Future proofing the world’s transportation systems

InnovationProfessor Christoph Stiller, vice president of the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society, examines solutions for meeting the challenges of increased traffic demands

Last weekend I got stuck in one of those traffic jams that we have all come to know and dread, and as I sat stationary in my car for what seemed like hours I witnessed my mood moving from impatience to weary resignation.

With the traffic situation looking likely to get worse and worse in years to come, maybe I should just get used to the queues?  After all, how can our transportation systems be expected to cope under the daily stress we put them under?

You only have to have picked up a paper recently to have noticed that the state of the global road network has been cause for much concern. Perhaps the most high-profile example of the strain suffered by a transport infrastructure of late is the recent traffic jam in China, which saw more than 10,000 vehicles stuck end to end on the motorway between Beijing and Tibet. The cause of this colossal blockage, which took an extraordinary nine days to clear, is largely attributed to road works that had been put in place to repair damage caused by a huge increase in cargo lorries using the route.

This shows the circular nature of the problems caused by heaping pressure on an existing transport route. Beijing residents no doubt enjoyed Car-Free Day on 22nd September, an occasion observed by over 110 cities around China.

Urban trend

Serious traffic problems affect many areas worldwide, although the problem is undoubtedly more pronounced in urban areas, where pressure on the available space and resources is intensified. Recently, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs stated: “The urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth predicted over the next four decades while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population.”

This trend towards urbanisation can clearly be seen in the vast increase of cities that host more than 10 million inhabitants. For those that live in a small town like me, it’s hard to imagine such a vast number of people in one place. Nevertheless, predictions for an urban population explosion are not just restricted to developing regions. In 2050, 85 per cent of all Europeans and 90 per cent of all Americans are predicted to be living in cities.

Such inflated figures would place an even bigger burden on our already strained transport systems. We are well aware of the need to cut CO2 emissions and non-sustainable energy consumption, however, we also face challenges which have not been previously addressed, such as how to reduce space consumption by vehicles for parking and driving, or how to manage traffic flow in megacities.

In-car solutions
One solution for optimising available space in congested urban centres has been the development of in-car technology, which enables drivers to park accurately in small spaces. For example, electronic sensing units may be integrated into the rear and front bumpers to allow the driver to evaluate the exact size of the parking space.

This new generation parking system is achieved by an advanced and complex geometric computation, and is even capable of controlling the steering during parking, while the driver regulates the speed. Despite these advances, still more technology is required to combat excessive consumption of both physical space, and increasingly scarce fuel resources.

Whilst this is clearly a step in the right direction, unfortunately it does not matter how much space you save when people continue to own more than one vehicle per household. Despite an increasing awareness of the environmental and financial costs of running more than one car, government transport statistics reveal a trend towards multi-car households.

Equally, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics, the number of cars on British roads with an engine size of more than two litres has doubled from around two million in 1999 to four million today.

Rethinking mobility

More than 120 years after the invention of the automobile, we are in desperate need of a radical rethink of our mobility concepts. The problem is one that faces us all, not just those in the car manufacturing business. We all need to change our attitudes and habits towards mobility and transport.

Throughout the world there are various initiatives dedicated to finding solutions for future mobility, although these are mainly on a regional or national scale. However, one organisation which is taking a slightly different approach is the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society, which gathers volunteer engineers and interdisciplinary experts from all over the world to conduct joint research and find solutions on an international level. The Society deals with theoretical, experimental and operational aspects of electrical and electronics engineering and information technologies for application to Intelligent Transport Systems, defined as those systems utilising synergistic technologies and systems engineering concepts to develop and improve transportation systems of all kinds.

Electric vehicles
Thanks to all the ongoing research, there are numerous potential solutions for intelligent transportation systems within reach. Most of the current research is conducted into electric vehicles. Just a few years ago, these cars might have seemed like the stuff of fantasy, but there are a number of high-profile car manufacturers, including Nissan, Daimler, BMW and Toyota, that have invested a great deal of time and research into electric or hybrid vehicles, some of which have been heralded as the early pioneers of zero emission motoring.

Electric vehicles do represent a long term solution but they also necessitate finding a separate solution for supplying all the electricity required. After all, this technology will only make sense as a viable solution when electric power can be produced in a CO2 neutral way. Otherwise, modern diesel engines emit less CO2 per kilometre than an electric vehicle whose power is generated by today’s mixture of fossil, nuclear, and regenerative power plants.

Fuel savings

In the short and midterm, enhancements to public transportation and driver assistance systems that help individual traffic to avoid sharp acceleration/deceleration and idling offer the most effective solutions. The latter employ new technologies such as radar, laser, and video traffic sensing to perceive the vehicles’ environment and wireless vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications to understand the current traffic situation.

Based on this information, speed recommendations help drivers to harmonise their driving with both the traffic light cycles and the traffic situation, thus yielding fuel and CO2 savings of up to 14 per cent.

Additional savings can be reached through cooperative adjustment of traffic light cycles with the actual traffic flow. Up to 25 per cent of fuel and the vast majority of traffic space can be saved through tight convoy driving of vehicles on highways. Clearly, in such a situation, vehicles need to be able to react to the possible deceleration of the vehicle in front within a couple of milliseconds, which is only possible with communication links and automatic driving.

Cognitive vehicles
Vehicles equipped with this sort of technology are known as cognitive vehicles. Add another layer of intuition to these machines and you have fully automated vehicles.

Google has received a great deal of media attention recently as the New York Times recently broke the story of a secret Google testing operation to develop a self-driving car that could navigate through highway traffic and street conditions based on code developed by engineers. Numerous academic and industrial research institutions pursue similar projects.

Regular meetings and conferences of the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society, show the tremendous work in progress. Nevertheless, substantial fundamental research is still needed in this field. It is likely to be about two more decades before autonomous vehicles are readily available to the general public. However, the fact that the major technology exists for this idea and that some components are even successfully tested today shows the incredible advances that are being made in the field of intelligent transport.

Research collaboration
Other future solutions include automated cooperative driving functions that will further reduce acceleration/deceleration and consume less traffic space for driving, and eco-routing, which considers fuel consumption and emissions during navigation. To foster international research collaboration, the Grand Cooperative Driving Challenge (GCDC) has been launched. In this scientific competition leading international teams will compete for the best cooperative driving strategies and demonstrate technical feasibility and benefits.

It is an exciting time to be involved in intelligent transportation research and in an industry which is evolving every day – as you read this article an electric powered autonomous vehicle is on a three month trip from Italy to the Expo 2010 in China.

So imagine a city where radio traffic reports say: “Everything is clear and there are no hold-ups.” Where getting from one location to another can be done in the minimum possible time and where centres even function without any traffic lights. The reality of this might be closer than you think!

Christoph Stiller is a professor at KIT – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany. He is also vice president of the IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Society, the international non-profit association of engineers working on transportation technologies.

For more information:
Web: ewh.ieee.org/tc/its

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