There is big money and big politics behind this stuff and this June 2016 article is a good primer on what's coming.
No, Alphabet Isn't Conspiring to Take Over Public Transit in Columbus
Contrary to a recent article, “smart” transportation technologies like those from Sidewalk Labs aren’t really a big secret. Plus, cities want them.
Google drives about a third of all internet traffic and has the best digital map of the world. Every day, its databases process billions of thoughts and queries, secret and banal, typed into search engines and email subject lines. Among other things, Alphabet Inc., Google’s holding company, builds robots of formidable intelligence. Its technologies will soon be chauffeuring us from points A to B.
Reading about Alphabet’s hush-hush projects, interconnected products, and disruptions both welcome and unwelcome, wary minds may well wonder if its ambitions might include world domination. An article published Monday in the Guardian, about an Alphabet subsidiary’s work with the finalists of the U.S. DOT’s $50 million Smart Cities Challenge, seemed to lean toward that suspicion, starting with a fairly alarmist headline and opening sentence:
Sidewalk Labs, a secretive subsidiary of Alphabet, wants to radically overhaul public parking and transportation in American cities, emails and documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.It goes on to describe some of the services which would usher in this “radical overhaul,” as gleaned from the obtained documents: a platform that allows low-income bus riders to apply public subsidies to ride-sharing services; an app that unifies payment and service information for all modes of transit; public wi-fi kiosks with remote sensing capabilities; and “virtualized parking,” which would use camera-equipped vehicles to scan for empty spaces cities could sell on a virtual parking market.
As the article explains, all of the functions described here are proposed elements of Flow, the transportation-data collection and analysis platform. Flow is one of Sidewalk Labs’ two current, public products (the other is the aforementioned line of kiosks, some of which are in use now in New York City). Flow is currently being offered first to Columbus, Ohio, which won the U.S. DOT’s Smart Cities Challenge last week. The Guardian article goes on to examine a sample contract that describes the terms and conditions required of Columbus by Sidewalk Labs:
Cities like Columbus would be obliged to bring parking signs up to date, re-train enforcement officers and share parking and ridership information with Sidewalk in real time. The company also wants cities to share public transport data with ride-sharing companies, allowing Uber to direct cars to overcrowded bus stops.
All these conditions could mean expensive upgrades to existing technology. “Not every city would be ready to do that,” says [Alexei Pozdnoukhov, director of the Smart Cities Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley]. “Plus, you’ve got a variety of transit operators. Small ones might have to change their entire payment systems.”Overall, the article gives the impression that Flow is some kind of top-down planning regime, conceived in secret by Sidewalk Labs and foisted on cities like Columbus. It makes it sound conspiratorial. But that isn’t really the case.
First, the Guardian article does not mention that Flow was announced in March, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation, as technology offered for free by Sidewalk Labs to the Smart Cities Challenge victor. The exclusive documents obtained by the Guardian were, according to Sidewalk Labs, pitch materials shared with finalist cities that modeled some of the possible functions of Flow. Since the platform has still yet to be deployed in any city, the specific elements of Flow remain a work in progress.
This is not to say that the Guardian’s facts and images came out of nowhere. Flow will, in fact, aim to “increase the efficiency of roads, parking, and transit use,” says Anand Babu, COO of Sidewalk Labs. It will provide real-time transportation information to cities, and it “could be used to improve and plan public transportation, guide drivers directly to parking, or point commuters to shared mobility options they can use when public transportation is not an option.”
But the final product will ultimately be a result of a back-and-forth process with whatever city adopts it first—not a grand transit “fix,” ordained in the shadows. Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff writes in Co.Design that the company worked with the Smart Cities finalists to refine the functions of Flow. According to a number of officials from those cities, that is true. Sidewalk Labs reps flew to meet with each of the seven finalist cities to discuss how their services might work there. According to attendees, those meetings resembled meetings with any other vendor angling to sell young technology to a government: There was give and take....MORE