• Ford
  • CES 2018

Alleys Are One of the Keys to the Smart City

Sam Abuelsamid
Oct 17, 2019

Smart Cities

Cities are complex ecosystems, even smaller ones like Ann Arbor, Michigan. They have a higher density of local residents than suburban and exurban regions, a number that can grow substantially thanks to workday commuters. All of this makes getting around increasingly challenging now that more than half of the globe’s population lives in urban areas. Companies like INRIX, Waze, Ford, and others are actively working to alleviate urban mobility challenges with data. Ford recently demonstrated this in its Ann Arbor pilot that starts in the alleyways and covers most of the city. 

When you think of urban mobility, alleys probably don’t immediately spring to mind. But when Eric Wingfield of Ford Advanced Research and Engineering reached out to Craig Hupy, Public Services Administrator for Ann Arbor, the alleys were the first thing Hupy wanted to tackle. If you’ve spent any time exploring most decent sized cities, you will likely have encountered alleys that run down the center of blocks behind buildings. 

These narrow passages provide access for delivery, refuse collection, recycling, and other service vehicles. They also serve as shortcuts for local pedestrians that know their way around. In a way, the alley is a microcosm of the city as a whole, complete with its own challenges created by the limited access. 

Ford’s City Insights Platform

Wingfield is part of the team at Ford creating the City Insights Platform. This platform is the development of the transportation operating system announced by Ford at the 2018 CES. In its current form, the City Insights Platform consists of four modules, safety, parking, transit, and the studio. It is designed to collect data from a variety of sources, including sensors installed around a city and connected vehicles moving through it. The data is aggregated, anonymized, and analyzed to help cities understand how the transportation ecosystem is functioning, where there are issues to address, and help find and evaluate solutions. 

The underlying IT platform includes machine learning tools that can be applied to the data as well as simulation capabilities to build a digital twin for testing countermeasures. Alleys are often narrow and don’t have enough space for two vehicles to pass. If a refuse truck can’t get through because a delivery van is blocking the alley, it may need to continue on another part of the route and come back, or traffic may be backed up into the street. Either way, costs, energy consumption, and congestion can escalate. 

Pilot Deployment

Ford Smart Mobility and Ann Arbor have been conducting a pilot deployment of the City Insights Platform funded by a $117,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. One aspect of the pilot has been to install a variety of sensors around the city, including downtown alleys. Video from the cameras goes through machine vision algorithms, similar to those used in automated vehicles, to recognize who is using the alleys and when. 

This data can then be run through a digital twin simulation, and the scenarios can be adjusted to determine the best ways to manage traffic through the alleys. One possible solution is to monitor dumpsters to help determine when pickups are required and schedule the refuse trucks when traffic is lighter, while also keeping in mind that noise should be avoided at night. 

Other Endeavors

The smart mobility team is also collaborating with the Ford Autonomous Vehicles team to determine how to schedule the company’s upcoming multipurpose automated vehicles, which may also want to take advantage of the alleys for deliveries and pickups. The bottom line is that there is no detail of life in the city that can be ignored in trying to achieve a better mobility ecosystem.