Conventional thinking has it that parked cars are a nuisance in cities. They clog up roadsides and require land-gobbling garages or lots. And studies show that cars spend about 95 percent of their time parked. That’s a lot of nuisance.
But what if cars were not just two tons of steel, glass and rubber that needed storage? What if they were powerful data platforms that worked together to gather and disseminate information, thereby improving citizen safety and convenience? What if cars became part of the Internet of Things, the growing system of interconnected, cloud-empowered objects?
That’s the thinking that Robert Shorten, of IBM Research – Ireland, and his connected-cars team are bringing to the streets.
“There is a huge number of cars worldwide packed full of sensors and computational power,” Shorten says. “Their location when parked is more certain than when moving and they have power supplies, so they are perfect to play an infrastructure role and to complement the needs of citizens in a city.”
Revving Up Untapped Capabilities
How might this work in real life? Well, for example, gas leaks are dangerous and costly hazards in urban settings. What if the streets were lined with sensors that could detect and collectively estimate the source of leaks? If every car had an active gas sensor on board, that’s pretty much what you’d have. This is but one of four connected-car applications IBM is actively testing in Dublin.
More and more, a car’s power needs to be measured not only by the power of the engine under the hood. Today’s cars increasingly roll out of showrooms bristling with cameras, motion sensors and other data-gathering devices. And by 2020, it’s estimated that nine out of 10 cars will have Internet connectivity. Why should all this capability sit untapped just because the engine is off?
“We are also looking at how the sensors in parked cars could augment a home security system,” Shorten says. “The idea is that if you have a motion detector on the car, it could be switched on at night to detect movement in the neighborhood. Or if someone’s house alarm goes off, then the camera in the car can switch on and start recording the scene.”
Parked cars might also be able to help you find your own parking space. And not just any space — a deployment of sensory-enabled and interconnected cars could help you find a space that’s best for your vehicle and your needs.
“Just as all cars are not the same, all parking spaces are not the same either,” Shorten explains. “Some parking spaces would be suitable for big cars, some for small cars. Some will be suitable for special-needs people, such as the elderly. Some will be close to the supermarket or to a hospital.”
Finding Fido and More
So cars parked along a street would be empowered to not only determine the quantity of parking spaces around them, but the quality of them as well. And connected cars could not only help us find spaces, but also lost dogs and other things. If Fido was wearing a passive, no-power-required radio identification device on his collar when he wandered off, car-based detection sensors in the appropriate neighborhood could be used to track him down.
The bottom line is that many of the reasons parked cars can be such a problem in cities —their size, their ubiquity — is also what makes them uniquely qualified to be put to work.
“An advantage cars have over something like a mobile phone is that it’s big, so you can mount bigger devices in a car,” Shorten says. “You can do a lot more crowd-sourcing applications in a car than you can using the mobile phone.”
Cars also have their own, off-the-grid power source. There are so many of them, that if a sensor fails on one car, it’s no big deal. Cars are also generally replaced every eight to nine years, so onboard technology is kept more current. And many of the reasons that parked cars can help in cities also apply to developing countries, where infrastructure challenges might be greater. Cars are everywhere, and so is their potential.
Turning eyesore to assets. Making urban planner headaches into citizen helpers. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Check out more articles and videos about IBM Research – Ireland here.