The notion of smart cities has been high on the agendas of strategic planners and architects for some time, with a continual cascade of speculation as to how emerging technologies can be harnessed to create the optimum urban environment. From city sensors and apps to drones and driverless cars, we have been offered glimpses of how city infrastructure could be transformed by the Internet of Things. Now, though, much of this theory is about to be put into practice, courtesy of Audi’s team of innovators.
Audi is, first and foremost, a car manufacturer, but the company also appreciates the wider impact of automobile technology on a multitude of socio-economic issues in urban areas including energy efficiency, road safety, traffic congestion, the use of high-value land for road infrastructure and parking, and the provision of vital, public open space in cities. For this reason, Audi established the Urban Future Initiative back in 2010, which aims to transform mobility in cities via collaboration with architects, engineers, and urban planners from around the globe.
Within this context, a significant announcement was made in Barcelona, Spain, this week as the Catalan city played host to the 2015 Smart City Expo World Congress. Audi took to the stage to reveal their ambitious plans for Somerville, Mass., a burgeoning municipality to the north of Boston that will act as an incubator for emerging smart-city innovations — namely, self-parking cars and intelligent traffic management.
Set for commencement around 2018, two distinct projects will be initiated in Assembly Row and Union Square, vibrant mixed-use districts with youthful demographics that make them ideal testing grounds for emerging mobility technology. Around 40 percent of surface within Assembly Row is currently dedicated to parking spaces with associated costs that “can make or break the profitability of a development” according to Chris Weilminster, executive vice president for real estate and leasing at Federal Realty Investment Trust.
This is where Audi’s technologies come in. The company’s new fleet of cars will be equipped with piloted parking capabilities allowing people to leave their vehicles at the side of the road where “Advanced Arrival” robotic mechanisms kick in. Each car drives itself to a remote garage and parks with perfect precision — a fact that holds huge consequences for the design of future parking structures.
With no driver exiting the vehicle after it has been parked, each car can be parked within inches of the one next to it, and rows of vehicles can be ‘stacked’ three or four abreast with far fewer circulation aisles. Further to this, parking garage stair cores are rendered redundant, their removal from multistory structures will allow even more cars to be accommodated. Thus, the total space needed for a parking lot can be reduced by a staggering amount.
“Our team was astonished to see how much space can really be saved thanks to automated technology,” remarked Dr. Miklos Kiss, Head of Predevelopment for Driverless Assistance Systems at Audi. “In a parking garage that is newly planned and built for piloted parking, a good 60 percent of the area, in the most extreme case, more than 80 percent, is not required.
"The highly exact driving maneuvers and superior driving strategies of piloted cars alone mean that considerable densification is possible: lanes with a width of three meters are adequate. We plan ten centimeters of space between the mirrors of parked cars. This makes it possible to shrink each parking space by two square meters.”
In Union Square, a unified system of traffic lights will incorporate “Adaptive Flow” technology that provides a continual online link between the signals and every person on the road, including cars, bikes, public transport, and the smartphones of pedestrians. Car speeds can be automatically adapted to minimize congestion and ensure the smoothest possible path through junctions, while synchronized bus schedules and live traffic data will keep everyone in the district up to date on the quickest routes available across the city.
“Traffic-light information online is just the first step on the road to the smart city,” says Gerhard Stanzl, head of Predevelopment for Car2x / BigData at Audi. “For many years, Audi has been examining the optimization of traffic flow in cities. On the basis of our fleet data and optimized communication between vehicles and infrastructure, in the future, cities will, for example, be able to control traffic-light phases and traffic management systems, dynamically.”
The square will also be home to a planned “Second Tier” parking system, which uses the same self-parking vehicle fleet as Assembly Row to revolutionize the area’s parking infrastructure. With this system, parking lots will be moved to the rear of urban blocks or in remote locations away from the street frontage, which will be freed from the kind of on-street parking that currently features heavily on high streets in cities all over the world.
The transplant of vehicles away from the high street promises to facilitate more space for commercial, residential, and leisure uses and — crucially — offers huge potential for more public open space at street level. In the future, fully autonomous vehicles will facilitate even greater transformations of urban roads. It could eventually be possible to reduce the number and width of lanes due to the incredible accuracy and efficient movement of piloted cars.
The potential for increasing the efficiency of the city — not to mention putting pedestrians back at the top of the agenda — is tantalizing for the designers of transport infrastructure and urban centers, and the profession will watch developments in Somerville with great interest. As automobiles are pushed down the pecking order of the urban hierarchy, the opportunity to design safer, more walkable cities is now on the horizon. In collaboration with the technological experts of Audi, architects and urban planners look set to return the modern metropolis to the people that define it: those that walk, shop, work, and play on its streets every day.