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Smart Infrastructure Will Let Us Breathe Easy

May 3, 2017 Robert Fischer, GTiMA President

It’s tough to gauge the benefits of a technology that isn’t live yet. Saying “we don’t know” is a lot safer.

While many of us are excited about the potential of autonomous vehicles to dramatically cut emissions and reduce the carbon footprint laid down by humanity, there are some researchers that are saying “hit the brakes”.

Sometimes these warnings are couched in studies that bring us good news. Within the past month, a report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) delivered some encouraging findings: by 2050, connected autonomous vehicles could reduce fuel consumption in cars by 44%. And just this week, the Institute for Transportation and Development policy released a report, along with a plan of action for vehicle electrification, automation, and ridesharing in urban areas –and they estimate the potential ceiling for reducing carbon emissions from automobiles at an astonishing 80%. In other words, the good news, when reported, is breathtakingly good.

But some continue to find ways to cast doubt on these findings. These reports come on the heels of another study published late last year by the Center for American Progress (CAP) that painted a bleaker picture – and the EIA study repeated the concerns raised by the CAP report. The summary of those concerns: “all this potential to reduce emissions could be wasted, and could be made worse than it is even today. It all depends on how people adapt to these vehicles.” These studies promote a wait-and-see approach. After all, they argue, what if people love AVs so much that they just ride around in them all day, thus exceeding the current average miles traveled per vehicle? This seems to be the top concern in both reports.

Good news. We do know already of existing technology that is proven to reduce emissions and is being deployed for that purpose worldwide. Transportation tech covers more than just the vehicles on the road, it extends to the roadways themselves – and how they’re managed.

So we don’t have to get involved in a hypothetical argument here. It may seem a little less futuristic and exciting than the idea of an AV automatically adjusting to limit emissions while driving, but smart city technology is already proven to cut emissions in a big way: up to 15% nationwide, once intelligent traffic systems are adopted on a wide scale. That data comes courtesy of a recent white paper by the National Center for Sustainable Transportation & The University of California-Davis.

15% may not seem like much, but the Climate Change Authority is calling for a 20% reduction in traffic-specific emissions. That means that even if people get addicted to their AVs and presumably overuse their vehicles, if they manage to reduce emissions even by 5%, we could meet that goal. And if – as we believe they will – AVs fulfill the promise to slash emissions by a third, we could end up exceeding the CCA’s goal.

So what are these complementary systems that offer such enticing benefits?

Intelligent traffic systems are just a piece of the smart city vision. But they’re also the systems that are the most developed. Cisco, Siemens and IBM all have comprehensive intelligent traffic systems on the market, as do many other companies. Many of the systems have been in place for some time, but their benefits aren’t known to most people. So what’s in an intelligent traffic system – how do the pieces fit together, and how does each play a role in cutting emissions?

Here are just a few examples — all of which rely on smart technology for dynamic minute-to-minute adjustments that allow them to reduce congestion and emissions at the maximum rate.

Traffic monitoring systems use sensors, wireless communication and real-time data processing to estimate traffic flow, density and speed. The information gathered by these systems can be used to improve management on the municipal side and can also help travelers find alternate routes when there’s a big load on the highway. These systems help reduce traffic congestion, which in turn cuts emissions.

Integrated corridor management uses techniques such as dynamic ramp metering for highway access ramps and advanced signal timing on arterial road networks, both of which promote improved traffic flow. Again: a reduction in congestion means fewer emissions.

Travel demand management uses dynamic pricing to increase toll costs for drivers who wish to use a highway when it’s badly congested. The supply and demand effect applied to roads naturally results in many drivers seeking alternate routes rather than pay a big toll. A reduction in congestion – you can guess what comes next, fewer emissions.

Some of these measures have been in place for some time. Even your E-Z pass for toll booths helps the environment. If you think those electronic payment systems are great because you get to speed through a toll booth more quickly, you’re not wrong. But that same freedom to move through the tollbooths without stopping does its own bit to cut congestion. Those passes take you out of the line of cars idling and waiting to throw their change in the basket. As with all these other examples, cutting down on cars idling on the highway does a big part to curb emissions. It’s a win-win for you and the environment.

These are just a sampling of traffic management systems we already see in use throughout the US. In most of these cases, smart technology is allowing city managers to take concepts they’ve put into practice already, but to maximize their effects. And those that have taken the time to make their systems dynamic have seen a big reduction in emissions.

Even if AVs don’t live up to the spectacular promise of slashing emissions by up to eighty percent – and, again, we believe they will – we’re seeing infrastructure incorporated on roadways throughout the world that are proven to cut emissions: without needing any more validation data, or any studies on how people will adapt to these advances.

So, no need to hold your breath: it looks like we’ll all be breathing easier.

Rob Fischer is President of GTiMA and a senior advisor to Mandli Communications’ strategy team. GTiMA and Mandli Communications are both proud partners of the Wisconsin Autonomous Vehicle Proving Ground.

Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.