One of the inescapable realities of city living is traffic—cars, taxis, and trucks clogging virtually every roadway. Car traffic is a loss-making enterprise, burning time and fuel in abundance, and generating both pollution and road hazards of all kinds. Unsurprisingly, traffic management looms large in the minds of city planners, and a key focus of many smart-city initiatives is how best to address this challenge.

Inevitably, autonomous vehicles—passenger cars and delivery vehicles alike—will soon become an increasingly critical piece of the urban transport puzzle. Their widespread impact is yet to be seen and could be either positive or negative, and likely both. For instance, despite some high-profile incidents, autonomous vehicles hold the promise of increasing safety for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. However, they could also increase the overall volume of vehicles moving around in cities as people turn to them as an attractive alternative to less comfortable and convenient public transit options.

As a result, city planners need to factor autonomous vehicles into their planning efforts. In the process of working to make their cities smarter, they need to consider what kinds of infrastructure to put in place to accommodate autonomous vehicles, from parking to charging to traffic management.

While these vehicles may be “autonomous” in principle, smarter roadway infrastructure will be required to provide much of the intelligence needed to successfully integrate them into the smart-city context. Mission-critical information and communication technologies (ICTs) will be needed to support capabilities such as vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connectivity, implementation of Internet of Things (IoT) architectures for traffic management, public safety, and much more.

But how exactly do ICTs make highways smarter?

The truth is that both municipal and regional highway agencies have been focused on increasing the capabilities of roadways for some time, using an approach called Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). ITS uses advance communications networks to create links between traffic control centers, roadside equipment (such as tolling, digital signage and video protection systems), and vehicles—as well as drivers, passengers and roadside workers.

One of the key objectives of deploying ITS is to gather information, in real-time, on things ranging from traffic volumes, road construction, or weather conditions and deliver that information to drivers and their vehicles (and ultimately to driverless vehicles). This, in turn, can enable the selection of alternative routes and other ways to reduce travel time (and pollution in the process). It can also help make road-ways safer, both by gathering, analyzing, and sharing safety-related traffic data, and by increasing security and emergency response capabilities through the utilization of always-on communications networks and video feeds.

Of course, this process is not as simple as interconnecting a variety of disparate pieces of technology. For such a system to be truly “intelligent,” a host of applications and data sources need to be carefully orchestrated, from weather stations to traffic monitoring systems, to closed circuit TV and license-plate recognition cameras, to toll collection infrastructure—all of which need to work together seamlessly.

In the past, individual communications networks were typically deployed to support each application, an approach that made sense when the number of applications supported was minimal. Today, however, highway agencies may need to deploy dozens of applications, making the deployment of such individual networks cost prohibitive and inefficient.

As a result, highway agencies are increasingly turning to more versatile, modern communications networks that can support a variety of applications and services concurrently, offering significant operational benefits while helping keep costs in check. Of course, cost is not the most important consideration when deploying services on which lives can depend; it is essential that those applications that are most critical receive the highest priority when it comes to network resources.

One technology that addresses this requirement effectively is Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS), which can address the varied quality of service (QoS) and performance requirements of a range of services simultaneously. Such networks, because they are based on IP technology, are ideally suited to the delivery of high-bandwidth services such as video surveillance and analysis.

As important, IP/MPLS networks can also support legacy applications like SCADA (super-visory control and data acquisition), smoothing the transition from earlier-generation networking technologies such as TDM, SDH/SONET, and PDH, which are increasingly obsolete. This enables highway agencies to maintain existing services for years if necessary, until they are in a position to upgrade to the latest, state-of-the-art technology.

It is important to note that highway agencies need to prepare for the future while addressing the needs of today. The range of options for connecting vehicles to one another, roadway infrastructure, and both drivers and passengers is expanding dramatically and needs to be actively considered in the context of future planning. Technologies, such as 5G wireless broadband and Internet of Things (IoT) networks, are becoming commercially available, and will almost certainly have an important role in the widespread introduction of autonomous vehicles of all kinds. 

By investing in the development of smarter roadway infrastructure, municipal and regional planners can take an important step toward tackling one of the more vexing problems facing our fast-growing metropolitan regions. An ITS, based on the most advanced communications networking technology available, has the potential to drive dramatic improvements in the passage of vehicles through our crowded streets, keeping our smart cities moving.


This article was written for Autonomous Vehicle Technology by Matthias Jablonowski, Head of Nokia’s Highways Practice.