Street smarts: Can autonomous car tech pave the way for future cities?

5 Jul 2023

Image: Dr Mélanie Bouroche

Trinity College Dublin’s Dr Mélanie Bouroche wants to create smart cities one road at a time using connected autonomous vehicles.

The urban landscape is rapidly transforming, ushering in an era of intelligent, interconnected cities where technology seamlessly integrates with the fabric of society.

The Smart D8 initiative is just one example of projects taking place in Ireland to address the wellness needs of the Dublin 8 community.

Also connected to Smart D8 is the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Adapt centre, which is working on two projects to create more inclusive, sustainable and citizen-focused services in Dublin.

And further afield, there are other European countries creating test beds within their cities to make the most of IoT and emerging tech, such as Ülemiste City in Estonia’s capital.

Smart cities technology is a thriving field and Dr Mélanie Bouroche is an accomplished researcher with a particular passion for this area.

Bouroche is an assistant professor in the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College Dublin. With her expertise in future cities and autonomous vehicles, she is spearheading the charge towards a more efficient and sustainable urban future.

Her passion for technology started in France, where she was born and went on to study engineering. She then came to Ireland and TCD in particular for her last year of her master’s degree in 2002.

She then stayed on to do a PhD, a postdoc and then become a lecturer. “20 years later, I still haven’t left Ireland, nor even Trinity.”

Driving the future of urban living

While all science and technology sparked an interest in her, she told that her passion for smart cities in particular came about because tech “is only useful if it eventually improves people’s lives”. This, she said, is done by looking at how ICT can be exploited to share urban resources better, for example improving traffic congestion or making the air cleaner.

“When I started, I was fascinated by autonomous cars – at the time a pretty far-fetched concept – and I am excited to see them become a reality (this might also have to do with the fact that I don’t have a driving license).”

However, she said what really excites her about autonomous cars is the idea of them being able to communicate with each other to improve overall traffic flow. “Our research shows that even a small proportion of connected autonomous vehicles, if they cooperate, can improve the traffic safety and efficiency for all road users, that’s an amazing opportunity.”

‘We want to do new cool things that are grounded in what people need rather than just being a cute idea’

Bouroche is also a part of TCD’s Future Cities Research Centre, which undertakes multidisciplinary research that enables behavioural change for sustainability in urban infrastructure through sensor, communication and analytical technology.

“A number of my PhD students look at whether and how we can get connected autonomous vehicles to collaborate with each other on roads shared with human-driven vehicles, to help improve the traffic safety and efficiency in different settings,” she said.

“Other students look at the same aspect of collaboration, but this time between urban travellers, be they using their private car, active mobility such as private or shared bikes, public transport. We are investigating whether by planning journeys collaboratively, the efficiency of the urban transportation networks can be improved and congestion reduced. Finally, another project looks at how we can detect and track pedestrians to map out how they interact with the city while preserving their privacy.”

The rocky road to progress

While the path to realising the vision of smart cities is paved with challenges, Bouroche said the most important part is keeping an eye on the prize – that is, doing research that really makes a difference to people’s lives.

“We want to do new cool things that are grounded in what people need rather than just being a cute idea. Then it is about how to increase the impact of the research – can we make it a reality, even when the commercial interests are not obvious?

“Consider our work on connected autonomous vehicles – we show that they could improve the traffic safety and efficiency of the entire traffic flow (including human-driven and non-connected autonomous vehicles), but because it is not expected to benefit their individual drivers particularly, car manufacturers have no incentive to investigate them,” she said.

With this in mind, Bouroche wants to make sure this area of research doesn’t get left behind which, she said, may include convincing the EU to create regulation to mandate such cooperation between cars.

While advocating for industry-wide regulation sounds like a mammoth task, we only need to look to the recent AI Act to know that the EU and other jurisdictions are looking carefully at regulating the tech we use in our daily lives.

And in terms of how the smart cities area has developed over time, one change Bouroche is happy to have seen in her career is the locations in which this research is now focused.

“We are slowly moving away from working on the concepts of new smart cities in wealthy countries towards retrofitting cities, with all their existing infrastructure, in different types of countries,” she said.

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic