Ram Ramachander, chief digital officer & chief commercial officer, Social Innovation Business, Hitachi Europe Ltd, argues that IoT and autonomous vehicles will be critical to making our cities ‘liveable’ in future. We need to start thinking now about how we can best cut pollution and congestion while improving safety.

With 70% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, congested cities are set to become more difficult to get around. This is not just a matter of inconvenience: the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates congestion will cost the UK economy as much as £307 billion (€346.33 billion) by 2030 through a combination of time wasted, fuel cost and environmental damage.

Emissions from stationary cars also create pollution: London’s air pollution had reached the legal limit for the entire year by the end of January. It is estimated that nearly 10,000 people die because of air pollution in London annually.

Pollution and congestion are exacerbated by deliveries of goods and supplies. Cities will account for over 50% of global consumption by 2025 and already the last mile of eCommerce deliveries are straining urban roads’ capacity. Logistics companies need faster, cleaner delivery mechanisms.

The answer is autonomous vehicle technology and IoT, but for them to succeed, companies must continue to invest in R&D, supported by effective government legislation. In addition, removing the human element of driving will improve safety. Tests show autonomous vehicles’ reaction times are faster than humans, and machines don’t get tired or drunk. Furthermore, electric autonomous vehicles will reduce air pollution, improving air quality in cities and making them healthier places to live.

Moving people – the driverless horizon

In the next 20 years, autonomous vehicles will need investment such as in sensors in road infrastructure, hence they will probably mostly operate in confined urban environments. This is expected to lead to a business model of shared robotic taxis, with the cost recouped through continuous use, rather than privately owned vehicles, reducing the number on the roads.

Road capacity will be maximised as the vehicles can safely travel much closer together than those driven by humans: traffic will flow more freely, thanks to technology the vehicle communicating with surrounding infrastructure. This will also enable smarter route planning and driving techniques. Early development of this technology has seen the UK trialling new, smart traffic lights to minimise stop-start travel.

By advising drivers about the speed they should travel to reach the next set of lights as they turn green, congestion and emissions should be reduced. Smart traffic lights are an example of a private company and government working together to prove the value of this technology and ultimately solve a problem.

Moving goods – hands free from start to finish

The exponential growth in eCommerce, and the expectation of instant and same-day delivery, has contributed to congestion and vehicles idling as the driver makes a delivery plus the use of older vehicle models contributes to pollution. Autonomous vehicles can deliver the ever-increasing number of goods without increasing carbon emissions, by making the last part of the supply chain more efficient and sustainable.

Vehicles powered by clean energy will improve air quality and the use of robots and drones will free space on the road as they take to the pavements or the skies. Their widespread adoption and deployment is some way off, but they are being extensively tested.

After successful trials, Starship Technologies, a developer of small, self-driving robotic delivery vehicles, is planning to expand its operations in the UK from two projects to 20 and aspiring to a fleet of 1,000 robots by 2019. According to McKinsey, we should prepare for a world where autonomous vehicles deliver 80% of parcels.

More traditional vehicles will transport goods over longer distances. The introduction of autonomous, electric-powered vehicles will help to improve the sustainability and efficiency of logistics outside of urban areas. The UK government, for example, is running a trial of a platoon of self-driving trucks on public roads in 2018.

Connected by Wi-Fi, the trucks will follow the lead of the head truck which will result in less braking and could cut carbon emissions by 10%. This is just the start – truck platooning and autonomous trucks are set to be functional within 10 years. Companies should be developing a business case for the technology now.

Moving forward

New technologies have huge potential to address the challenges facing cities today, including greatly lowering carbon emissions. The role of government and companies is to turn the potential into reality. We need proven use cases and all stakeholders should work together to improve their outcomes. This collaboration coupled with effective legislation will make a substantial difference to urban environments.

You can read Hitachi and Frost & Sullivan’s recent whitepaper on Urban Transport & Logistics here

The author of this blog is Ram Ramachander, chief digital officer & chief commercial officer, Social Innovation Business, Hitachi Europe Ltd

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