Big brother takes the wheel

‘Smart roads’ would take the task of driving out of the hands of human drivers.

The highway getting a bit too congested? No problem. In the world envisaged by the regulators in the U.K., the government will simply take control of your steering wheel to take you to an off-ramp and then an alternate route.

Are rubberneckers slowing down traffic as they gawk at an accident by the side of the road? That same government will maintain cars at an even speed, as if the drivers’ feet never eased up on the accelerator. Thinking of speeding? The government is not only mulling controls to remotely prevent drivers from exceeding the legal speed limit, it plans to change speed limits on the fly where necessary to keep traffic free flowing.

These innovations, recently approved by Ofcom, the U.K. regulator over the communications industry, will begin to be road tested later this year, in a joint venture with the Ministry of Transport, British Telecom and Neul, a Cambridge-based technology firm. Through wireless communication between autos and road sensors over an 80-kilometer stretch of the A14 highway, the road operators will obtain the data needed to analyze and manage traffic flow. In as little as 10 years from now, Ofcom expects to begin to capture a world of benefits for the U.K.:

“The Government estimates that road congestion costs the British economy more than £7-billion a year. Reducing congestion by as little as 15% through the introduction of intelligent transport systems could provide savings of more than £1-billion a year,” it explains.

“Equally, by reducing ‘rush hour’ congestion, the need to build more roads will be reduced, delivering additional savings. There are also environmental benefits, including a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.”

But auto-related benefits represent a merest of beginnings. The trucking industry, and the manufacturers and distributors of the goods, stand to benefit even more as raw materials and other manufacturing inputs in our ever-more elaborate global supply chain are reliably scheduled, avoiding costly delays and the financing costs that accompany them.

This system, dubbed “smart roads,” is but one aspect of Ofcom’s suite of ambitions, which foresees a smart grid “that intelligently manages the power being generated from renewable or local energy sources with consumer demand for electricity, [reducing] reliance on large power stations to meet dips in supply and peaks in demand.” And smart farms that distribute fertilizer, fodder and water “across the farm in the right quantities, in the right places, and at the right time.” And smart health — “intelligent pill boxes and wearable sensors that monitor the health of patients and automatically trigger an alert if a problem arises,” leading to a 20% reduction in emergency hospital admissions and saving the nation an estimated £500-million a year.

These smart solutions — whose backers include Microsoft and Google among the many who have already signed onto Ofcom’s grand plan — are themselves but elements in the master plan, known as the Internet of Things. Originally conceived at MIT and now pushed by Cambridge University and Neul, the Internet of Things plans to connect all things as well as people, by assigning all with a unique address.

“Imagine things having identities and virtual personalities operating in smart spaces using intelligent interfaces to connect and communicate within social, environmental, and user contexts,” states the European Union report, The Internet of Things in 2020: Roadmap for the Future. “We have a clear vision — to create a world where every object — from jumbo jets to sewing needles — is linked to the Internet.”

The report predicts that “the Internet of things will become a reality over the next 20 years; with omnipresent smart devices wirelessly communicating over hybrid and ad-hoc networks of devices, sensors and actuators working in synergy to improve the quality of our lives and consistently reducing the ecological impact of mankind on the planet.”

But, it stresses, quoting Cambridge University’s Helen Duce: “Compelling as this place vision is, it is only achievable if this system is adopted by everyone everywhere – success will be nothing less than global adoption.”

This adoption, says Cisco, a major proponent of the Internet of Things, is already well underway, with things added to the Internet at a rate of 80 per second. It estimates that the world now has 1.5 trillion things, of which a mere 0.7%, or 10.7 billion at time of writing, are connected. By 2020, Cisco expects the number of connected things to reach 50 billion, or 2.7% of the 1.8 trillion things then in the world. The EU and others estimate the number of “things” in existence at 50 to 100 trillion.

For all this to happen, the costs of connecting to the Internet must drop, something that Cisco predicts is happening at a compound annual rate of 25%, and the availability of communication spectrum must soar, something that Ofcom and regulators in other countries are determined to oversee. If their vision materializes — they plan on connecting all of the possibly 100 trillion things estimated to be out there — they won’t merely acquire the ability to grab the steering wheel of passenger vehicles, they’ll be able to steer all things on spaceship earth, of which 0.008%, or some eight billion things, will be we humans.

Lawrence Solomon is the research director of Consumer Policy Institute.

This article was originally published on the Financial Post.


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