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Max Makgoale, Vula Telematix CEO (Image: TechFinancials)

The concept of the smart city has emerged as a term that describe a city that uses technology to address service delivery challenges, however, building a smart city is about more than just using technology, it is about ICT innovation and transformation.

South Africa still has a long way to go. Some of the challenges we face include underdeveloped infrastructure and skills deficits.

With the region’s urban population increasing rapidly every year, cities will need to transform their infrastructure with better digital technologies to cope with all major smart city elements such as traffic congestion, waste management, water and energy shortages.

Cities are having to serve increased populations with the same networks (Energy, water, transport etc.) that were planned to serve populations of prior decades (maybe centuries).

This no doubt is a recipe for much frustration and stress. Take public transport as an example – everyone has an opinion about public transport in South Africa. To middle class commuters, a taxi or a bus is a lawless menace. To passengers, they’re the only way to get to work on time. To the drivers, they’re a rare opportunity to earn a decent if not outstanding wage in a country with chronic unemployment.

For taxi owners, there’s the issue of trust. Where are their minibuses at any point during the day? How many fares did the driver really pick up? And when it comes to the issue of bad driving, how do they monitor real behaviors on the road?

One of the key challenges that arises from this is that driver incentives are at odds with good on-the-road behavior.

They need to exceed their fare targets to keep the owners happy, while also ensuring that they can pocket a little extra at the end of the day. Every extra passenger picked up and kilometre driven in rush hours counts, and laws are poorly enforced. Some are almost impossible to comply with anyway, there simply aren’t enough places for taxis to legally stop and pick up passengers, for example.

That leads, sadly, to a classic “tragedy of the commons”. It makes more business sense for the driver to risk a fine than miss out on a lot of fares, because the chances of you being the one vehicle that does get pulled over is low. What if there was a way to vastly increase the odds of being caught and penalised, and to ensure that those tasked with the movement of citizens were incentivised to do it with full consideration of their passengers and other road users?

It’s certainly technically feasible. At Ansys, we have developed a Connected Car platform called AiDR (Automotive Intelligent DriveR), working with fleets, transport firms, insurance companies and municipal authorities to improve the way “machine to machine” (M2M) communications can be integrated into vehicles says Jaco Basson, Business Development Manager at Ansys. AiDR can retrofit almost any car, taxi or van with an intelligent device that can communicate with a company-wide, city-wide or even nation-wide network.

“We have partnered with Vula Telematix which holds the South African licence for global innovations company Ingenu,” explains Basson.

“The Machine Network is powered by Ingenu’s patented Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) technology, which allows us to guarantee that our partners devices will work on the network for over 20 years,” says Max Makgoale, Vula Telematix Chief Executive Officer.

“The Machine Network also covers areas that cellular and other network providers are unable or unwilling to, and coverage is consistent, regardless of where devices are located,” Makgoale adds.

“M2M transmissions consume much less data and power, this is why a dedicated M2M network makes sense, since the objective of smart cities is maximising efficiency and reducing waste,” Max concludes.

And there’s a lot of data that can be communicated. AiDR, and other systems like it, can access all of the on-board sensors a vehicle has. From the travelling speed to oil levels readings and who is wearing a seatbelt, all tagged with accurate GPS information. It’s a wealth of information that can be made useable for both drivers and owners alike, improving performance and monitoring of a fleet.

In-vehicle telematics are nothing new, but what separates the new generation from what’s gone before is the ability not just to transmit data, but to receive it as well.

“From pushing weather and traffic alerts based on the location of a vehicle, to issuing safety alerts when a seatbelt isn’t fastened, systems such as ours are bringing real-time data analysis to our roads,” says Basson.

“Not only can they monitor speed against legal limits, they know when temporary speed restrictions are in place too. They can monitor for impact and indications that the car has been involved in an accident”, he adds.

Such systems are an essential part of our evolution to driverless cars, and the management of ever more complex municipal transport networks. And they’re here now.

At some stage, in the future, we envision a time when all motor vehicles are connected to each other a city-wide network of smart traffic lights, dynamic speed restrictions and other smart traffic management systems. Ultimately, we’ll have to. As our urban areas continue to grow and more and more people move to our cities, the pressure on an already strained transport network will only be eased through automation and smart city technology.

But I think that in South Africa, we may well start with public transport, says Makgoale. Partly because it’s one of the biggest issues that needs fixing but also because solutions such as AiDR can please everyone. On-board intelligence will not only allow vehicles to warn drivers of unsafe conditions and owners of bad driver behavior, they can be used to automate the process of issuing fines for obvious offences such as speeding or driving without a seatbelt.

Simultaneously such as system would give taxi owners a real-time overview of the state and position of their fleet, but most importantly would incentivise competition within the bounds of the law, since non-enforcement would become the exception rather than the norm.

The technology to transform public transport is here and waiting.

The question is, are our traffic planners ready to start using it?

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