Let’s build a national grid to get the most out of data capture

We need to create a national data grid to support collection and sharing of transport information. What lessons can we learn from the electric vehicle power grid? TSC CEO Paul Campion takes a look what’s happening.

There’s valuable data at every turn out on the roads. Whenever we’re driving along, our brains pick up all kinds of important information: what the driver in front is doing, whether it’s raining or a child is crossing the street. We also take in useless information and discard it – roads we’re not looking for, traffic on a bridge above our heads, and so on.

The sensors on autonomous vehicles are just the same. They collect information from their environment at every moment. These sensors are ‘content agnostic’. They gather information universally, before deciding whether it’s important or not. An autonomous vehicle driving along the road will automatically detect which parking spaces are full and which are empty – regardless of whether or not it’s looking for a parking space.

Today, various car companies have the ability to use this information. They can take the data that’s gathered by an autonomous vehicle driving along the road and feed it into a database that can inform other vehicles that are looking for a parking space. This is important, because solving the problem of parking is central to enabling better journeys, and delivering better, more efficient transport outcomes.

To convince people to get out of their cars and take the train, we must be able to assure them that they’ll find a parking space at the train station. A system that automatically captures the current inventory of open car parking spaces as a by-product of another activity would be a very valuable thing. Car journeys simply don’t exist without accessible parking. Sharing information could open up thousands of new parking spaces all around the country.

Think of all those empty driveways that could be used as parking spaces while their commuting owners are out at work all day. Of course, each of us could, individually, rent out our empty driveways as parking spaces already, but it’s so time-consuming that most of us would never bother. But if an information sharing grid let me register my driveway and wait for money to appear in my account every month, simply because people I’d never met had parked on my driveway while I wasn’t there – why wouldn’t I opt in?

It is technically possible to create a future where there is a dramatically increased supply of parking, but the number of individual commercial arrangements that this would involve would be extraordinary – a national, integrated grid is necessary.

Getting Data Infrastructure in Place

A new world of integrated and readily available parking depends on a data infrastructure that has a central, cross-manufacturer database. There is a real-time element that would need to be appropriately structured, with all the relevant privacy and security elements in place. From a systems or engineering perspective, the things we need to do to make this a reality are very similar to the things we need to do to make the electric vehicle grid.

The power grid will become a reality first because electric vehicles are on the road right now. So as we build the electric vehicle grid, we should be engineering a solution that takes into account that future transport is likely to use a similar infrastructure. In other words, let’s build a grid that supports the development of a second, third and fourth iteration as transport technology progresses. We don’t want to start from scratch every time.

Streamlining and integrating our thinking will help to prevent a nightmare situation where every car has to have multiple interfaces, multiple systems connections and multiple authorisations because we have an infrastructure that’s been created in a piecemeal way. We may face technical problems and challenges, but the real inhibitors to progress are not about technology. We have engineers who are superbly good at solving technical challenges. What makes it hard, are the commercial and regulatory aspects of moving forward.

What can we learn from the creation of a national grid for electric vehicles? The power grid will require a box attached to the wall in every garage that will interface with the household grid. There will need to be a intelligent electricity meter, with an internet connection. But who owns that meter, and who owns the contract that each family has as an electricity consumer?

All of this means new equipment, with a whole industry of installers. We would need to decide on an authority to set the standard for what those devices look like and on who would authorise, train and monitor the installers – to say nothing of policing safety standards.

We would also need a real-time auction between companies and the wholesale grid. This would impact the contracts that current power generators currently have, setting new market entrance targets for them. We also have to consider who owns each asset. In the case of a company car, who benefits from any payments? Is it the leasing company because they own the car, or the driver who has the box in her garage? Compared to the complexities of all of this, the technical challenge is the easy part.

The similar problems and opportunities posed by the creation of an electric vehicle power grid and a national data grid are emblematic of how we need to think across projects, functions and organisations if we really want to drive change. At the TSC we consider how to ensure that the solution to the first problem can be generalised for all subsequent uses. It’s this kind of joined-up innovation that will be essential for swift, streamlined development of our transport systems.

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