As our cities grow and get smarter, our streets in turn get busier. TEDDY DAKA, Group CEO, Ansys Limited, believes that in order to control traffic, we have to become smarter.
Without wanting to be accused of national stereotyping, one thing that strikes me every time I visit a new country is how subtly unique each place is when it comes to the way people drive. Sometimes it’s because the rules are simply different – South Africa’s four-way stops are as incomprehensible to some northern Europeans as roundabouts seem to be here. In other ways, it’s just customs that have developed over time – the National Road Traffic Act is very specific about when and where hazard lights should be used, and it’s certainly not to show that you’re slowing down or to say thanks.
One thing everyone involved in traffic management knows, however, is that we have to get smarter. As our cities get bigger and our citizens more mobile, our roads will become more congested and gridlocked unless we can find better solutions for everything from parking to car sharing to public transport. The Gauteng City Region Observatory says that population and population density around Tshwane and Johannesburg is growing faster than the rest of the country, and will soon be on a par with the world’s most packed places.
We know that smart cities and the internet of things (IoT) will be an integral part of our effort to reconcile urban growth with quality of living. But we’re right at the start of figuring out how these ideas will be effectively applied in a country like South Africa.
One area that is relatively unexplored, for example, is the area of in-car telematics. Outside of logistics and the tags used for eTolls, our cars are still pretty dumb and traffic management principles haven’t changed for decades. That’s not to belittle investments made in adding mobile SIM cards to traffic lights, for example, but thanks to the falling cost of data communications and the development of low-bandwidth technologies such as Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) radio networks, it’s now entirely feasible to develop large scale, two-way machine-to-machine (M2M) communications for vehicles on our highways and byways.
Such technology can provide traffic managers with real-time data and analytics to optimise the transport network at the macro and micro levels. Predicting congestion and instant accident detection is one part, but so is the ability for commuters to get up-to-the-minute recommendations on routes and the most efficient mode of transport.
M2M communications are a pre-requisite for future transport models such as self-driving cars, which have the Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities to organise themselves for optimum travel. Right now at Ansys we’ve been working with international vendors and municipal and national enforcement and roads authorities to understand the kinds of solutions that are possible today.
Through utilising Ingenu’s M2M network technology we’ve developed an in-car IoT device that plug into the diagnostic port on any recently manufactured vehicle and can be used for fleet management, customer safety, accident alerts, driver behaviour monitoring or law enforcement. Today, insurance companies using this kind of technology can reward the best drivers, while at the same time improving their recovery rates for stolen vehicles.
The next applications for in-car M2M devices will be to build on the kinds of features we see in today’s smartphones. Google Maps can alert you of a traffic incident ahead and advise you to take a different route. Integrating the same kind of location-aware devices into a smart city network will give city authorities the grid-wide ability to dynamically change routes and speed limits.
Law enforcement, too, is an active area of development. We’re using the same devices and our Connected Car platform to create “virtual pounds” for traffic cops in the Middle East. When a vehicle is ordered off the road, the current costs of storing it at a police lot and being liable for damage are much higher than most people realise. Like ankle tags for offenders, on-board devices can put a vehicle under “house arrest”, alerting authorities if an engine is started or the vehicle is moved and reducing the costs of transport, storage and insurance to zero.
There are many other things that are possible – including automating fines for not fastening seatbelts or breaking the speed limit, for example – but also a lot still to be learned and understood. Can we balance smart traffic solutions with the driver’s right to privacy, for example, and is the security of the underlying platform strong enough?
What we do know is that all solutions will be driven by local needs, and with road-related fatalities and commuting times among the worst in the world, South Africa has desperate needs that need innovative solutions.