Tomorrow, I’m looking forward to going to Los Angeles for CoMotion LA, an annual event and expo in downtown LA that explores the future of mobility and brings together the public and private sectors.
And as I’m getting ready to fly out, I wanted to share with you the latest episode of the CoMotion Podcast. On this episode, I joined CoMotion LA’s Director of Strategy Greg Lindsay, and Nevada RTC Director of Engineering John Penuelas.
When you pair a Nexar-powered dash camera with our app, you join the Nexar network, where every vehicle is learning about what’s happening on the road ahead with the help of vehicles around it. Nexar CityStream — our smart cities data platform — takes anonymous, aggregated data from that network, turns it into insights and intelligence, and shares it with cities, transit authorities, and mobility and mapping companies.
Thanks to a local construction boom, Las Vegas has thousands of new construction zones every year. That’s great news for the local economy, which was hit hardest by the Great Recession out of just about anywhere in the US. But it also makes Nevada RTC’s job of managing traffic and transportation planning a lot more complicated. That’s where Nexar comes in.
This year, Nexar CityStream has been using computer vision to automatically identify where and exactly when these construction zones are causing the most traffic. After a successful first pilot phase with Nevada RTC, we signed an expanded and extended pilot last month.
John and I spoke with Greg about the pilot results, Nexar’s approach to the challenge of using data for good while maintaining privacy, and the future of our roads.
You can listen here.
Here are some of the highlights…
CoMotion LA Director of Strategy Greg Lindsay: How did you hear about Nexar, how did this pilot come about, and what were you trying to solve for?
Nevada RTC Director of Engineering John Penuelas: We were trying to find orange cones and the work zones associated with them …. All of this pent up demand for construction really put a burden on the network in that there were a lot of orange cones everywhere, and we really needed to get a handle on it. Not just for commuters, but for our own operations: operating traffic signals better, operating our transit system better, and Nexar enabled us to do that. We asked them to go find cones for us, and they did exactly that. They are really good at finding cones. We call them cones in lay terms but we’re really talking about temporary traffic control devices that are associated with work zones – lane closures. That was really the Holy Grail. Where are those things? Nexar is helping us find them.
Greg: What safeguards do you put in place on this [to make sure] that when you’re collecting this data from real-time vehicles to create a map of the city that you’re not potentially endangering users?
Nexar CEO Eran Shir: We’ve put in place a whole set of guardrails and protections around [privacy]. First of all, from a policy perspective, everything we do at Nexar is GDPR compliant — even though we are talking about Nevada and not the EU, we adopted strict GDPR standards to make it very clear to drivers that they own their data and they are in control.
Second, we are anonymizing all of the data. That doesn’t mean just anonymizing the data of our users (removing their ride data, aggregating, etc.), it also means anonymizing third party data. So for example we blur faces, license plates, we remove any identifiable information. We trained our deep learning models to identify reflections in the windshield so that we wouldn’t by mistake expose a document that you left on your dashboard.
So we’ve invested a lot in making this data clean. And the second part of it is in order to provide value to RTC on construction zones, it takes a village: it’s not enough to get a single driver to go once over a road — it takes repeated monitoring of any change. And what happens from that is we aggregate this data, strip it of all private information, and make it available as a structured object.
I would also say at a more philosophical level if I may….
Greg: We’re all about philosophy on this podcast, please!
Eran: ….What we are seeing in this world of monitoring the public space is a third way: a new type of business model. Yes, you are generating data, but your private data is not interesting in this context. What’s interesting is the physical data that is not private. The fact that there is an orange cone somewhere or that a traffic light broke down is not private. But it’s extremely valuable – for us, for the cities, for the citizens of the cities. You can do a lot of good things with this data without getting close to dealing in private information.
Greg: Obviously the various autonomous vehicle manufacturers are deploying combinations of cameras and lidar and all sorts of sensors. I’m curious, how do you see Nexar and its tech fitting into an autonomous world?
Eran: ….I believe this is going to be a very long transition. When all is said and done, it will take 40 years to do a full transition where 50% or more of vehicles in the US are autonomous. So we have some time ahead of us. The role that we want to play in the future is we want to be the air traffic control for the roads. We want to be the one that helps the city tell multiple autonomous vehicles which lane to be in.
….The reality is that, if you look at the next 50 years, we’re going to get more and more urbanized. We’re going to put more and more strain on the infrastructure that we all share. Externalities will go through the roof. We have to figure out ways to take the infrastructure that we have and create more value out of it — squeeze the lemon.
From our perspective as a relatively small company, our ability to partner and work with innovative people on the government side like RTC, like John, is really helping us build our vision. It’s a place where everyone benefits.
Check out this episode of the CoMotion Podcast here.