Planning for a Transportation Network of the Future

Cleaner, smarter and more efficient transport hinges on coordination

Back in August 2020, Qualcomm outlined its vision for a new era of smart transportation in which roads, vehicles, infrastructure, people and cities are intelligently connected. It’s a bold concept and one fraught with complexity, as I will explain. However, I noted with interest how Qualcomm is working at a local level in San Diego as part of the San Diego Forward initiative for the city’s future of transportation. The chipmaker was one of several companies including Ford to participate in a recent meeting on this subject held by the San Diego Association of Governments.

Qualcomm is perhaps not the first company that leaps to mind when you think of smart transportation, but it does have a broad range of assets and a position in this ecosystem. Nor, by necessity, is it the only player. However, Qualcomm plays in a host of segments and technologies including, but not limited to, 5G, artificial intelligence, automotive, robotics, smartphones, location technologies, edge computing, smart city, data and analytics and industrial Internet of things (IoT). Its strengths in these areas put it in a position to look beyond product capabilities and feature sets to solutions focussed on a smarter, connected, automated and sustainable world.

I know this sounds broad, but these assets are highly complementary and greater than the sum of the parts. Connectivity, edge processing and artificial intelligence are bringing distinct segments — and people’s lives — closer together. For example, it’s impossible to separate the evolution of the smart city from the development of industrial IoT and the automotive sector, and the impact this has on the surrounding environment, because they’re increasingly interconnected. Similarly, implementation of a solution in one area will affect others. For this reason, planning and deployment of entire solutions must be coordinated.

This means that a vision of the future of transportation is much bigger than any one part. An autonomous driving platform is important but still just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. It doesn’t operate in a vacuum; development shouldn’t just focus on cars and how they operate in their immediate vicinity, but also how they function in a broader environment.

Road and city infrastructure must be considered and developed in parallel. This includes parking, traffic management systems, building design, building management, people flow, city planning and pedestrian zones, as well as support from other areas such as insurance, driver training, regulation and legal frameworks for liability. There’s also a huge amount of work in managing people’s attitudes and behaviours, to help build smooth adoption of the technology. The effective management of all these stakeholders is illustrated by Zenzic in the UK (see Zenzic Maps Out Road to Autonomous Vehicles).

A good example of a technology that acts as the glue between a vehicle and its wider surroundings is cellular vehicle-to-everything communication, or C-V2X. It connects the vehicle to infrastructure like traffic lights, other vehicles, pedestrians, or a parking garage, for example. Similarly, artificial intelligence is a critical component that not only enables a vehicle to make decisions according to its location and surroundings, but that will also play a central role in predicting traffic flows to boost efficiencies and assist city planning. This scenario will play out with 5G as the connectivity fabric that this network will be built on.

Two recent announcements highlight the role of 5G and C-V2X. Audi of America has partnered with Applied Information, Blue Bird, Fulton County School System, City of Alpharetta, Qualcomm and Temple to bring solutions based on C-V2X to school zones and school buses, in an effort to prevent the more than 25,000 injuries and 100 deaths that occur in school zones and at school bus stops in the US each year. To reduce the risk of accidents, the technology warns drivers when they’re entering an active school zone or approaching a school bus.

Additionally, Jacobs Engineering Group, the city of Peachtree Corners in Georgia, and Qualcomm announced joint efforts to deploy end-to-end smart solutions in one of the first smart city environments powered by 5G connectivity in the US. The partners are working to roll out technology solutions to Peachtree Corners, focussing initially on roadside infrastructure and traffic management with the implementation of C-V2X technology.

There are, of course, a host of other conditions that need to be in place to create such a network, not least security. For this reason, an architectural, system-level approach is the best way to build a transportation network of the future. It requires companies with a coherent vision that reaches across these various elements.

No single company can realistically pledge to have all the necessary parts. In this respect, Qualcomm’s various assets are a good starting point, but its ability to work with partners and expand the market opportunity are equally important, as we saw with its contributions to the growth and diversity of the Android platform.

But there’s an important difference to the smartphone market. Segments such as smart city require support from local governments and city-by-city engagement, in stark contrast to the centralized regulatory system for smartphones. Any participant needs to show an awareness of these dynamics and a strategy to address the fragmentation. This requires partners, patience and commitment.

This is why Qualcomm’s approach is notable and worth watching closely. This is arguably the first time that the technology industry has tried to spearhead such an exercise by coordinating so many different stakeholders. The introduction of major infrastructure projects from transportation to nuclear power have not historically been led by the tech sector.

In this brave new world, the technology industry must show that it can coordinate with multiple stakeholders with different time horizons and adapt to unfamiliar planning and deployment cycles. A vision of this complexity calls on the long-term thinking that the tech industry is known for, but we must avoid hyping solutions before they’re ready.

This is an exciting time. Success hinges on broad collaboration as much as the underlying technology.