Geofencing vehicles, an experiment in Sweden

This article about Geofencing some vehicles in Sweden is quite short, yet the topic connects to multiple opportunities and challenges. Let’s look at the pilot project first and then at some of those connected issues.

Geofencing is a virtual tool in which software uses GPS or similar technology to trigger a preprogrammed or real-time action in vehicles to control their movements within a geographical area. It can regulate a vehicle’s speed within the zone, determine whether the vehicle belongs there and automatically switch hybrid vehicles to electric driving mode.

This type of technology could be used to improve traffic safety by limiting speeds and access, and could lower emissions by keeping lower speeds according to location, time of day, weather conditions, and to assure compliance with regulation.

In a simple use case, a map of restrictions could be downloaded to a vehicle before entering a city and make adjustments to the speed of the vehicle according to zones. No need to be connected, just information added to the truck’s computer.

But in more advanced applications — real-time use, for example — vehicles must be connected. Rules and regulations are in a tech cloud and could be changed based on the actual position of the vehicles, he said. “The cloud service can access the engine of the vehicle using the telematics connection of the vehicle.”

Adjusting for the time of day seems like another particularly promising option.

“Switching to electric drive, in combination with lower speed, can make night time truck deliveries almost silent,” Mr. Berg said. “Increasing night deliveries could lessen congestion during daytime rush hours and create a more even traffic flow around the clock,” improving an area’s quality of life.

Flexibility in the use of public space would also be an intriguing way of Geofencing. Areas could be easily “changed and used for different purposes depending on the time of the day or the season.”

The article mentions a couple of challenges.

[C]ollecting, standardizing and digitizing data on the scale needed to widely implement geofencing remains a challenge. First, developers must come up with a way to make traffic rules machine readable and decide on communications standards. […]

New uses of technology can bring up privacy issues. But one reason the Swedish program focused on professional drivers rather than private ones, Mr. Berg said, is “we believe it is different when the vehicle is a tool provided by the employer,” comparing it to employers’ ability to regulate company computers.

Now for the other ideas this can be connected to. Privacy, mentioned above, might be the first that comes to mind. If vehicles are connected to a city-wide system to receive instructions, then of course the vehicle, its driver, and its occupants can all be tracked. The program discussed makes a useful distinction between private and professional use, but even if the latter is considered different, there is still room for abuse.

This of course brings up, if it didn’t already come to mind, the whole smart cities discussion. Sensors and automation might offer great benefits, but do those benefits outweigh the problems, are they considered for their impacts on various populations, what kinds of guard rails are implemented, and is it worth the downsides?

Geofencing is also a great way to approach the idea of automated vehicles. What makes more sense, or at least what can be best done right now? Private vehicles using imperfect AI to drive themselves in a city? Or public and professional vehicles “co-guided” by Geofencing instructions? More interestingly, can automation “evolve” from Geofencing instead of automation being dropped in a city somewhat at the whim of the constructor?

One potential future this prototype might be pointing at is one where private vehicles are greatly reduced—the many cities changing streets and multiplying slow or pedestrian/bike-first areas show that path forward—while service trucks, buses, taxis, and delivery vehicles are all limited in speed, propulsion type used, and access to areas through some mix of automation and Geofencing instructions.

Image: Volvo Buses/City of Gothenburg. Gothenburg, Sweden, is testing geofencing for public transport. The blue lines in this conceptual rendering indicate the boundaries of a geofenced zone.