With more connected vehicles and real-time traffic data, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) aim to improve our daily travels by keeping drivers safer and better informed.
Until now, ITS systems have used short-range comms. But Nokia's navigation division, HERE - which is about to be sold to a group of German car makers - is preparing a pilot with Finnish traffic agencies to test a system that uses existing commercial mobile networks.
"Transportation is one, or maybe the only, industry sector where the internet and modern mobile technologies haven't yet made a huge impact," Mika Rytkönen, Nokia HERE's head of digital transport infrastructure and business development for the EU, says.
"What we are building now is a system where standard mobile networks can be used to connect road traffic to the cloud and traffic-management centres. This C-ITS [cooperative ITS] can be used to introduce new digital services to increase safety and sustainability and ease traffic jams."
The upcoming pilot, dubbed Coop, follows a small, but promising proof-of-concept trial of a cellular C-ITS system that Nokia completed in Helsinki in August. VTT, the Finnish Technical Research Centre, then conducted a technical assessment of the trial and confirmed the system performed well in distributing targeted notifications on traffic conditions and road hazards to relevant vehicles.
Messages were sent and received at the correct time and place. The typical time between a driver reporting an incident and it being received by other drivers in the trial was under two seconds.
While most ITS solutions currently use short-range communications technology, such as DSRC and ITS-G5, or IEEE 802.11p, Nokia's breakthrough is it claims to have the first C-ITS deployment based on existing 3G and 4G/LTE networks.
"This C-ITS service differs from similar systems significantly in that it enables two-way communication between road users and traffic-management centres. Also, road administrators don't have to invest in expensive roadside communication equipment," says Ilkka Kotilainen, project manager at the Finnish Transport Agency (FTA), which commissioned Coop.
Rytkönen adds that while DSRC networks offer superior latency, they are also expensive to implement as significant investment is required in new infrastructure and onboard vehicle technology.
Traffic will never be the same
Nokia's claims will be put to test in April when Coop is launched as part of a wider NordicWay cellular C-ITS project. The two-year pilot is led by Nokia and conducted in collaboration with the FTA and Finnish Transport Safety Agency, or Trafi.
It will initially cover three highways in southern Finland and 1,000 consumer and professional vehicles and build towards a large-scale deployment across Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
Unlike some automated solutions, such as the slippery-road alert system currently being tested by Volvo in Sweden and Norway, which uses onboard car technology to detect road conditions, Coop drivers will initially report safety information through a smartphone app. This information could relate to obstacles on the road, weather conditions, slippery surfaces or accidents.
Drivers using a mobile app might sound like a safety hazard in itself, but Nokia emphasizes that the user interface is designed to cause minimal disruption and is in line with EU regulations.
"When road users see something on the road, they press a button on the app which transfers the information to our cloud service and onto the traffic management centre [using existing mobile networks]," explains Rytkönen. "When the information is received, the data is analysed in the cloud to determine which users need the information. It is then sent to relevant road users who are in or entering the [hazard] area."
The end goal is to develop an automated cloud communication system on cellular networks, which uses data generated by in-vehicle sensors and the surrounding road infrastructure. Rytkönen believes Nokia's cellular C-ITS solution could be deployed to consumers as soon as 2018.
"This is because there is no need to build new physical network systems," Rytkönen says. "We have the cloud, integration with traffic-management centres, and then we'll build models that service providers can use to develop new applications. We see it as an ecosystem."
But these ecosystems will take time. Kotilainen points out that wide-scale adoption of traffic-information systems will require not only acceptance from users and road administrators, but also standardisation and interoperability between different countries.
He expects C-ITS to become a significant communication channel for vehicles by 2020, a date by which Gartner estimates there will be 250 million connected vehicles on the road.
"Transportation is about to face great disruption," concludes Rytkönen.