Sensors, AI and Autonomous Tech to Drive Smart Cities

Without data and AI smart cities won't be able to thrive.
Donna Fuscaldo

The world is becoming a scarier place whether its rising traffic deaths or the warming planet. At the same time, the number of people residing in cities is expected to skyrocket. 

That poses challenges to cities around the globe and is driving the rush toward smart cities.  

While there is no shortage of roadblocks on the path to greener, less congested cities, the group of experts gathered at CES are optimistic about a future driven by sensors, artificial intelligence, and autonomous technology. 


Without sensors and AI, there are no smart cities  

Startups, technology leaders and a host of others are pouring tons of money and time into creating technologies that will power smart cities around the globe. But regardless of the technology, the key ingredients are sensors and artificial intelligence.

The sensors are necessary to collect data and the AI is required to analyze it. Without both, a smart city won't be able to thrive.  It can analyze " energy, citizen participation, and mobility," said Carlo Ratti, director of MIT Senseable City Lab, during a panel discussion at CES. "It's one of the most exciting spaces. Data and AI can change the way a city moves."  

Cities can lead on how self-driving vehicles are rolled out

Equally as important to the success of smart cities is autonomous vehicles. While they aren't on the roads today, they will be someday as cities get more populated, making it impossible for everyone to own their own vehicle. "By 2050 two-thirds of the global population will be living in cities," said Claire Fain, chief financial officer at Via. "It's an inevitable fact cities need to address." 

While little in the way of city and municipality budgets are going to self-driving vehicles, Fain thinks the cities have a huge opportunity to shape how autonomous transportation is embraced in a city. "There's a window for cities to build the right digital and physical infrastructure for the autonomous roll out," she said, noting cities have the opportunity to create new taxes and use their roads to generate new funding.  

While much has been made about the race to self-driving cars, experts on the panel pointed to trucks as being the first to hit the roads. "Trucks are first because it's easier," said one of the panelists. "Because of the interstate system and partnerships with states, we will see many more autonomous trucks before autonomous automobiles."

Collaboration is key 

One of the biggest challenges companies in the mobility market face is getting city and municipalities leaders on board. Cash is tight for many cities around the globe. Most are under pressure to show a clear ROI on any investments they make. Showing the city something cool or transformative isn't enough. It has to speak to the budget constraints as well. 

To get around that Laura Schewel, co-founder and CEO of StreetLight Data, said companies have to sell their products and services on two levels. One has to show a clear return on the investment within one year and the other shows that at the same time, the city gets these added cool features.

Take the mundane task of reporting how many cars are on the road to the federal government. The city is required to do so daily, which is a time consuming and costly task. If StreetLight Data is able to do that at a lower cost and not only do they get the traffic counts but a variety of other data that could help plan autonomous vehicles or remap the bike lane. The city can see an ROI and at the same time access advanced technology, she said. 

"Just selling innovations alone runs up too hard against those budgetary constraints our clients face," said Schewel. 

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