The roads of the future will be able to manage traffic congestion much better than today’s networks, according to an Ofcom report released today.
The report, which discusses the future of technology as part of the Internet of Things (IoT) — a fancy word for devices that talk to each over WiFi without requiring human interaction — imagines a time 10 to 30 years down the line where cars can communicate with each other to control traffic.
The transport technology is one illustration of steps Ofcom plans to make to ensure the UK plays a leading role in developing IoT, an idea thought to be worth billions for companies. It follows Ofcom’s Spectrum plans, which made the UK one of the first countries in Europe to operate a “machine to machine” (M2M) program. M2M means devices with Artificial Intelligence, such as higher-functioning cars, talk to each other over WiFi.
“Working with industry and Government, Ofcom wants to create a regulatory environment which fosters investment and innovation in the emerging IoT,” Ofcom said in a media release. This would result in “billions of smart gadgets and devices wirelessly connected to the internet and each other.”
One of the ways IoT can benefit the UK is “Intelligent Transport Systems” (ITS). Ofcom’s vision is a world where cars communicate with each other, making travelling from A to B “smoother and safer.” It says these systems could be in place in the next 10-30 years.
Sensors would be fitted in cars and placed on roads. These would monitor congestion and wirelessly send information to a “central traffic control system,” a hub that compiles data to feed back to vehicles on the road. If there’s lots of traffic, for example, the control system would be told over WiFi and react by imposing speed limits.
The sensors on vehicles would feed back to on-board computers. Cars would also be able to communicate with other cars. This would produce a “shockwave effect,” Ofcom explains, where a line of cars brake and accelerate in unison. Fragmented movement on motorways is a “significant cause of congestion,” Ofcom says. Today, drivers themselves react to transport systems: warning signs on bridges, real-time information on digital alert boards. But these rely on drivers themselves, Ofcom notes, and the IoT would allow people to sit back and let their vehicles do the work in sync. (Though drivers are still needed to steer the car in all of these scenarios.)
The government estimates road congestion costs Britain more than £7 billion a year, according to the Ofcom report. But with smarter transport systems, the organisation says traffic can be better managed and controlled. Reducing congestion by as little as 15% could provide savings of more than £1 billion a year, Ofcom claims. Reducing rush-hour traffic would also mean fewer roads need to be built, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
Other benefits to these measures could be parking guidance. Rather than driving around looking for a space, drivers might be assigned spaces as they approach town centres and told which vacant spot to go to.
Ofcom is not the only organisation working on ITS. Japanese car manufacturer Nissan is also taking steps to use the IoT to make it happen.
On Nissan’s website, the company says the technology could help cars take the shortest possible route, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. It could even warn drivers about school zones to avoid going into busy areas with lots of children, and even cooperate with pedestrians’ mobile phones to alert drivers and help them navigate fewer hazards.
ITS United Kingdom, an organisation with the sole purpose to seeing intelligent transport developed, has similar aims to Ofcom. The group highlights how telecoms can combine with WiFi to help structure and deliver better efficiency for consumers, companies, and the environment as a whole.
ITS expands on the uses of the technology. It says individual vehicles, freight, and public transport can all be improved by online information and communication between drivers and a central information hub. ITS for buses, trains, and passengers themselves will combine to make travelling easier and less stressful. It also mentions less air and noise pollution as a result — even talking about traffic free zones in cities. The EU is also looking into ITS.
Ofcom notes that in 2015 there are already over 40 million devices in the UK alone connected via the IoT. This is forecast to grow more than 8 times by 2022. By 2020, it’s expected that up to 50 billion “smart” devices worldwide — from cars to coffee machines to combine harvesters — could be connected to the internet by 2020.
And it’s not just the transport industry. The authority adds that applications include developing “smart farming,” where fertiliser and water are automatically distributed across a farm to increase efficiency, to “smart energy grids,” which match power generated to consumers’ actual electricity needs.
Acting Ofcom CEO Steve Unger said it a statement: “The Internet of Things will bring benefits to a range of sectors and could change the way we live our lives. As a result of this growth, we have listened closely to industry and want to develop a framework for this technology to evolve in a way which will ultimately benefit citizens and consumers.”