Telematics Data Helps Smart Cities Minimize Pollution, Gridlock and More

A city is only as smart as the data it collects.
Published: June 30, 2019

Can traffic be both a problem and a solution? Yes, and the reasons why highlight how telematics data enables cities to minimize pollution, gridlock and accidents while maximizing the impact of their transit and infrastructure budgets.

Demographic trends are poised to make traffic congestion and pollution even bigger problems than they currently are. For example, by 2050, 66 percent of the world’s population are predicted to live in urban areas, up from 54 percent today. Even if cities had unlimited infrastructure budgets—which they obviously never will—expanding roads and bridges would still be difficult and often impossible simply because space is so tight. But with telematics data, even the fastest-growing cities can keep traffic and lungs flowing freely. Here’s how.

Leveraging Existing Investments
Cities become smart cities by leveraging Internet of Things (IoT) data. For example, a major city typically will have hundreds or thousands of traffic cameras, but it’s cost-prohibitive to have enough staff to monitor every single feed. So traffic cameras are increasingly being upgraded with analytics to identify dangerous intersections. Employees will keep an eye on feeds from key roads and intersections, but analytics will monitor everything else.

In the past, cities relied on accident reports to identify where to add medians, signalized crosswalks or turn restrictions. But that approach is fundamentally flawed because people don’t report near misses. As a result, cities don’t realize that traffic around an intersection has reached dangerous levels—until pedestrians and vehicles start getting hit. But analytics can identify those near misses and alert the city’s transportation department about the problem areas.

Telematics is a subset of the IoT that uses vehicle-mounted sensors, such as GPS for location. For example, many trucking companies, taxi services and other fleet owners have sensors to track hard braking, speeding and other maneuvers so they can identify drivers who need corrective training. This telematics data can provide enormous actionable insights for smart cities as well.

For instance, if vehicles are frequently braking hard in a certain area, it could indicate an intersection that needs a dedicated turn lane. If they’re frequently driving below the speed limit, it could indicate a stretch of road that requires an additional lane. Or if they’re frequently circling the same few blocks, it could indicate a chronic shortage of parking—and a need for a new public transit stop or line if adding surface lots or a garage isn’t viable.

Telematics data can include information that has nothing to do with the vehicle itself. For example, in Houston and other cities, the Environmental Defense Fund has outfitted vehicles with IoT devices that monitor air quality. The same approach could be applied to, for example, vehicle-mounted cameras that analyze traffic and interactions with pedestrians.

Just a Few Vehicles Can Yield Big Insights
Municipal fleets, such as waste-collection trucks, buses and emergency response vehicles, are a natural place to start since they often already have telematics systems in place. Like the traffic camera example, applying analytics tools to telematics enables these existing investments to perform double duty.

The municipal fleet’s telematics data can be augmented with information from other public and private fleets for additional and deeper insights. For example, commercial fleet owners may be willing to share anonymized versions of their telematics data if they believe it will lead to less fuel and driver productivity wasted sitting in traffic jams. Another source is the U.S. Postal Service, which wants to share its telematics data with smart cities. Its 211,000-plus vehicles comprise the world’s largest civilian fleet, which traveled 1.4 billion miles in 2018.

However, research shows that even a small number of vehicles can yield enormous insights. For example, a September 2018 study conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund and Geotab analyzed telematics data from more than 1.25 million vehicles. The report found that just a handful of vehicles could provide a city with granular, actionable insights into air quality. Among the key findings:

• Data from just 10 vehicles could be sufficient to map at least 50 percent of a small or medium-size city. With 20 vehicles, the amount jumps to almost 80 percent.

• Even a small fleet can collect a lot of data within a short amount of time. Twenty vehicles could provide data for about 65 percent of a city in three months. In a single month, 20 vehicles could achieve 45 percent coverage.

• Telematics can be significantly less expensive and more effective than fixed IoT. For example, an analysis of Washington, D.C., shows that 50 municipal vehicles equipped with air-quality sensors can analyze 70 percent of the city’s geography within six months. It also has five fixed air-pollution monitors. Expanding the fixed network to cover 70 percent of the city would be prohibitively expensive, and the study with EDF shows that air quality varies even within individual city blocks.

A city is only as smart as the data it collects. By leveraging telematics, smart cities can ensure they are getting every dollar, euro, yen and pound of value out of their limited transit and infrastructure budgets.

Mike Branch, Geotab‘s VP of data and analytics, leads the charge for developing solutions that enable insight from the more than 1.4 million connected vehicles and 30 billion telematics records that Geotab processes on a daily basis. Mike joined the Geotab team in 2016, and prior to that he was the CEO of Inovex, which spun off new entity Maps BI, a platform for geo-spatial data visualization, in 2013. Maps BI was integrated within Geotab’s telematics platform as a key partner and was later acquired by Geotab in 2016. Mike has received numerous honors, including the University of Toronto’s Arbor Award and Early Career Award, Engineers Canada’s Young Engineer Award, Professional Engineers of Ontario’s Engineering Medal and the Cloud Innovation World Cup.