Smart Cities Under Attack: Aside From Cyber Security, How Was The Traffic?

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CleanTechnica is reporting from the Muni World cyber security conference in Tel Aviv this week, staged under the title, “The Terror of Tomorrow: Smart City Under Attack.” Kicking things off on Day 1 of the three-day event was the CIO of Palo Alto, California, Dr. Jonathan Reichental. Palo Alto is a regular feature around CleanTechnica for its leadership in climate action and other clean tech fields, but even this forward-thinking city is finding that vehicular traffic is one of the stickier wickets to get through.

Our visit to Muni World is sponsored by the non-profit organization Vibe Israel, so thanks Vibe!

Cyber Security: First, Admit You Have A Problem

The conference really was all about cyber security, but Dr. Reichental kicked things off with a talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so we’ll go with that.

To be clear, Palo Alto does recognize cyber security as a threat issue. The city has a comprehensive threat assessment and response planning operation in hand, which includes cyber attack along with a slew of other natural and human-caused crises.

Here’s a snippet from the city’s 2017 emergency planning update:

A cyber terrorist can infiltrate many institutions including banking,medical, education, government, military, and communication and infrastructure systems.The majority of effective malicious cyber-activity has become web-based. Recent trends indicate that hackers are targeting users to steal personal information and moving away from targeting computers by causing system failure.

That may seem a little bland, but the city’s ranking system puts the risk of cyber attack at “very high,” that being the highest of four levels.

The document also echoes a cyber security observation expressed by many of the Muni World participants. Cyber attack is especially difficult to predict and prevent because its borders are limitless. Here’s the Palo Alto threat assessment on that subject:

One of the difficulties of malicious cyber activity is that its origin could be virtually anyone, virtually anywhere.

Aside From That Cyber Security Thing, What About The Traffic?

When the topic turns to greenhouse gas emissions, cyber security does play a key role. That’s because many of the pathways for cutting greenhouse gases in cities involve the very vectors that are susceptible to cyber attack. In the context of Dr. Reichental’s talk, climate action means cutting emissions related to traffic, and that involves connectable — or already connected — devices like traffic signals and cars, especially autonomous cars.

Reichental had a lot to say on that topic (following comments edited for flow):

Traffic is a global phenomenon. In Palo Alto, if you spend 40-45 minutes driving 12 miles you can conclude our system of transportation is woefully broken.

The biggest contributor to greenhouse gasses in northern California is cars. The next biggest source is cows. In fact, eating more meat is killing the planet, but it is easier to get people out of cars then to get meat out of their mouths.

Cities bring prosperity…but it’s come at a price. The powering of our cities and our lifestyle is killing people. Humans are moving into cities, cities are creating the climate crisis, cities must solve it.

Dr. Reichental is among those who foresee that self-driving cars are inevitable, and that they will be part of the greenhouse gas solution.

However, the transition will come at a price:

The world is moving to self-driving cars, there is no longer a debate.

Next to working in a form of government, the next-biggest profession in the US is truck driver. Five to seven million people will need jobs after autonomous driving comes.

Autonomous driving will also have a significant downstream effect on jobs and the economy: for example it will disrupt highway rest stops and gas stations.

Nevertheless, autonomous vehicles save lives. About 1.4 million people die in car accidents every day globally…it turns out that humans are really bad at driving.

Reichental also hints at the cyber security problem that must be addressed.

Cars will be connected: Silicon Valley is the new Detroit. Cars are software on wheels. In two to three years every car will be a connected car.

And, electric vehicles and car sharing will also come into play.

It will also be the end of the combustion engine. Car companies will not have to make as many cars, because there will be cars on demand. Look at Ford, it’s not a car company, it’s a mobility company. The E-bikes in Palo Alto are funded by Ford.

He circles back around to autonomous driving…

Self-driving cars are most important development because of the complete downstream impact.

Also, what will be the app store for auto vehicles? That’s a trillion-dollar question.

…and makes the point that autonomous, connected cars enable a far more efficient flow of traffic through intersections:

There will be no need for traffic signals. There will be more efficient intersections, because cars will negotiate with each other for position.

Aside from greenhouse gas reduction, another benefit is the flexibility in urban design enabled by autonomous, connected cars:

The US was built around cars, not people. Our grid system supports cars. The car has disconnected us, ruined our neighborhoods. With autonomous cars it can be different. We can get back place, take back place.

The redesign of traffic lanes in New York City’s Times Square is the example cited by Reichental. Though it does not involve autonomous cars, the new Times Square layout demonstrates the possibilities that open up when traffic is rerouted, without sacrificing flow.

The new design substitutes walkable spaces and pedestrian malls for traffic lanes, and according to Reichental’s information, the flow of traffic around Times Square actually improved under the new configuration.

Energy & Cyber Security

Grid security is a hot topic, but Reichental kind of skimmed over the cyber security angle when he steered the conversation toward a discussion of energy and urban air pollution:

There is no such thing as clean coal. There is no positive outcome from coal power plants, they are temporary and disruptive.

The biggest story is solar: unlimited power every single day. Fossil fuels not going away but renewables are surging and prices are going down a lot — and fast. Solar is the cheapest power that humanity has ever produced

We have to make the choice in how we vote and how we innovate. Look at Los Angeles. In Los Angeles they made a choice (this comment was accompanied by an image of downtown LA in its smoggy past, and clear-skied LA now).

We can make a difference if we make these technological choices in our cities. Palo Alto is an example of using the internet of things IoT) in a city context. IoT can solve problems, for example about 60% of urban traffic is people looking for parking spaces.

Dr. Reinchenstal concluded on an upbeat note: the need for action is urgent, but the technology is in hand. Older cities need to be retrofitted with new technology, and new cities can learn from past mistakes:

Hopefully you’re concerned, hopefully you’re optimistic, hopefully you’re inspired.

For more CleanTechnica coverage on Palo Alto, check out the city’s electric vehicles initiative including an EV-ready element for homes, its ambitious carbon neutral goal, and its homegrown autonomous vehicle industry (our sister site has also been on the ball when it comes to keeping up with Palo Alto).

As for that whole cyber security thing, stay tuned for more on that. The other speakers, including representatives from Radware and FortyTwo Global along with former Mossad director Tamir Pardo, had plenty to say about cyber security and its relationship to autonomous driving, IoT and the kind of smart technology needed to power the globe into the low-carbon economy of the future.

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Photo: by Tina Casey.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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