Autonomous Cars in the Smart City

The smart city of the future requires a holistic approach that combines traditional city planning, such as the 15-minute city concept, with new technologies, like autonomous vehicles, and nature, such as vertical and city farms, to create a better quality of life for citizens.

The city of Hangzhou is located in south-eastern China. Exactly it is in the Zhejiang Province and directly at the West Lake, acknowledged for its natural beauty and historic relics. First settlements started here around 7,000 years ago. Today, 9,8 million people are living directly in the city, 21 million in the greater Hangzhou metropolitan area. Besides its history, it continuously evolved to stay relevant, for example it hosts the headquarters of the Chinese internet giant Alibaba. Thanks to the combination of modern industries, history and lifestyle, the city attracts talents to work and live here. Alibaba and Hangzhou form a symbiotic relationship. The company supports the local government with modern technology and processes.

One of Alibaba’s ambitious projects is the “ET City Brain”, which should empower cities to think with data-driven governance. Sensors and databases get connected with a sophisticated algorithm to optimize the usage of the limited natural, police, hydropower, medical, administrative and road resources.

The motivation for the city was the requirement to reduce its traffic, as Hangzhou ranked in 2015 as the fifth city in China with the most traffic. Due to this, it started to install hundreds of thousands of cameras, and combined them with the data from the transportation bureau, public transportation, systems, and a mapping application. The local government authorized access for Alibaba, so that in the beginning of the project the company could control 104 traffic lights. The results had been an increased 15% of traffic speed in the first twelve months of operation. The algorithm maximizes the benefit of the group in opposite to the individual. This as the average flow gets maximized, which can lead in single cases to the fact that individual drivers may get slowed down.

Creating the smart city of the future cannot rely only on new technologies; traditional city planning skills stay required or even must be rediscovered.

Ironically, it would be the rise of autonomous cars which could lead to the next level of integration. As these vehicles connect with the internet, their board-computers could be aligned with the city’s complex algorithm inside the Cloud. In the benefit of the group, the individual car would, based on regulations, have to give up its authority. Due to safety, this would be even more relevant if flying cars and drones would become part of the urban traffic.

As the central computer also connects to the police resources, it can go one step further. As seen in “Minority Report” (based on Philip K. Dick’s short story with the same name), the computer may remotely bring an individual car to a complete stop or control it to follow a police vehicle. Based on a “social score” (including negative points due to traffic violations) individual drivers may access fast-lanes and short-cuts.

For other regular scenarios, ambulances and other rescue units can receive an automated preference. Traffic lights would get controlled accordingly or individual cars around slowed down. The individual traffic would turn into a hive.

The city’s algorithm can furthermore connect to the software of logistics companies, which do the same on a lower level, as they control their autonomous trucks to optimize just-in-time delivery. With this, the two systems align.
Not able to precisely control the machine or just not willing to do so, the human driver would disturb the perfect synchronization of the hive. Only when leaving the city limits, the city brain would return autonomy to the self-driving car or even directly to its driver.

"A higher level of nature inside the cities does not only support the quality of air and cooling down temperatures, but also has a direct positive impact on human psychology"

But creating the smart city of the future cannot rely only on new technologies, traditional city planning skills stay required or even must be rediscovered. To reduce traffic, citizen should be able to satisfy most of regular needs in walking distance. “The 15-minute city”-concept defines that from any point of the city, services, walk, shopping, education, healthcare and leisure should be in 15 minutes distance by foot or bike. This not only to reduce traffic and related environmental impact, but also to improve well-being and quality of life. Holistic thinking is required, as planning should align with new ways of working, including home-office and digital nomads.

After more than 100 years in discussion, a Brazilian jury selected in 1956 the architect and city planner Lucio Costa to design and construct the city’s new capital Brasilia. Costa teamed up with his friend and fellow architect Oscar Niemeyer. The two understood the power of symbolism and designed the new capital in the progressive form of a gigantic airplane. The new citizens should live in the cross-axials (wings). Inside the axials, each section consisted of apartment buildings grouped around a small place surrounded by neighborhood shops. The plane’s cockpit had been reserved for the governmental functions and various monuments.

Inspiration can come even from further back in history, like the famous hanging gardens of Babylon. A higher level of nature inside the cities does not only support the quality of air and cooling down temperatures, but also has a direct positive impact on human psychology. In addition, city and vertical farms may cover at least a small part of citizens’ nutrient needs.

Considering these different angles, the smart city of the future combines human experience & ingenuity with Artificial Intelligence’s interconnection of data, sensors and algorithms.