Are our cars turning into smartphones with wheels?

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

May 20, 2019

via Flickr © That Hartford Guy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © That Hartford Guy (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • Juniper Research has been studying traffic smoothing solutions built into the traffic light infrastructure
  • These are already collectively saving billions of passenger vehicle miles of emissions
  • But the cars themselves are also hoovering up data. Privacy concerns may soon be in the fast lane

Juniper Research has been studying smart city traffic technology solutions deployed to ease chronic congestion in cities. It’s found that these will generate $4.4 billion in revenue in 2023, up from $2 billion in 2019.

These solutions typically use sensors in combination with machine learning software algorithms to dynamically alter traffic light phasing according to traffic levels thus smoothing urban traffic flows.

The finding is part of Juniper’s Smart Cities: Leading Platforms, Segment Analysis & Forecasts 2019-2023, which found the “technology-driven”  traffic solutions, which lower the emissions footprint of cities, will save the equivalent of over 780 billion passenger vehicle miles’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions over the forecast period.

Some cities are leading the charge. Juniper names Barcelona as number one for ‘Traffic Innovation Impact’ and found that the other global big cities (the usual suspects) were also being innovative. It claims the leading cities are:

  • Barcelona
  • San Francisco
  • Singapore
  • London
  • Portland, (Oregon)

Barcelona has clocked up a healthy lead by investing in  smart traffic solutions, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and policy, aimed at improving air quality and lowering private vehicle use. San Francisco shows strong policy and innovation, but the lack of regulation in regard to ride-hailing services has damaged its overall performance, the researchers claim.  

However Juniper points out that while ride-hailing services are widely blamed for increased congestion, these same companies have an opportunity to capitalise on the road towards future MaaS (Mobility-as-Service) deployments and redeem themselves.

“Entities such as Didi capture vast amounts of data in regard to congestion, traffic and passenger flows”, explained research author Steffen Sorrell. “Analysis of this data will be fundamentally useful in optimising the MaaS travelling salesman problem, and provides an opportunity for smart city data monetisation.”

But while the industry rubs its hands together in expectation of data ‘monetization’ from smart traffic systems, other voices are warning that we could be walking (I mean, riding) into a familiar privacy trap. An opinion article in today’s New York Times by Bill Hanvey, president and chief executive officer of the Auto Care Association, points out that cars today are “essentially smartphones with wheels.”

As such they are capable of collecting data by the bucketload (up to a staggering 25 gigabytes per DAY) and extracting remarkable (and perhaps unwanted) insights. Hanvey cites just a few of the data possibilities - he says our cars will tell on us if we speed, will know where we live and how many children we might have, who we call, and - the kicker - even how much we weigh and how much weight we’re gaining (intelligent suspension has turned the car into a bathroom scales!).

Which all leads to the conclusion that we may soon have to tick privacy waivers, just to drive.

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