When Columbus, Ohio won the Department of Transportation Smart City challenge last week, it qualified to receive the Flow software suite developed by Sidewalk Labs, an offshoot of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The software will be free as part of the overall Smart City package. Sidewalk Labs mission is to “improve city life for everyone.” Flow is how it plans to do it.
The system uses monitors embedded in streets and stand-alone wireless connected kiosks to monitor traffic flow. The data it receives is merged with Google Maps and Google’s Waze app to predict the most efficient routes for drivers to follow at all times of the day.
“Flow is about using data and analytics to help cities work with their citizens to increase the efficiency of road, parking, and transit use, improving access to mobility for all,” says Anand Babu, COO of Sidewalk Labs. “Flow will allow cities to understand their transportation systems in real time, and could be used to improve and plan public transportation, guide drivers directly to parking, or point commuters to shared mobility options they can use when public transportation is not an option.”
Speaking of parking, the Smart City software could identify all available parking spaces in the city. It could even allow private companies to monetize empty lots and garages on nights and weekends when they are not needed for employees. Drivers would be guided to an available space and pay for it with an app. The system would also notify drivers when the time they have paid for has expired. Or it could alert city authorities if overtime parking charges are in order. The system could attempt to regulate urban congestion by instituting “surge” pricing during peak commuting hours.
Google has made a modest investment in Uber and thinks its software could help integrate car sharing and ride hailing activities with public transportation systems. That could actually save cities money if they don’t have to hire more drivers or purchase more buses or streetcars. Google is still working diligently on its autonomous driving car, which could replace taxis and even Uber itself at some point in the future.
No good deed goes unpunished, of course. Writing in The Guardian, MIT’s Carlo Ratti, says he is concerned that Alphabet is effectively building itself a monopoly by not opening its platform up to other companies. Then again, perhaps it will do so once it has used the feedback it gets from the Columbus operation to refine its program.