BMW’s latest innovation claims to cut down on fuel costs — but it’s only … – Business Insider

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2015

It was energy savings that Matt Ginsberg, Connected Signals’ CEO, stressed most when I called him to speak about the app. As Jeff Gonder—a researcher whom Ginsberg pointed me toward—and his colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have shown, eliminating or minimizing stop-and-go driving can result in significant energy savings, even under less-than-optimal driving conditions.

EnLighten AppBMW/Connected SignalsA view of the EnLighten app from inside a BMW

Truly ideal driving behaviors would enable “fuel savings of over 30 percent,” though as Gonder hastens to note, such conditions “would in reality only be achievable through automated control of vehicles and traffic flow.”

Still, he told me in an email, “double-digit fuel savings” are not implausible.

Ginsberg suggested that EnLighten might be able to help nudge drivers in just such an energy-efficient direction. “As we work this into more cars, “ he told me, “we can do things like help you find routes where there will be fewer red lights.”

Optimistic that such a feature might make a real difference, he reaffirmed Gonder’s assertion, saying that automakers have suggested this might result in “something like a 10-percent increase in fuel economy.” While EnLighten is only functional in nine cities, that might not mean much for the environment. But at scale, such changes could be significant, especially in concert with other efforts. During our conversation, Ginsberg seemed legitimately excited about it.

He told me that he used to work on Wall Street but grew tired of informing his then-young son that he “bought and sold pieces of paper.” By contrast, he said, he can now give a much better answer, “because we’re saving a lot of gas. This is an unambiguous social good.”

It’s also a good that requires a great deal of minute work, literally local on every level. To ensure proper synchronization, many coordinated traffic light systems relay data to and from a central controller. It’s these controllers, which are often connected to the Internet, that feed Connected Signals the information that it uses in its app.

But as Gonder told me, when his company first receives the data, it’s “relatively dirty.” In order to make sense of the mess, Connected Signals has to mathematically model every light in its system. While Gonder stressed that this process “isn’t incremental,” it still speaks to the surprising complexities that underlie apps like EnLighten. Simply bringing an object like a traffic light online doesn’t automatically make it accessible. 

EnLighten’s seemingly scant coverage is also a consequence of the difficulty of accessing traffic light systems in the first place.

Gonder estimates that there are something like 300,000 connected traffic lights worldwide (he did not mention how he had come by this figure) and that his company gets “data from about 10,000” of them. Because traffic coordination information isn’t publicly available, companies like Connected Signals have to make a case to the municipalities that control it.

This means that much of Ginsberg’s job involves “political grunt work.” Some cities are apparently still reluctant to let companies use information from light systems in commercial products, but Ginsberg hopes that proposed future studies by organizations such as NREL will help convince them.

Ultimately, EnLighten—or other apps like it—will probably reach far beyond BMW. Indeed, Andreas Winckler, a BMW engineer who helped push the collaboration forward in its early stages, told me he thinks it may be “a pilot project for the industry.” Pointing to a research project about traffic signal control that his company conducted with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, Winckler observed that this technology will become more effective as it’s integrated into more vehicles.

If and as Connected Signals’ work becomes more standard, it may play a meaningful role in the development of other technologies. Automated vehicles, for example, could benefit from more direct integration with technological infrastructure, since it will allow them to anticipate road conditions before they come into camera range.

These goals imply a great deal of work still ahead—municipal outreach, infrastructural development, software advancements, and so on. This is work that’s unlikely to set the Internet aflame in the way that the EnLighten-BMW pairing did. Nevertheless, when the first flush of journalistic enthusiasm wears off, the projects that empowered it will keep trudging along. Small as it seems, EnLighten is an important reminder that we make our future from fragments and build it in pieces and parts.


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