Personal Mobility in the Era of Megacities and Supercities

In the 1950s, around 30% of the world’s population lived in urban centers. In countries like India today, that is still largely the case. But as we approach 2050, the UN projects that some 70% of the entire world’s population will be living in megacities, and more than 85% of the developed world’s population will be living in urban centers.

Mega-cities are defined as cities with more than 10 million inhabitants. In the 1950’s timeframe there was only one megacity, New York. A few decades later Tokyo made it two megacities and today we are closer to 25 and by 2050 we are on the way to having well over 50 mega cities, worldwide. And China has added a new word to our lexicons – the Supercity. Bejing, Tianjin and the Hebei Province are being consolidated into a new city that will be called “Jing-Jin-Ji” with a population of 130 million.

The mayors of cities traditionally have been at the front lines of policy execution. They have to react and make critical policy decisions, drive changes much faster than state or federal governments. And the mayor often has the authority to act with greater latitude and speed when it comes to key tradeoff decisions.

Mayors are already becoming a major factor in personal mobility and their importance will grow with urbanization. Imagine a mayor having to make tradeoffs regarding environmental matters in a city. A new, clean power grid, or a new sanitation system, new roads or a new light rail system can cost billions and involve years of negotiations, approvals to issue bonds and political wrangling. But what is the cost of excluding a certain type of vehicle from the city? It is often nothing more than the proverbial “stroke of a pen.”

That is already the case in Berlin. If you do not have green sticker on your diesel car denoting that it is a “clean diesel” and has a yellow sticker denoting an older, dirtier engine, you cannot exit the highway to drive into the city. Beijing limits cars to alternating days depending on whether their plates have odd or even numbers on them. Singapore charges more for a permit to buy a car than the price of the car in certain cases. London’s now infamous congestion charges, which started at £5 in 2003 have more than doubled to £11.50 as of 2014 – and further rises may be on the horizon to throttle congestion.

Looking into the future, it is not hard to imagine a day where only clean alternative powertrain vehicles will be permitted within many city limits for emissions compliance – and we can also imagine that they will have to “plug into the network” of the city’s autonomous driving system as part of the city’s efforts to battle congestion. And it will not be just a few megacities doing so – even cities like Dubai are joining the fray with recent announcements that 25% of all transportation in the city will be connected and driverless by 2030

How does this relate to SAE you ask? Well the answer is not obvious as SAE typically does not work with cities – and those in the cities who are dealing with mobility issues are likely not even aware of SAE, much less what it does. But connected or autonomous cars, integrated with a city’ network, depends on the technical standards that govern the operations of such vehicles. That presents an opportunity for SAE to pro-actively explore this emerging new domain and the issues that will need to be addressed.

Recently, there was such an opportunity and SAE responded. The Department of Transportation (DOT) had started thinking about the issue and it conducted some initial research. A key finding was that less than 5% of major US cities had even begun to address planning for a future where clean, autonomous and connected cars would dominate cityscapes.

That led to DOT’s “Smart City Challenge” which began with applications from 78 cities and now has been down-selected to seven finalist cities – Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland, and San Francisco. The good news is that SAE is partnered with five of the seven finalist cities. The areas where SAE will be contributing expertise and IP centers on the areas where many of the standards for autonomous driving, cybersecurity and safety have already been developed. For example, J2945 defines the vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communications protocols for onboard safety systems. The city networks will have to interface with this standard as well other such standards in development.  Then there are standards that define different levels of autonomous driving such as J3016 and the wireless charging standard J2954, which stands to make public charging much more accessible and ubiquitous.

This is not a national but a global issue.  Ultimately we will need globally harmonized interoperability standards that ensure robust communication protocol amongst vehicles, to the infrastructure, and within the cloud…not to mention keeping that data safe, secure, and very usable. Many of the technical standards that govern how clean, autonomous or even shared vehicles operate are the domain of SAE.  We need to be proactive to help prevent pockets of regional standards through cooperation with other standards organizations around the world. And, we need to integrate cities with the SAE technical community and help them to “connect” to vehicles in a consistent manner to advance the science of autonomous vehicles.

What an amazing time to be an SAE Engineer!

Cuneyt Oge