After highly publicized accidents and fatalities, most municipal IT execs are waiting for autonomous vehicles to be proven safe beyond any doubt before building next-generation roadways and edge infrastructure for their cities and towns.
Not Michael Sherwood, CIO of the City of Las Vegas. He is moving full steam ahead to attract more visitors and shape Las Vegas into America’s city of the future.
“Las Vegas is thriving to bring tourism back. The single greatest thing we can do is provide the foundation for some of the most advanced technologies here, one of them being the connected roadway,” Sherwood says.
To date, Sherwood’s IT department has installed more than 150 intersections with advanced internet of things (IoT) equipment along the Las Vegas strip, in a small number of adjacent streets, and from the airport to Fremont Street. The CIO is working with several autonomous vehicle manufacturers, such as Motional, Amazon Zoox, and Halo, as well as the Kaptyn private car service for its electric vehicle (EV) fleet and Cisco for its connected roadway infrastructure and 5G wireless backbone.
“While the vehicle has a bunch of technology, our roadway has a bunch of technology as well,” says Sherwood, who dubs it the city’s traffic ecosystem. “We use technology to communicate to the vehicle, which can read lights, but now we can send data to the vehicle telling them when the light is going to change.”
In addition to the plethora of IoT sensors for collecting data, the intersections are equipped with connected traffic controllers and pre-emptive emergency vehicle signals that emit data to routers and ultra-fast wireless backhauls over fiber or 5G networks and then on to the city’s IoT hub. The city also equips the roadway with dynamic messaging signs for weather emergencies or important bulletins.
A two-way street
This bidirectional communication enabled by the city’s connected roadway and its multicloud infrastructure makes Las Vegas unique, Sherwood says. The city and some portions of Clark County are capable of both retrieving data from autonomous vehicles and the roadway and transmitting data back to autonomous vehicles, as well as to certain models of automobiles that have built-in dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), the CIO says.
City of Las Vegas
“We have over 74 autonomous taxis that are currently operating in Las Vegas and you can use the Lyft app and hail an autonomous vehicle,” the CIO says. “That autonomous vehicle actually drives in mixed-flow traffic, meaning along with you and I as we’re driving,” says Sherwood, adding that a human driver is always a co-pilot in each autonomous vehicle.
Las Vegas has also deployed robo-taxis with vehicle partner Halo designed to swiftly move tourists from McCarron Airport to their hotels on arrival, eliminating the need for hailing taxis or renting cars.
“You get to the airport, go outside, and the vehicle is just waiting for you,” Sherwood notes. “No one is inside. You get in, drive it around, leave it at your hotel and then Halo connects to the vehicle remotely and drives it back for you.”
Sherwood says several other vehicle manufacturers are conducting tests of the city’s IoT infrastructure, but acknowledges the era of autonomous vehicles is still in its infancy, particularly since the autonomous vehicles driven today in Las Vegas have human co-pilots. Still, the connected infrastructure embedded in the city is delivering speedier transportation as well as increased safety and environmental benefits, he says.
“It doesn’t sound too exciting, but people are able to get from A to B more in a prompt fashion. We are reducing carbon emissions. We are reducing traffic congestion,” Sherwood says. “Kaptyn EV vehicles also have the ability to connect into this system and we’re looking to provide data to bicyclists and pedestrians … a diversity of vehicles, types of transportation, and different communities.”
Safety comes first for Sherwood, and he insists that all autonomous vehicles on the roadways in Las Vegas have human co-pilots in case of a technical mishap. Still, he is eyeing the leaps made by autonomous vehicle manufacturers and says he will not shy away from the risks once he gets the green light from inspectors.
The tech driving Las Vegas
Sherwood knows how important technology can be to speeding up Las Vegas’ reputation as a top destination in the bumpy aftermath of a pandemic that brought tourism to a halt.
Critical to the connected roadway are the 150 new intersection devices the city has installed that incorporate far more than red, yellow, and green lights. Modern autonomous vehicles likewise have an abundance of IoT sensor data, such as temperature and speed, as well as cameras, video, and timers embedded within them can be, if activated, sent to the city’s cloud for monitoring.
The city’s IoT network, which runs on a multicloud infrastructure, includes cameras, air-quality sensors and LiDAR sensors, which collect 3D data about people and traffic count, as well as distance and range readings from one vehicle to another.
The city’s Cisco-based LiDAR detection can also detect wrong-way drivers and oncoming vehicles, issue e-tickets, and warn construction workers and pedestrians about a speeding vehicle heading their way. Police and fire vehicles will also be able to tap into the data dashboard to alert vehicles on the road of the time of their approach and to turn intersection lights to red to help prevent collisions.
5G is another key factor that will drive more use of autonomous vehicles, Sherwood acknowledges. Currently, only about 20% of 5G wireless networking is rolled out in the US today. As that increases, especially in urban areas, the innovations and capabilities that will be developed will be “phenomenal,” Sherwood claims.
Analyst Sandeep Mukunda, research manager for digital automotive and transportation strategies at IDC, says Las Vegas is not the only city engaged in connected roadways. Miami, Detroit, San Francisco, and Phoenix are also conducting “trial and error” pilots of autonomous vehicles using connected roadway technologies, says Mukunda, who sees safety as a primary benefit, especially as police and fire departments tie into connected roadways to optimize their response to emergencies.
Still, Mukunda says pilots are very early in the process and does not expect autonomous vehicles to be fully operational until 2030. “This is in the very, very initial stages of production. There will be a lot of trial and errors,” he says.
Beyond autonomous vehicles
The city’s investment in 5G and IoT isn’t all about autonomous vehicles and tourism. It will also benefit residents of Las Vegas, helping the community with workforce development, education, maintenance, and energy conservation, Sherwood says. For instance, Las Vegas’ IT staff is employing IoT sensors to collect data to determine the ideal times, such as when parks are least populated, to send out cleanup crews and perform maintenance.
IoT sensors, Sherwood says, also constantly monitor water usage — a critical data metric for Las Vegas. “We live in a desert,” Sherwood says. “We need to save and conserve water. It’s so important now to have that type of data that we never had before.”
While the CIO acknowledges that Las Vegas’ transformation into the city of the future is still in its infancy, private entities — modern hotels, casinos, and entertainment venues — are also getting in on the act. The pandemic accelerated the deployment of basic IoT equipment such as keyless check-in and automated cleaning devices at several hotels, and there is even a robotic bartender at Planet Hollywood’s Tipsy Robot bar, Sherwood quips.
Notably, The Boring Company has been operating a trial Tesla EV “subway-like” transportation system under the Las Vegas Convention Center for more than a year. The company recently received approval from the Las Vegas City Council to expand this transport to select hotels and casinos and, eventually, to the airport, Sherwood expects.
The Wynn and Encore hotels have been granted approvals for Boring’s underground stations and “it’s now been approved to come to downtown Las Vegas, and it will hit the Circa, which is our brand-new casino,” the CIO says. “Over time, it will expand to most of the casinos.”
In the meantime, Sherwood and the City of Las Vegas will continue to expand its connected roadway with partners, incorporating more innovative sensors and devices to deliver a range of data to the city’s cloud.
“We build the infrastructure,” Sherwood says. “This is a big game.”