Digital road traffic: The transformative power of a true revolution

Markus Schlitt, Head of Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS), speaks about the integration of the road into the Internet of Things, the new role of cities and towns in the context of increasing mobility digitalization, and the advantages that smart software-driven traffic engineering offers over conventional solutions.

 

by Peter Rosenberger 

Mr. Schlitt, our mobile society is on the threshold of a revolution. Will the introduction of automated and connected driving lead to similarly radical changes in personal mobility as the invention of the automobile more than 130 years ago?

 

My spontaneous answer would be ‘yes’ – but, of course, such comparisons do never work perfectly. One thing is certain: The way in which we are moving about on our streets is going to change greatly – as will the layout and appearance of our cities, which will have to adapt to the mobility habits of the next generation. An important point is that more people will be mobile: Just think of all those who are not able or allowed to take the wheel themselves because they are too young, too old or temporarily unfit to drive. Right now we are seeing the start of a series of many evolutionary steps, whose combined momentum, however, will have the transformative power of a true revolution.

 

With the use of self-driving cars, vehicle2X communication and neural algorithms, road traffic is turning into a part of the Internet of Things. What new tasks will this create for our cities, towns and regional authorities?

 

Just like with all disruptive innovations, this process has two sides to it: On the one hand, our municipal authorities will have totally new options for traffic planning and control. The Internet of Things will enable not only close monitoring of the infrastructure, but also active intervention and control of traffic flows – either for all traffic across the street network or focused on specific vehicle fleets. This will not only help optimize the flow of traffic, but also improve road safety since our systems will then communicate with computers, which are less prone to making mistakes than people, by their nature.

And what’s on the other side of the coin?

There is the expectation that the innovative options for door-to-door mobility using self-driving taxis will substantially increase the demand for individual mobility. And as we all know, in most metropolitan areas on our globe, traffic volumes have long since reached or exceeded the limits of street capacity. Municipal authorities will have to face this challenge, ideally by doing two things: Firstly, they should create public transport options that can compete with autonomous taxis – for example a fleet of small buses offering flexible service and shorter travel times thanks to their systematic prioritization in the street network.  Secondly, they will have to engage in discussion with the inhabitants and implement tailored multi-modal mobility ecosystems that incorporate not only the usual mass-transit modes, but also other means of transport such as rental bikes, car-sharing schemes and electric-powered taxis. However, such mobility ecosystems will only work satisfactorily for the long term if both users and providers are given the appropriate incentives.

More and more cities are beginning to understand that they are in for true chaos if they will not take the initiative
Markus Schlitt, Head of Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS)

Do you have the impression that, around the world, the authorities responsible for transport and mobility are already wholly aware of the full extent of the imminent transformations?

 

In our experience, the rethinking process has already started: More and more cities are beginning to understand that they are in for true chaos if they stick to their traditional responsibilities and continue to limit their tasks to coordination, monitoring and maintenance of road infrastructure. They are beginning to realize that they need to take the initiative if they do not want to relinquish control of their very own sphere of influence to the new players in the mobility sector. Others have already advanced further: In June 2017, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, put up an ambitious plan for discussion: His Mayor’s Transport Strategy is aimed at the complete transformation of urban mobility by 2041. To achieve his declared goal of "healthy streets and healthy people," he plans to raise the combined share of walking, cycling and public transport to 80 percent of all trips within the British capital. Actually, the measures and schemes he proposes almost read as if inspired by our ideas.

 

What do the 2,600 employees at Siemens ITS have on offer for their customers to help them prepare perfectly for this new era?

 

Already today we can implement large parts of the visions described at the beginning of our talk. We are able, for example, to build a network for bilateral communication with vehicles, manage it from a control center and create a digital twin of the existing traffic control systems that allows the transmission of all applicable traffic rules – in digitized form – directly to the vehicles. In addition, we have developed highly efficient solutions for the targeted management of different vehicle fleets and for a very useful mobility assistant that makes intermodal travel easier and more convenient than ever. The only thing that we do not have yet is a self-driving car – and we are not about to try and build one of those.

As technological leader, Siemens ITS is going to intensify its general focus on the new intelligence of the digital world. What are the advantages of software-driven systems compared to largely hardware-based concepts?

The biggest advantage is the possibility to develop functions that are based directly on other, existing functions - without costly adaptations of hardware components in the field. This eliminates a decisive obstacle to innovation. In the long run, readily available standard industrial PCs will take over the local role of today’s controllers. The actual ‘brains’ of the system will reside exclusively in the control center, in the form of a neural, i.e. self-learning software program that uses more and more data and more and more functions to become ever more intelligent. This means that the customers can keep their systems up to date without controller replacement: The only thing they need to do is to install a new processor chip whenever more computing power is required.

In a recent interview you said: “The next five to ten years will probably be the most exiting years ever in the field of traffic engineering.” What are you looking forward to with the greatest anticipation?

 

Most exiting for me are the chances resulting from the transformation of our roads into a part of the Internet of Things. The fact that we can start already today to actively control traffic via intelligent infrastructure systems is simply marvelous, I think. This feels as if we were finally able to start a Ferrari that had been sitting idle in our garage for some time – and speed off.

 

Mr. Schlitt, thank you very much for talking to us.

2017-10-17

Peter Rosenberger works as a journalist in Birkenau

Picture credits: iStock/filadendron, iStock/oonal and Siemens AG

Markus Schlitt has been Head of Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems since 2013. From 2011 to 2013 he worked as Senior Vice President Strategy and Business Development for the Mobility and Logistics Division, Infrastructure & Cities Sector, and from 2004 to 2011 he held various positions with Siemens Management Consulting, most recently as Vice President/Managing Partner.

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