The era of talking highways: Do we need ‘smart’ infrastructure?
Friday, November 10, 2017
The term "smart" can cause a lot of confusion these days — the prefix is used liberally to make any new product sound cutting edge.
But "smart" infrastructure is about interaction and communication, based on the logic of the Internet of Things (IoT), the fashionable concept of a network of devices connected to the internet, and the relationship between them. It's what happens when even your toaster is connected to the internet. But what does it mean for ordinary citizens?
The physical meets the digital
We are familiar with the physical things that help us to live our lives — like roads, ports, railways. And then there are the digital links — the "cloud," the internet, email, etc.
However, smart infrastructure is both digital and physical. That's why they it is sometimes also called hybrid infrastructure.
Technology has moved on, and today's solutions are slightly more sophisticated than Berlin's quirky trash cans that thank you for your trash. Here are some of the ways it might change your routine in the coming years.
We are all following how cars are getting smarter. But some bright designers and engineers have started to ask why we are investing so much in the cars, while the roads they are driving on remain in the Middle Ages.
Dubbed "roads that think," smart highways can take a number of forms. Many of them use technology to manage traffic flows — a control center can monitor the traffic, activating and changing signals and speed limits in real time to make it flow more smoothly. Others even produce solar power, or use smart lighting or low-tech glowing paint to guide drivers.
In the eyes of their supporters, the roads help to get the most out of existing assets, without needing to build an entire new road to deal with unprecedented congestion.
Railways, like highways, are expensive to build. That is why experiments like the UK's "digital railway" are also trying to get the most of out of existing assets.
While the system may remain invisible to rail users, digital railway projects are all about getting different parts of the complex system communicating with each other through signaling systems to increase capacity and connectivity. Denmark was a pioneer, and the UK is trying to follow in their footsteps
The electricity grid is another piece of infrastructure that works away in the background without us really noticing it. Of all major infrastructure, the grid is the least digitally automated.
The "smart grid" is an attempt to catch up. A smart grid is able to send real-time signals to other connected objects, like charging electric cars or appliances . Such a grid will be needed to deal with the demands of a renewable energy industry, and can reduce costs, save energy and increase reliability.
One type of transport infrastructure getting a lot of attention these days are bicycle lanes. But with many cyclists discouraged by stories of accidents on the road, technology and sensors are being used to improve safety.
For those put off by breathing in car fumes, others have suggested embedding air quality sensors along routes to help cyclists make more informed choices. Meanwhile in the British city of Manchester, a pilot project is using smart bike lights to make each cyclist into a sensor, and to collect data on their journeys to pinpoint dangerous spots and improve infrastructure.
More wacky prototypes include one by Samsung that sees bikes fitted with laser beams that project a virtual lane on to the road to keep motorists away.
Talk to each other: helping the emergency services
The most exciting part of this is how all these systems can work together.
KPMG's infrastructure unit came up with a neat scenario about how more agile, digital and communicative infrastructure could help the emergency services respond more quickly to a chemical fire. It entails a whole network of sensors (in alarm systems, weather satellites, smart meters and self-driving vehicles) "talking" to each other and taking automatic actions.
In the meantime, the fire engine eases through the traffic, where drivers have been alerted by their satnav systems to take a detour.
The cybervulnerabilities of smart infrastructure
The immediate concern when our infrastructure starts taking control of itself and becomes open to remote operation is the increased vulnerability to cyberattacks. For the railways and the electric grid in particular, the impact could be disastrously disruptive. That makes them a serious target for hackers.
Designers of the systems are having to confront the issue and build in safeguards from the beginning.
Is smart infrastructure really a solution?
Smart infrastructure is certainly a tidy way to get the most out of our overloaded systems. But efficiency can only go so far. The overlooked, and arguably more difficult, alternative to addressing these problems is demand management — reducing energy use and travel.
The technology is exciting, and sometimes eccentric. But smart infrastructure may be no more than a survival strategy until we get the the heart of our mismatch between infrastructural supply and demand.
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