Smart Cities and Cars

Written by: Sara Dennis
This article is part of a series we are posting about Smart Cities and how they will influence our future.

How often do you use your car? Did you know the average car is only in use about 5% of the time or less? Smart cities are changing some of the ways we think about traditional car use by incorporating new ideas about cars into their visions for the future, with electric and autonomous vehicles, in addition to connected vehicle technology. These offer several advantages for cities and people.

Electric vehicles can provide a wide variety of benefits for communities and the environment, so many smart cities, like Columbus, are replacing traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) cars with electric ones. ICE cars emit greenhouse gases and produce other pollutants that cause smog and air pollution, which can negatively affect human health. On the contrary, electric vehicles have no direct emissions and can be charged using renewable energy, rather than fossil fuels.


Through the Smart Columbus grant, the City of Columbus was able to buy (lease-to-own) 93 electric vehicles to replace the city’s aging vehicles. The program is also working on installing charging stations around Columbus to promote consumer adoption of electric vehicles, another one of the city’s goals. Private companies are also investing in electric vehicles, and we’ve seen the emergence of two new ride service companies in Columbus, Hopper Carts and FreeRide LLC, that use electric golf carts and micro-transit vehicles to take people short distances around the city.

Self-driving cars, or fully autonomous vehicles, are also a part of the plan for many smart cities, because of their potential for increased safety, sustainability and ability to free up space used for parking. Due to their enhanced safety, the weight and size of fully autonomous vehicles can be reduced, decreasing fuel consumption. Additionally, it takes the average driver about 20 minutes to find a parking space in an urban environment. On top of that, studies have found that approximately 30-60% of cars driving around a downtown center are circling around, looking for a parking space. Since fully autonomous vehicles don’t necessarily have to find and use parking spaces, they can also reduce traffic and congestion in urban areas, as well as save people time. With the extra space not used for parking, there can be more room for bike-lanes, wider sidewalks and other amenities such as green infrastructure, which can help mitigate urban heat island effect and reduce stormwater runoff.  Furthermore, they have potential to decrease private car ownership and increase ride sharing or shared ownership, meaning the vehicles would get much more use throughout their lifetime than the average car currently does.

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Alongside fully autonomous vehicles, connected vehicle technology is also being developed. This technology would allow cars, buses, trucks, trains, our smartphones, roads and other infrastructure to interact with each other using various signals. By connecting with other vehicles, fully autonomous vehicles can maintain safe driving distances and avoid collisions. These signals and sensors could also alert driving systems about upcoming traffic, potholes, obstacles, or bad weather, giving the car or driver extra time to prepare to slow down or get information about an alternate route. Decreasing traffic jams via alternate routes can help increase efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This technology would also enable platooning, when connected vehicles travel within a close distance of one another, reducing energy consumption by decreased wind resistance.

Connected vehicles could also communicate with smart infrastructure at certain points, providing more data to analyze to make further infrastructure improvements. Smart infrastructure can also connect to specific vehicles and give traffic light priorities to emergency vehicles and buses.

While it may take some time before we have flying cars like the Jetsons, these new innovations and technologies will certainly change the way we think about vehicles and interact with our cities.