National connected-vehicle ‘test bed’ launches at University of British Columbia

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VANCOUVER—Imagine a world of autonomous cars and large-scale, fully integrated transportation networks that share data to potentially change the way we live.

It’s almost here — and Canada is at the forefront of research, according to experts.

The University of British Columbia unveiled a national test bed for research on Thursday that leverages a network of connected cameras, vehicles, traffic signals and roadside monitors in the first steps toward enhanced information sharing.

“We want to improve road safety; we want to reduce traffic congestion; we want to improve the efficiency of commercial vehicle transactions, like road tolling,” lead researcher David G. Michelson, an electrical and computing engineering professor at UBC, told StarMetro.

“With AURORA now open for research ventures and partnerships, academics, industry and government can collaborate in connected-vehicle research and testing.”

The current systems in place are manually intensive, expensive and inflexible. But now, researchers can automate the process to make it more effective, he said.

The AURORA facility — an acronym for Automotive Testbed for Reconfigurable and Optimized Radio Access — contains a network operations centre, a mobile base station and five intersections equipped with roadside units on the southeastern portion of the Vancouver campus.

Traffic cameras, software-defined radios, a smart traffic signal controller and two test vehicles are also included — with all units connected to the campus network by wireless links, a release noted.

Canada’s national test bed is funded in part by Transport Canada, the B.C. ministry of transportation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and other industry partners.

And plans are for the network to grow rapidly in both size and capability, with continued expansion over the next two years, Michelson said.

While the technology has existed for years, he explained, what makes it difficult is the sheer size of deployment. For instance, in Canada there are roughly 22 million registered vehicles, and in the U.S., there are hundreds of millions, he said.

“Scaling is a big issue. That’s one of the rules with wireless,” Michelson explained. “Things work really well on a couple of devices, but it’s when you start adding hundreds, thousands, millions of devices that things get complicated.”

And, people want safe, integrated efficient transportation to get to their destinations, said Bowinn Ma, MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale speaking on behalf of the ministry of transportation.

Ma said the work shows a commitment to “leading the way” in developing smart cities and help drivers make more informed decisions.

“This will allow us to count the number of connected vehicles passing through intersections, map vehicle routes and analyze driver behaviour,” Ma said at the announcement. “It will also allow us to share traffic and signal information with drivers, such as when lights will turn red, yellow or green.”

This information will help develop tech to communicate with autonomous vehicles in the future, she added.

The push to develop smart cities is a global one, with countries and companies racing to develop the appropriate 5G technology, which is necessary to employ new technologies, such as autonomous cars.

For instance, Surrey joined forces with the city of Vancouver in February to bid for a $50-million federal grant in the Smart Cities Challenge, meant to fund data- and tech-driven solutions in cities.

And while 5G remains in a conceptual phase, the Ontario government in March 2016 announced a partnership with Chinese networking gear maker Huawei, aimed at accelerating the development process in the interest of economic growth. The promise of 5G starts with ultra-fast connections, but a more subtle benefit is the concept’s signal prioritization that would give a message warning a self driving car of an impending collision.

And while the focus at UBC will be on new technologies, the University of Alberta has an active test bed that focuses on existing tech. Currently, Michelson said they have connectivity units applied through major arterials in Edmonton where the data is shared with the province to make decisions “today” about traffic management.

There’s another test bed in Ottawa with the sole focus on cybersecurity, he added.

But this connected-vehicle technology has been designed with privacy as a priority from the start, Michelson insisted.

“The system is double blinded to preserve privacy,” he said. “It’s built in that way.”

For example, vehicles do not send personally identifiable information. Even traffic cameras are deliberately designed to have low-resolution so that licence plates and faces cannot be detected, he said.

Canada has a “real” potential to be a global leader, Michelson added, as the nation is “very much a test bed” for much of this tech. He cited the natural resource sector as an industry where what Canada does will “most certainly” be adopted by other countries.

AURORA is seeking additional partnerships for those who want to test or deploy the tech. At the announcement, Michelson said the approach across governmental agencies, including the U.S., and the private sector has been collaborative.

For him, a smart city is “all about” making decisions.

“A smart city is a city that makes better decisions more quickly,” he said. “It’s not about technology or bits and bytes.”