Sustainable Transport in Data-Reliant Cities


Now that today’s megacities seem to be reaching the tipping point for what their urban infrastructure can support, the race is on to figure out a way to make transportation more sustainable. Whether it’s addressing the problem of congestion and pollution, or wasted fuel and time resources, at the forefront of what’s driving the new changes in mobility is one thing—data.

Data-driven mobility solutions

By 2030, an estimated six in ten people will be living in smart cities where connectivity will be at the heart of urban living. Converging technologies like the electrification of our transport systems, autonomous driving, and the growing adoption of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) solutions mean that mobility is getting safer, more accessible, and less wasteful. However, all these developments will not have been possible without data to ensure transport resources are distributed efficiently.

Driven by potential cost-savings and environmental benefits, nearly half of all city bus fleets worldwide may be electrified within the next seven years and data is sure to be a major enabler. Telematics data from the road, predictive maintenance software and real-time location data are all tracked to ensure buses are adequately charged for their journeys and aren’t left stranded without power when congestion suddenly builds up from road accidents happening nearby.

The electrification of public transport will also likely happen alongside deep investments in charging technology that may help resolve one of the biggest obstacles in making autonomous driving a reality—the immense electricity demands to compute and process a constant stream of sensor and camera data. Autonomous cars generate roughly 1GB of data per second, involving anything from communication with roadside sensors and surrounding vehicles, to cloud services and remote data-processing servers. A whole new way of life centered around driverless journeys will not only power alternative mobility services such as self-driving taxis or autonomous ridesharing vehicles, but also propel a whole new market for in-car infotainment.

In the absence of secure connectivity

However, in the increasingly connected world, keeping transport systems up isn’t just about making sure these innovative alternatives can scale or prove profitable. It’s also a question of how transportation can remain reliable in the face of a growing dependence on data-driven solutions, and the immense potential for hackers to exploit these expanding attack surfaces.

Just like how infotainment or intelligent driver assistance is served up over-the-air, the spread of malware from one connected object to another could possibly turn the smart highways of tomorrow into conduits for mass infection. Furthermore, attacks common to the web will become more relevant in the mobility context as transport infrastructure increasingly consists of digital elements like communication between IoT devices. DDoS attacks that typically disrupt website access, for example, have in recent years proven successful in targeting transportation services, such as in Sweden and Denmark.

It’s a good reminder that data-powered solutions are also data-reliant solutions, which means the integrity of urban transport systems will be increasingly tied to the integrity of their data. Unfortunately, however, the conversation on future mobility often misses the question of data security and the real physical danger cyber attacks can have on the road.

3 Areas to Strengthen

All this is not to say we’re headed in the wrong direction. Cybersecurity simply has to go hand-in-hand with any digital transformation in the mobility space. Public utilities and services will continue to be major targets of state-sponsored cyberattacks and how we embrace smart highways, connected cars, and autonomous bus fleets needs to demonstrate awareness of this fact.

Here are three major areas that need strengthening to make transport more sustainable from the data security perspective.

  • Electric vehicle charging systems and connected smart grid networks
  • Automotive data communication and collection
  • User awareness of cyber risks in the transport context

Electric charging stations are potentially where cars will not just fill their batteries but also receive major firmware upgrades. Besides being a lucrative target for those looking to get free electricity, charging stations may offer more nefarious hackers a means of taking down the electric grid supporting these stations. With bus fleets rapidly becoming electrified, such a hack on the grid could potentially bring a significant portion of public transportation to a standstill. Integrity checks on charging data, charging sources and car batteries are thus important for verifying legitimate access and preventing data tampering. For this, identity management systems utilizing digital signatures and certificates could help provide strong cryptographic authentication.

In the same vein, cryptographic security may be implemented in the mobility space through blockchain technology to apply authentication and encryption at scale to vehicular communications. With an ever-expanding number of IoT objects on the road (connected cars included), identity management is becoming increasingly crucial in the mobility space. Before vehicles and intelligent traffic devices communicate, they may verify their identities through a secure blockchain-based ledger to ensure data is not sent or received by compromised parties. Driver authentication can also be a boon to ridesharing services by ensuring that shared vehicles are only accessed by users with verifiable identities and transparent car use histories.

Car data is an immensely valuable resource in new mobility. Data generated throughout a car’s journey can help guide product improvements, personalize services, highlight business opportunities, or aid in traffic monitoring and urban planning. However, capturing all this data isn’t an easy task. There aren’t yet set standards on what kind of data can be aggregated from a vehicle, who retains access, and for which types of data anonymization is necessary. What complicates things further is the diffused manner in which data is often generated and utilized.

When telematics data, in-vehicle user data, and driving-related operating data are all being collected from disparate sources, the data becomes only accessible to disparate parties. This results in siloed resources that could be much more valuable if various types of data could be recombined and analyzed together. In this case, blockchain may potentially aid in allowing such data brokerage between parties. By making use of smart contracts that help to manage data ownership rights and proper data access, all parties may be able to procure the data they need, and sell the data they have, on a hypothetical blockchain-based data market—like the one AMO Labs is trying to build. This could benefit not just automakers, but also periphery services in the automotive industry, corporate brands hoping to appeal to car-users, and transport planning officials.

Lastly, the race towards a smart transport future isn’t pursued through just technological innovations alone. When it comes down to it, the weakest link in data security is always human. Smart car owners may be tempted to reset their mileage or activate premium features locked by automakers, such as by downloading unofficial firmware that could contain all kinds of hidden malware. Besides potentially handing control over their vehicles to malicious third parties, these car owners also risk compromising others on the transport network. For truly sustainable, data-powered mobility, people need to be able to trust in the safety of their rides—which means it’s everyone’s responsibility to practice basic cyber hygiene, be trained to identify signs of compromised devices, and even how to respond to hack-based traffic incidents on the road.

Ultimately, sustainable transport has to be the product of both innovative and secure data use, allowing cities to reconfigure the use of scarce spatial and material resources, while also approaching mobility from a practical standpoint, in light of the real cyber threats facing transport systems today.