Transportation Technology Eases the Commute FEATURE
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Whether it's frustrated commuters stuck in a jam or electric vehicle owners looking for somewhere to eat while they charge their car, the Internet of Everything has something to transform the commuter's experience and keep the wheels turning.

In congested cities, smart transport (connected vehicles and infrastructure) has great potential to reduce bottlenecks, cut carbon emissions, and save people a lot of time and stress. Street lights, pop-up bollards and other traffic control devices can be controlled remotely in response to traffic flow issues, adverse weather conditions, or in emergencies.

The UK is currently a hotbed of activity, as research institutes, start-ups and established consultancy firms identify opportunities to use the Internet of Things (IoT) to tackle ageing infrastructure and congestion in overpopulated areas.

Easing the Pressure on Public Transport Services

For scheduled train or bus services, intelligence gathered from vehicles makes it easier to monitor and improve performance – through adjustments to timetables, adding extra capacity or services at peak times, or communicating to customers so they can make alternative arrangements.

Predictive maintenance is a prominent area too, because of the substantial cost and time savings to infrastructure owners and service providers if breakdowns can be avoided. Here, information fed back from vehicles and infrastructure can trigger pre-emptive repairs and advanced contingency measures, where the earliest signs of problems are picked up.

As we reported last summer, London Underground expects a 30 per cent increase in efficiency from using IoT to prioritize maintenance work. Widely distributed sensors connected to a centralized facility in the cloud will monitor its 151-year-old subterranean transport system, including escalators and elevators as well as rolling stock.

See Also: How Smart Highways Can Save Energy and Lives

“Although the transport sector has used remote monitoring for some time, IoT makes this viable for a wider range of assets because it pushes down the cost and makes it quicker to implement services,” says John Hicklin, head of IoT at IT services firm CGI, which has been involved in a number of early projects including London Underground. The maturing of the cloud, the low cost of sensors, and the growing accessibility of analytics have all played a part, he explains. Now, actionable insight can be delivered to lots of different people across a business.

CGI is working with national rail providers in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands on using IoT to improve operational efficiency, not only through more targeted maintenance, but also through advanced scheduling. With improved scheduling and a more personalized, predictable service that spans multiple forms of travel, congested cities could encourage more people to use public rather than private transport, relieving the pressure on roads. This is something the company has been piloting with Transport for Greater Manchester in the north of England.

In Scotland, Glasgow looked to intelligent traffic flow to help optimize transport use during 2014’s Commonwealth Games.

It may not be only cities that can benefit, either. At Lancaster University, in the north-west of England, researchers are exploring how they might bring ‘smart city’ principles to the countryside, where environmental events such as extreme weather and flooding can lock in communities and affect transport.

Follow That Car!

But the travelling public has other concerns beyond simply getting from A to B. A new company, Seamless, is among those poised to take advantage, with a simple yet practical IoT solution for drivers.  It builds on the concept of the remotely controlled car alarm, offering companies and consumers a simple way to monitor where a vehicle is and to share this information with selected people.

Co-founder Dan Frost explains: “If I’ve parked at an airport, and my wife is coming to pick me up she can find the car easily without either of us having to remember which zone and row it’s in. If my daughter borrows the car, I can see that she’s parked it safely. And, because I live in the city and don’t use my car very much during the week, I now have the option to loan it out knowing that I can keep track of it and that it will be kept secure.”

If someone does tamper with the car, the owner is alerted and can take action. But, day to day, the driver can use the system to share their location information with family or friends – for example so they can monitor the person’s progress on a journey. (The feature can also be turned off, and recipients added or removed at any time).

Further down the line, Seamless will look at extending the app to incorporate other data and services, so that offers can be made to customers based on their driving habits, Frost says. “That will be very powerful.”

Driving Electric Vehicle Take-Up

Charge Your Car (CYC)  is another service provider which agrees that the biggest business potential lies in IoT in these value-added opportunities. It is a pay-as-you-go electric vehicle recharging network, which uses IoT to connect drivers of electric cars to information about nearby charging facilities. It also provides services for charge-point owners.

Although not on a par with parts of the US, or Norway, the UK is making good headway in its adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). Launched in 2010 in the north-east of England, CYC is rapidly becoming a nationwide network with over 2,000 free- or pay-to-use charge points already connected, and more being added each month.

A single RFID card provides access to all charge points on the network, and a special app lets EV drivers find and use charge points with a registered debit/credit card.

In an already competitive field, CYC believes its use of IoT gives the company an edge. “We’re leading the way as we were first, and the first to offer pay-as-you-go charging without the need for an RFID card,” says Alexandra Prescott, CYC’s operations director. “We also use interactive voice and a smartphone app to locate a post, start and stop the charging, and pay. Hadrian’s Wall and Cornwall are the only two areas that need to be hardwired. Everywhere else works from SIM cards.”

A community of around 4,000 people using CYC’s charge points, and its output has doubled to 2m kilowatt hours over the last year. As the number of electric vehicles increases, new drivers are signing up to the service at a rate of 400 a month.

IoT will become even more crucial to CYC’s business model as it branches out into ancillary services. “There’s no real money in selling electricity from what is essentially a sophisticated plug on a stick,” Prescott notes. “The key to long-term success will be the other things we can do. We envisage a time where, if I’m going shopping, the app will plot my route and reserve a charging post somewhere where I’ll have lunch.”

CYC’s revenue stream could be a percentage of anything spent by the driver as they wait for their car to charge, she explains. “We’ll act as a broker, working with partners to deliver more for our customers. With increased interoperability, when you use your smartphone app geo-location information will be able to identify where you are, so a local retailer can send you an SMS voucher for 20 percent off the price of a meal or cup of coffee while your vehicle is charging.”

Other possibilities include smart metering, using the app to discover the cheapest time to charge a car, or accessing services that guide you to a parking space. “Once everything comes together in this way, the potential is vast,” Prescott says.

Bridging the Gaps Between Different Modes of Transport

For Seamless, the company name is a nod to where the founders see IoT’s impact being strongest in transport – ie making travel a much smoother experience. “I took a train today, which involved using plastic to buy a bit of paper, which I then had to scan to get through the barrier,” Frost says.

“We need to get to a point when I can pay with my phone, with an app that knows where I’m going and will sort out my journey for me – showing me where the bus is, if the train is late, the capacity on those vehicles, and my best options for getting where I want to be. We’re not there yet; there’s a lot of ‘clunkiness’ that still needs to be addressed.  Booking flights and trains across Europe is still too complex – it needs to be much more seamless, end to end. But we’ll get there.”

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About Sue Tabbitt

Sue Tabbitt is a technology journalist who covers IT and telecommunications.