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The future in a self-driving vehicle

Carlo Ratti: Here is how the very nature of cities will change

Dino Collazzo

For Carlo Ratti, architect and engineer, co-founder of the Cra design and innovation studio and director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT in Boston, big data, internet of things and AI can play a key role in improving our lives in cities, starting with a new idea of mobility.

Professor Ratti, how will technological innovations improve mobility?

“Big data means having an in-depth knowledge of the city we live in and all that surrounds it, and this knowledge can be used in a variety of ways. A few years ago at the Mit Senseable City Lab we noticed that over 170 million taxi rides in New York City could potentially be shared by people moving on the same urban routes. These figures, processed through mathematical models, highlighted the enormous potential of shared mobility, giving us a glimpse of new scenarios in which the need for cars in our cities could decrease with huge benefits in terms of reducing environmental pollution. This project, which we named HubCab, was the starting point for a collaboration with Uber”.

Around the world, however, besides large cities we have also small communities often located at quite a distance from each other.

In this case what kind of transport network could we imagine?

"First of all, I would rather make a distinction between more and less densely populated areas. In the latter case, cars will maintain an important role, at least in the short term, although we should probably be speaking of a predominance of electric vehicles. In densely populated areas I frankly don't think that cars will disappear altogether, rather they will become one of the many options in a wide mobility "portfolio". It is quite easy to imagine a future based on multi-modality, meaning that we could switch from one vehicle to another according to our needs: car, bicycle, taxi, scooter, bus, train".

How will automobiles evolve?

“This new scenario might even go as far as affecting  the shape of our cars. Twentieth century cars, had 4-5 seats, although mostly used by one or two people at the same time. In a future based on car-sharing and ride-sharing we may have smaller or larger vehicles, like minivans, acting as shared taxis”.

What impact will the spread of self-driving cars have?

"Cities will be most affected. The fact of not having to keep your hands on the wheel all the time is not really the greatest benefit, these vehicles will, in fact, have a greater impact on our road infrastructures. Take, for example, a car that takes us to work, and after having done that, instead of standing outside in a parking lot, gets back on the road and takes our son to school, our neighbour's son or anyone else in the city. This would create a hybrid system halfway between public and private transport that should, in theory, reduce the number of vehicles in circulation. Such changes could also affect parking areas. In a study developed at Mit based on data from the city of Singapore, we observed that, in a scenario with autonomous cars, the need for parking space could decrease by as much as 70%. Let's imagine how a city would change if all that space was used to accommodate trees or small gardens”.

“Smart roads” are the talk of the town in many areas.

However this requires suitable and safe infrastructures and this is not the case in Italy. What can be done?

"It is fact that the Italian road network is feeling the passing of time, however, autonomous cars and the systems we mentioned earlier, IoT, AI and Big Data, would allow us to make better use of existing infrastructure, avoiding the need to create new ones. Furthermore, sensors would facilitate targeted road maintenance work. Bridges under construction could use these sensors to collect information on the state of health of the structure. But think about the many bridges where this is not possible: either because they are outdated, or for economic reasons. It is therefore crucial to develop alternative data collection techniques”.

Could you give us an example?

“In our laboratory at MIT, in collaboration with Anas, we studied several ways in which our smartphones, with their built-in sensors can "feel" the vibrations of bridges and help us in providing information for improved monitoring. Thinking in terms of crowd-sourcing and data sharing, I think it is possible to improve our infrastructures, making them safer at a reasonable cost”.

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