The Internet of Things and the Future of Driving

From Zachary Ahlgrim 10/1/2018

Everyone has to do it at some point in their lives, but no one enjoys it. I’m talking of course about sitting in traffic. In fact, it has been estimated that the average American commuter spends nearly 42 hours per year in traffic, which equates to nearly $1,400 lost in fuel that’s burned while idling; and that’s just one of the many grievances that can end turn our daily drives into a headache.

Existing and emerging technologies, specifically relating to the “Internet of Things” (IoT), are poised to change the way we drive forever. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the IoT and what it means for future road-going Americans.

What is the IoT?

Before we get into how IoT will change the way we drive, it makes sense to offer a brief definition of the IoT. When put simply, the IoT is nothing more than an array of various sensors that send data to a centralized computer system for processing. These sensors harvest massive amounts of data, which is then sent to cloud-based applications for analysis in real- or near-real time. The output from these sensors is often analyzed with the aid of artificial intelligence and used to translate these reams of data into actionable insights. How is this mountain of data and the IoT poised to change the way we drive? The technological advancements of tomorrow will ensure the roadways of the future will look nothing like they do today.

Traffic Lights Are Getting Smarter

If the traffic signals of the future are going to be “smart” through the use of IoT sensors and artificial intelligence, the stoplights we have today are pretty “dumb” by comparison. Modern traffic signals in use today operate off of two basic methodologies, fixed time and vehicle actuation.

A fixed time signal is just that. Each direction (called an approach in the industry) gets a fixed amount of time where traffic is allowed to pass before the adjacent traffic is shown a green light. This setup gives each approach the same amount of time on a green light, which is inefficient if one approach is heavily trafficked, but the other is not.

Vehicle actuation is the other commonly employed method of operation for traffic signals. Vehicle actuation works by taking the demand for each approach and adjusting the green time accordingly. In this setup, minimum and maximum green time is set to take into account differences in demand. While better than fixed-time signaling, vehicle actuation requires municipalities to constantly update their minimum and maximum green time. Few cities and towns have the resources to do this, which leads to traffic signals becoming less accurate over time.

The traffic signals of the future are poised to fix the inefficiencies of the technology that is currently used. “Smart” (adaptive) traffic signals use optical or in-ground sensors that are able to actively detect the number of cars waiting at a given approach. This data, coupled with the aggregate wait time for each direction of traffic is processed with the assistance of artificial intelligence to minimize wait times and maximize vehicle throughput.

As of 2015, only 3 percent of traffic signals in the United States use adaptive technology. Despite relatively low install numbers, cities who have made the switch to adaptive technology have already seen the benefits of their implementation. Bellevue, Washington made the switch to adaptive traffic signals and saw a 36 percent decrease in peak rush hour traffic.

Infrastructure Will Start "Talking"

Over ten years ago, we witnessed the effects of our country’s crumbling infrastructure when the Interstate 35W bridge that spanned the Mississippi River collapsed. While the structural failure of the bridge was eventually traced back to a design flaw, the collapse could have possibly been prevented with smart sensors and artificial intelligence.

In the future, steel beams and other materials used to construct bridges may be outfitted with sensors that relay information regarding stress levels, cracks, and other relevant information to Department of Transportation (DOT) officials who can analyze the data to make actionable decisions about whether a bridge should be repaired, replaced, or closed entirely.

Inclimate Weather Will Have Nowhere to Hide

It’s estimated that of the nearly six million automobile accidents that occur in the US each year, some 1.3 million of those involved hazardous driving conditions. In fact, weather-related accidents cause nearly 5,900 deaths each year. While presently-available technology has given us advances like rain-sensing windshield wiper blades, the future of connected technology goes even farther.

Now, imagine a future where IoT sensors are placed in roadways, on bridges, and highways. These sensors would be able to record information about roadway conditions such as flooding, surface temperature, and wind conditions. This data could then be analyzed and used to notify drivers beforehand and re-route them if necessary. For example, if IoT sensors on a bridge detected the roadway’s surface temperature was below freezing, it could notify incoming drivers to expect icy conditions. Future technology could even alert DOT officials who could dispatch additional salt trucks to the affected area.

Fully-Autonomous Driving (For Real)

One of the most significant applications for IoT sensor technology is in the field of autonomous driving. Today’s autonomous vehicles use optical sensors and near-field technology to detect traffic conditions and direct the vehicle based on these inputs. The autonomous driving technology of the future will take create a fully-connected system where vehicles share data with one another, traffic lights, stop signs, and the roadways themselves.

The automobiles of the future will use IoT sensors everywhere that potentially useful data can be captured. Unlike the cars of today, that store data locally on the vehicle’s onboard computer, this data will be hosted on the cloud and analyzed using artificial intelligence. This data will then be used by automakers, drivers, and third-party services to enhance aspects of the driving experience. Cars will alert drivers when they need maintenance eliminating breakdowns. The time that used to be spent driving will instead be used to read books, surf the web, or even take a nap. Car accidents will be virtually eliminated. While we’re still years away from fully-autonomous driving, automakers are beginning to implement the technologies that will make human drivers a thing of the past.

Many cars on the market today offer adaptive cruise control features and Tesla automobiles have an option allowing for autonomous highway travel.

Help Create the Future of Travel

These are just a few of the potential applications for IoT sensor technology in the automotive industry. As technology continues to progress, new breakthroughs will bring advances that are currently incomprehensible. While we can’t say for certain exactly what the future of driving will look like, but one thing is for sure; the future of driving sounds pretty great.

Interested in working on autonomous driving or artificial intelligence? Black Diamond Networks works with Fortune 1000 and startup companies making autonomous driving possible. View our open jobs today or call 1.800.681.4734 to get started today!