Avoiding ‘global gridlock’ … and beyond

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Traffic congestion is one of those nightmares shared equally by the average motorist and truckers alike; no doubt setting the teeth of both the former and latter on edge merely by mentioning those dreaded two words.

The cooperation needed between the automotive and telecommunications industries will be greater than ever as we prepare for and manage the future. If we do nothing, we face the prospect of ‘global gridlock’ – a never-ending traffic jam that wastes time, energy and resources and even compromises the flow of commerce and healthcare.” –Bill Ford, executive chairman, Ford Motor Co.

Traffic congestion is one of those nightmares shared equally by the average motorist and truckers alike; no doubt setting the teeth of both the former and latter on edge merely by mentioning those dreaded two words.

Yet traffic congestion is only projected to grow, and it’s no wonder when the number of motor vehicles plying the world’s roads is forecast to grow from one billion today to up to four billion by mid-century.

So, what’s the solution? Despite the nominal entreaties to walk and ride bikes (try either in the pouring rain, at night, carrying anything weighing over 20 pounds … in word … fuggitaboutit!) a more mechanized method is called for, according to Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co.

During his keynote address at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Ford said he believes one way of avoiding overcrowded roads is to create a global transportation network that utilizes communication between vehicles, transport infrastructure and individual mobile devices to enhance the efficiency of all those disparate parts simultaneously.

It’s an audacious vision, no doubt, but sometimes (in my humble opinion) it can be a boon to shoot for the stars in such a manner … for you know if you fall short of perfect, you’ll usually end up with “great” or “good” results.

[Ford shared his thoughts on this subject in a long 16 minute interview last year at the TED or “Technology, Entertainment, Design” conference. If you don’t have time to watch it all, at least view the opening minute or two as he describes a humor-filled yet failed attempt in his youth to become, in his words, a “test driver” for a living …]

“If we do nothing, we face the prospect of ‘global gridlock’, a never-ending traffic jam that wastes time, energy and resources and even compromises the flow of commerce and healthcare,” said Ford. “The cooperation needed between the automotive and telecommunications industries will be greater than ever as we prepare for and manage the future. We will need to develop new technologies, as well as new ways of looking at the world.”

He also stressed that no one company or industry will be able to solve the mobility issue alone and the speed at which solutions take hold will be determined largely by customer acceptance of new technologies.

“The telecommunications industry is critical in the creation of an inter-connected transportation system where cars are intelligent and can talk to one another as well as the infrastructure around them,” Ford pointed out. “Now is the time for us all to be looking at vehicles on the road the same way we look at smart phones, laptops and tablets; as pieces of a much bigger, richer network.”

He added that the company that bears his family’s name recently authored a strategic document on this subject entitled Blueprint for Mobility; a road map to seek solutions for a problem that is already becoming a reality in expanding vehicle markets around the world.

For example, In Sao Paulo, Brazil, traffic jams regularly exceed 100 miles and the average commute lasts between two and three hours a day. Yet despite this truly aggravating fact, car buying is growing at a rate of 7.5% percent annually in Brazil.

The problem is not restricted to emerging markets, either, Ford stressed. For example, it is estimated that the cost of congestion to the economy in England through lost time will rise to around $35 billion annually by 2025.

Meanwhile, in Germany, sustaining a town of 300,000 people is estimated to require 1,000 truck deliveries daily – and there an awful lot of towns projected to surpass the 300,000 population figure. Indeed, research by Frost & Sullivan projects that giant “mega cities” are the wave of the future – and such massive population centers will generate a heretofore unbelievable amount of transportation demand.

“Solving the issue of urban mobility is a huge challenge that will only be successful if government collaboration, infrastructure development and industry come together globally,” explained Ford in his speech.

As a result, the company is now thinking on what transportation will look like in 2025 and beyond, including the steps needed to be taken over the near, medium, and long term:

Near-Term (5 to 7 years): The development of increasingly intuitive in-car mobile communications options and driver interfaces will be critical to proactively alert drivers to traffic jams and accidents.

Developmental projects such as the vehicle-to-vehicle warning systems and intelligent speed control features to grow in capability, which includes limited autonomous functions for parking and driving in slow-moving traffic – building on existing Ford vehicle features including Active Park Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control and Active City Stop

On top of that will be further development of new vehicle ownership models, as demonstrated throughZipcar, the world’s largest car sharing and car club service.

Mid-Term (2017 to 2025): The introduction of semi-autonomous driving technology including driver-initiated “auto pilot” capabilities and vehicle “platooning” in limited situations – technologies that will provide improved safety and driver assistance features, but allow the driver to take control, if needed.

Significantly more interaction between individual cars on the road through utilization of ever-increasing computing power and numbers of sensors in vehicles, helping reduce the number of accidents at intersections and enabling limited semi-autonomous and autonomous highway lane changing and exiting.

The arrival of vehicle-to-cloud and vehicle-to infrastructure communication that contribute to greater time and energy efficiency by enabling vehicles to recommend alternative transport options when congestion is unavoidable and to pre-reserve parking at destinations.

The emergence of an integrated transport network, featuring cars plugged into public databases, as well as new city vehicle options as more and more one, two and three-passenger vehicles are introduced to help maneuver within city streets

“Cars are becoming mobile communications platforms and as such, they are a great untapped opportunity for the telecommunications industry,” Ford exclaimed. “Right now, there are a billion computing devices in the form of individual vehicles out on our roads. They’re largely unconnected from one another and the network.”

Thus he expects automakers to increasingly take advantage of the car as a rolling collection of sensors to reduce congestion and help prevent accidents. “I’m confident that we will see many of these advances on the road in this mid-term period because the early versions are already being designed, and in most cases, tested,” he said.

Long-Term (2025 and beyond): A radically different transportation landscape where pedestrian, bicycle, private car, commercial and public transportation traffic will be woven into a single connected network to save time, conserve resources, lower emissions and improve safety.

This includes the arrival of truly “smart vehicles” capable of fully autonomous navigation, with increased “auto pilot” operating duration, plus the arrival of autonomous valet functions, delivering effortless vehicle parking and storage.

This is also the moment when development of a true network of mobility solutions arrives: a network of personal vehicle ownership complimented by greater use of connected and efficient shared services, and completely new business models contributing to improved personal mobility.

Ford certain beholds an ambitious future for vehicles and transportation networks worldwide. The only question is this: do we, the ultimate buyers and users of said transportation systems, want to go in the direction Ford is illuminating?

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