and set signs to help keep the traffic flowing safely and freely.” However, the system came under fire when several fatalities occurred because of “unsafe” roads, including four deaths on just one stretch of road in ten months, and pending action from one widow accusing Highways England of “corporate manslaughter.” After claiming that smart highways were safer than others, the agency also has backtracked, O’Sullivan saying the matter hasn’t been studied.
So, contrary to what we are led to believe, throwing the word “smart” in front of something doesn’t make it so. Smart road networks probably are coming to a location near you, though perhaps in a different iteration – after all, this is likely a case of poor execution on the part of U.K. highway planners. Colorado, with its RoadX project, has been the leading US state in implementing an intelligent highway system with sensors that will track cars.
The Colorado transport authority hired startup Integrated Roadways to install a test section on Denver’s Brighton Boulevard, with a view to incorporating the technology on about a third of a mile of pavement on a dangerous, curved mountain section of Highway 285. The purpose would be to detect when a vehicle careens toward the edge of the road. The system comprises slabs of concrete that contain various sensors to detect a car’s type, position, size, direction of travel, and speed. “If you’ve driven off the road, smart pavements can detect when and where this happened and automatically send an alert to the emergency services to come help you,” CEO Tim Sylvester said. “This will rapidly shorten the time before people get help.”
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) granted the company about $2.75 million for the project. “The internet and cell networks have revolutionized so much of our daily lives, yet roads haven’t improved for decades,” said Sylvester. “Our technology re-envisions roads as digital mobility networks, paving the way for greater improvements in everything from sustainable transportation funding to improved safety to mass adoption of autonomous cars.”
Safety and well-flowing traffic are not the only considerations here; a key aspect of Integrated Roadways’ business plan is to sell data and bandwidth. Telecom companies will be able to buy access to further their 5G networks, while vehicle information will be sold to an assortment of buyers. “Data of this sort can be valuable to a variety of businesses, including retailers, commercial developers and commercial property owners,” said Sylvester, according to Colorado Construction & Design. “Retailers, for example, can begin tailoring marketing campaigns to area travelers, and the data also can help commercial property owners determine which businesses to put in a shopping center.”
He added, “The eventual goal is to relieve the burden from the public of paying for road improvements and shift it to commercial enterprises.” While taxpayers would surely welcome a lightening of their financial burden, it appears that, much like “free” online services, the user is set to become the product here.
The state’s CDOT teamed up with Panasonic in a second smart highway venture. In a similar vein to the Internet of Things, which seeks to connect virtually every object to the web, the $70 million partnership’s focus is to develop vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology. This will not only monitor a car’s movement on the roads but also actively communicate with equipped vehicles. Manufacturers are working on incorporating V2X connectivity in their cars, and Cadillac already has begun rolling out an early version. “We are building what we call the internet of roads, or digital infrastructure highways, which have the ability to listen — and to talk,” commented CDOT’s Chief of Advanced Mobility Amy Ford.
According to a CDOT promotional video for the program, which completed its pilot deployment in 2018, the department predicts an 80% drop in crashes and a 50% decrease in travel times. How will this happen? According to the video:
“Soon, cars will talk to each other and the road, all the time, automatically, making people safer and roads less congested … we’re talking about data sent ten times per second, and that means instantaneous information for drivers right when they need it … cars communicate all kinds of useful information through their sensors, other cars around them receive it, helping avoid crashes. But this info also goes to units installed up and down the road, then to the cloud for analysis. This end-to-end coverage gives traffic managers a complete picture of the roadway, so they can quickly coordinate emergency services or send drivers customized alerts about hazards, closures, weather or alternate routes.”
In June 2019, Utah launched its own partnership with Panasonic, to invest in the same technology.
Driverless Cars on Busy Streets
Circling back briefly to the U.K., it seems that as one door closes a window opens for dubious road-related technology. The British government recently announced that, for the first time on its roads, driverless cars would carry human passengers. Operated by company FiveAI, the vehicles will transport 130 volunteer commuters, thought to be working for the insurance company Direct Line, around London’s Bromley and Croydon areas.
According to Stan Boland, co-founder and CEO of FiveAI, most trials of driverless vehicles have taken place on the U.S. West Coast, where there are better lighting conditions, wider roads, and a grid system. Indeed, BotRide, a taxi service run with autonomous cars, is about to begin a two-month trial in Irvine, CA. “In Northern Europe, we have lower lighting, poorer satellite coverage, higher rainfall, and greater density of road users. We also have to deal with erratic, medieval street plans that are nothing like the grid systems of the U.S.,” he said. In that case, it’s anyone’s guess why this trial is being conducted on busy streets in the center of London.
That’s all for this week from You’re Never Alone. Check back in next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.