Written by IEEE | October 15, 2018

According to new research published on IEEE Xplore, 70% of the world’s population will likely live in cities by 2050, “resulting in an unprecedented increase in the consumption of existing resources.” And while cities have their environmental advantages, like smaller geographic footprints that impact fewer ecological systems, they still present a number of challenges. For example, major cities’ usage of fossil fuels “constitutes 75% of global energy resource use,” despite occupying only approximately 5% of the planet’s total land mass.

Smart city technologies often come up as having the potential to improve quality of life in urban areas, but there’s also increasing hope that they can make cities more sustainable, too.

Before we get too far, what exactly constitutes a smart city? We asked IEEE Senior Member Shawn Chandler, Chair of the IEEE Internet of Things Smart Cities Working Group, to explain it: “A smart city uses technology and data to align physical, institutional, social and technical elements of the city, assisting public, government and other stakeholders to improve performance of city functions, increase awareness of city resources and advance the well-being of citizens.”

Traffic management, public transit, water and waste management, public safety, electricity and natural gas supply all present challenges with reliability, particularly as the systems age. Many of you reading this are familiar with these problems first-hand. And as cities grow, the demands on this infrastructure increase, as do their importance for city operations.

Legacy city infrastructure is being retrofitted with sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies familiar from consumer devices, like Bluetooth and near-field communication. This generates 24/7 real-time metering data, the analysis of which the researchers are optimistic will “improve city operations, ensure the well-being of citizens and meet the expectations for urban sustainability.”

Let’s take a look at vehicles in urban areas as an illustrative example.

Emissions are a major issue for cities, both in terms of environment and human health. To Chandler, electric vehicles are a clear answer because they’re “demonstrably more efficient than petroleum-based transportation in terms of fuel consumption,” while they also “reduce local air pollution, and overall pollution by transferring the energy production to higher efficiency resources including both renewable and centralized power generation.”

To the researchers looking into sustainability, the effects of electric public transit buses goes beyond emissions: “electric buses can work closely with the electric power infrastructure to minimize the impact of charging batteries at peak load hours.” Additionally, with proper coordination, these vehicles can help with frequency regulation for the grid when not in service.

That gives you an initial sense of how these vehicles are part of the larger smart city infrastructure. An even more direct case is autonomous vehicles, whose efficient operation “require a seamless integration of automobiles, sensors, actuators, telecommunications and analytics with legacy transportation infrastructures,” according to the researchers.

This is obviously no small task. To Chandler, exchanging data between these entities “will require massive communications capacities that [5G and 6G communications] will be able to deliver reliably.” There are Transmitter articles on the Internet of Vehicles and the role of 5G in the IoT if you want to read more about them.

Ultimately, as these technologies grow more advanced, the number of cars in cities should decrease. Says Chandler, “autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the ‘ownership’ model that has been accepted and culturally ingrained planet-wide over the last 100 years.” For many people, owning a car is one of their biggest expenses, yet “they are sitting idle for 90% of the time or more.” This decrease would be good news for environmental sustainability.

Free access to this research from IEEE Electrification Magazine (IEEE Power & Energy Society) is provided by IEEE Technical Community Spotlight, a newsletter that shares the latest breaking news from IEEE societies and communities. You can find the latest issue here. Read the full paper before free access ends on December 10th.