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Feature: How geofencing technology is improving air quality on city streets

18 October 2017 #Features & Interviews #TNB News #Top Stories

Urban air quality continues to dominate the landscape, and cleaner vehicles form a huge part of the debate.

There’s no doubt that manufacturers working to help address the air quality challenge, and work is also underway to pinpoint the areas most affected by local pollution, and establish how best to use modern vehicles to slash emissions.

Project ACCRA aims to do just that; launched in July, focused on Leeds and partly funded by government body Innovate UK, it’s a year-long venture by a group of different organisations using “smart city” technology to identify particularly polluted areas and, via geofencing, have vehicles with hybrid-electric drivetrains that react accordingly.

Leeds is the focus of a major geofencing trial to help reduce emissions.

Organisations that make up the project include Tevva Motors, Dynniq (a transport systems specialist), Leeds City Council, Cenex, the Transport Systems Catapult and Earthsense.

The project looks at more accurate and instant methods of measuring air quality. It then relays that information to plug-in hybrid vehicles – Tevva trucks, in the case of the project – that can automatically switch to zero emissions mode when they’re on the boundary of congested urban areas.

Simon Notley, Principal Consultant at Dynniq, a member company of Project ACCRA, explains further: “The idea was ‘can we do something like a clean air zone, but a bit cleverer?’ So rather than having a fixed clean air zone, which is in one place and has one rule which is always in force, we’re taking data from traffic detectors and defining where there is a problem with air quality and where a zone could go that would help. Then we devise that zone, and we essentially communicate it to vehicles over the internet.

“The ultimate idea is that this would work with any series hybrid vehicle. The zone is communicated to the vehicle, and the vehicle is asked not to run its diesel or petrol engine while it’s in that zone; it runs on the battery. Conversely – and this isn’t necessarily an aim of the project – but you could also define a [separate] zone where vehicles are encouraged to charge their batteries via their petrol or diesel engine, so they are well charged if they do encounter a clean air zone.”

The trucks aren’t expected to hit the road until near the end of the project, but Tevva’s CEO and founder Asher Bennett, is excited about the opportunity they present.

“By putting air sensors on city vehicles and, along with ground sensors picking up live local emissions, we’ll create algorithms to maximise the lowering of those emissions, based on the control of our vehicles,” he said. “Our range extender is autonomously cloud controlled; it optimises where to use battery power for removing emissions from sensitive areas.”

Tevva Motors will supply hybrid trucks with geofencing software on-board.

Between now and when participating vehicles take to the road next summer, those involved are honing the technology’s ability to isolate air quality hot spots, a big part of which is simply illustrating where the problems are at any particular time.

“You can think of it as being a map,” says Notley, “it’s often how we describe it when we’re talking about what data we’re going to be electing. We want to build an emissions map of Leeds in real time so we understand, at any given moment, where the emissions are. In a sense, that’s much like looking at a rainfall radar or something in the weather world.

“We want to understand where the emissions are coming from, which bits of road, which vehicles are generating these emissions and then, where are they going? Which bits of the air are they hanging around in, and are they near people?”

The project’s aim is not only to move the game along in terms of pollution identification, but also to develop a system that could, theoretically, be fitted to plug-in hybrid/range-extender vehicles that would autonomously smarten their reactions to areas with poorer air quality. The exact form has yet to be fleshed out, but Notley has some ideas.

“It’s hard to say, at the moment, exactly where the technology would sit,” he said. “Would it be a device, would it be a service? There’s definitely potential for a service, which would allow other hybrid vehicle manufacturers to sign up to the system that we provide. Then the local authority, Leeds for example, could run a freight scheme of some kind. “

“Obviously, there would have to be more things like the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme [FORS], for example, and you’d have to figure out what was in it for the freight operators, but you could essentially run some sort of scheme whereby, [if operators] sign up for this zoning system, and run hybrid vehicles, they were permitted to operate in a city centre all day, for example; whereas if you didn’t, you would only be allowed in at night. That’s just pure speculation, but there’s definitely potential for something like that, and it’s very much a kind of cut-and-paste of ACCRA, but expanding it so we actually get a good number of vehicles involved.”

Dynniq Telematics is a partner in the trial.

Assuming all goes to plan, the subsequent technology also has the capacity to be used in other areas. “The idea that you can utilise data and create a dynamic geofence that’s communicated to vehicles – and they change their behaviour when they’re inside it – could be applied to a lot of other things,” adds Notley.

“You could have a dynamic safety zone, for example, that switches on and off outside schools [to cap speed] and it could even be linked to the school bell. When the bell rings, the zone switches on, which means the zone doesn’t activate when it’s an inset day, when it’s not term time etc. It means you do get the zone switched on when there’s a fire alarm, when there wouldn’t normally be kids outside. That component of the technology has a lot of potential for use in other areas.”