Evolving smart cities to a driverless car future: Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto

By: Jordan

18, July, 2016


Connected Car - Data - Featured - Interviews - IoT - North America - Smart Cities -


It goes without saying that the move to a smart city is complex. But it’s not just about the technology. It’s about getting the current infrastructure up to speed, making sure the system keeps running at all times, and preparing for an indeterminate future as best you can.

Jonathan Reichental is CIO of the City of Palo Alto in California. With a population of just over 65,000 at the last count, the city can act as a test bed for larger cities, and vice versa. Yet bearing in mind that many cities grow organically without any comprehensive urban planning, each is different – and each comes with its own challenges.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto will speak at the IoT Tech Expo Smart Cities conference on the 20th October in Santa Clara

One of the most important items on Reichental’s hit list is transportation. When previously speaking to CxO Talk, Reichental threw out an interesting statistic; generally speaking, 40% of congestion in urban areas is down to people looking for parking spaces. The key detail here, he notes, is that one issue puts several others up for disruption. “It’s clearly ripe almost for complete reinvention – everything from smarter traffic signal systems that are adapters and responsive to conditions, to building a city that supports the assumed future of self-driving cars,” Reichental explains.

Once you have self-driving cars, you can completely rethink how you design a city and a neighbourhood. Self-driving cars don’t really need traffic signals or stop signs – they don’t even need true intersections in the traditional sense.

The City of Palo Alto is part of the way there, having moved to add sensors to its traffic signalling systems. The signals are all on the internet and are controlled through a console which connects to the cloud; the cloud connects all the traffic signals, so they can be aware of the traffic around them. Or not, as the case may be; anyone who has ever gotten behind the wheel knows the frustration of being stuck behind a red light for what feels like hours when the road is completely dead.

The way this can be achieved is by collecting huge, vast amounts of data. “Once you begin to think about infrastructure that is connected, has artificial intelligence built into it, has sensors embedded into it, is on the internet, in the cloud, and producing volumes of data, now you’ve got a whole new set of capabilities that will allow you to think about and effect transportation in a completely new way,” explains Reichental. “When we talk about a smart city and the Internet of Things, that’s what we’re talking about.

As with many emerging technologies – the IoT is certainly not alone in this – openness and collaboration are what moves the needle. With all the data Palo Alto collects from its traffic signals and more, all the connected car companies in and around Silicon Valley want it, either in a bundle or in real-time, to improve their operations. But here’s the kicker: these companies, be they agile startups or automotive behemoths, aren’t even sure why they need it. They just know it will probably be useful at some point.

Some examples of the relationship between car and city are evident. If a car has driverless capability, it can take its cue from a red traffic light; how far to go before it hits the traffic light, and whether it will still be red when it gets there. The car’s engine can move up or down accordingly, saving energy and improving efficiency.

Now you have the beginning of what I see as an interesting partnership that we didn’t necessarily deliberately build, but is emerging because of the logical win-win for both of us,” explains Reichental. “We collect the data in the course of the work we’re doing, and then they consume it from us through an API, and then hopefully build better, safer cars.

Reichental, who has been CIO of Palo Alto since 2011, is a keynote speaker at the IoT Tech Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center on October 20, discussing how and why ‘our future belongs to smart cities’. Despite all the technological innovations taking place and the pace of change in recent years – “the IT guy before me was basically a caretaker IT guy…today I’m in meetings about how we design our traffic signal systems” –  his theory on the bigger picture is simple.

The thesis I’ve been talking about now for a couple of years is very basic, but the implications are significant,” he explains. “What I mean by that is [that] we are going about our business in cities every day, and cities aren’t really supporting us very well.

“The one thing I recognise – we should all recognise – is that it’s incredible they work at all.

Author: James Bourne, Editor, TechForge

Image credit: istock / peshkov