How Our Technology Could End Traffic Congestion Forever

Cars, commuters and congestion are a modern dilemma, impacting economies, productivity and health. Individual car ownership makes no sense – but technology could fix that.

It is strange to ponder just how much of our time, money, energy and (dare I say) ego we devote to our motor vehicles.

After our homes, our cars are generally the costliest items we own. We spend lots of our hard-earned money on something that generally starts depreciating the moment we drive it off the showroom floor, that we use for a brief period each day and that then sits idle while requiring storage (parking) at either end of a journey, that creates emissions poisoning the very air we breathe, that can break down or get a puncture at the most inconvenient times, that must be insured against all sorts of risks and that, because of accidents, kills an estimated 3,500 of us every single day of the year.

And as anyone who has travelled in cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nairobi or Lagos can attest, all of that is before we start counting the enormous productivity losses caused by traffic congestion — to say nothing of associated stress and fatigue caused by the daily commute (according to some research, commuters waste over 1 week of their lives each year sitting in congestion).

We put up with this because of our very human desire for mobility. But wouldn’t it be great if we could find better ways of helping people and things get around?

A look at the future

Traffic problems pose global challenges, but they are particularly acute in Africa. Cities like Nairobi, Cape Town and Johannesburg already rank among the world’s worst when it comes to congestion, and this is exacerbated by the fact that Africa is home to the highest rate of urbanisation in the world. There must be a better way to solve the mobility challenge in the context of urbanisation. Smart future societies will exploit data and technologies to mitigate the negative impacts of our need for mobility while also making personal transport more convenient and reliable.

We can already see the future being foreshadowed by the likes of Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, Taxify and SAP’s own “Two Go” car-pooling application, all of which build on the growing social construct of the “sharing” or collaborative economy that is being driven by the millennial generation. The traditional automotive industry, as well as technology companies like Alphabet and Apple, are all investing in a new paradigm for transport.

The future will be about swarms of “carmputers”; autonomous electric vehicles that are in fact rolling data centres, which will communicate with each other, the world around them and us. Artificial Intelligence will use the data they generate to make them smarter and safer. Their utilisation will be higher, so there will be fewer of them on the road, easing congestion and improving road safety (computers don’t get distracted like humans do).

We will no longer need to own a car to live our lives; our homes will no longer need garages — more people could be housed on less land; public and private garages could then be given over to low-cost housing and vertical farming, bringing shelter and food to the world’s urban poor. Our air will be cleaner, because their batteries will be charged with renewable energy and they will become part of the urban electrical grid powering our society.

Practical steps to take today

The utopian vision sketched above is still some way of,f but it would be unwise to dismiss it: the exponential nature of technology development and adoption combined with the pressing nature of the problem could ensure it happens sooner than most expect. Until then, there is much we can do to improve the existing situation using the data we already have, especially in Africa and other developing countries.

Because Africa has historically underinvested in infrastructure, it can now embrace digital technologies and innovative approaches to transcend legacy systems and leapfrog the rest of the world. It’s not just about drones and Uber (although those have their place and are already making inroads in Africa), but the use of data and digital technologies to support better policy making, more effective traffic management, transport sharing, vehicle maintenance and safety.

The key to all of this is data. Understanding the current situation, anticipating what may happen next, collaborating to share resources, figuring out the best routes to take, ensuring the safety of passengers and drivers and compliance with laws, capturing and accounting for new revenue opportunities, understanding where best to build infrastructure and optimising the maintenance of vehicular assets to maximise capacity are all predicated on data (and often the same data can serve multiple purposes).

Lessons from Nanjing, China

The city of Nanjing in China is a great example of how local authorities in emerging economies can make a difference by exploiting the power of Big Data and advanced analytics. Like many cities in Africa, the number of vehicles in Nanjing grows 30 percent every year, while the urban road network expands less than 3 percent, resulting in traffic congestion. There are about 10,000 taxicabs, 7,000 buses, and 1-million private cars using the Nanjing city road network.

To cope with increasing traffic volumes, Nanjing City Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) worked with SAP on an IoT and Big Data program, developing a next-generation smart traffic system that includes the use of sensors, cameras and radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips to generate continuous data streams about the status of transportation systems across the city. In all, over 20-billion data points are generated annually in the city (about 8Gb per day) from taxis, buses and private cars.

A central technology platform ingests this data, applies its geospatial and advanced analytics capabilities, and enables Nanjing City ITS to analyse traffic movement patterns in real time providing early detection and of potentially abnormal traffic situations. The Traffic Congestion Management solution supports quick decision-making to mitigate traffic jams smartly, providing benefits to citizens and enterprises.

Thanks to this, the city is better able to leverage existing data; to support and simulate long-term policy decisions and, because all the information flows into one digital map that gives a detailed view of current traffic conditions across the city, can monitor status as well as predicting and simulating short-term tactical decisions required when faced with road closures and large events. Citizens now get a real-time view of traffic conditions and public travel guidance services on a mobile application.

Ease of use and real-time access to accurate data is transforming how cities and policymakers engage with the challenge of traffic congestion and human mobility. As we move toward an exciting future (perhaps even with flying cars?), there is much we can do now with the data and powerful technology tools available to us to improve the experience for commuters and citizens alike.