How safe is smart-city technology?

December 1, 2022

Smart cities hold a lot of promise: safer communities, improved transportation, better air quality, and increased digital equity are but a few benefits. There are economic gains too. According to experts, smart cities will be responsible for $2.4 trillion dollars of economic growth by 2025.

Enabling this tech-empowered urban renaissance requires an immense amount of technology – and this involves a great deal of trial and error. However, deploying smart-city innovations in the field can pose many safety hazards. This is particularly true when it comes to transportation improvements. The question is, how can we get untested innovations on city streets in a safe way?


Private test and validation

Unleashing never-before-used technology on city streets is a non-starter. It’s imperative that any transportation solution be tested to the point where it is safe. This is where private testing facilities come into play. They provide dedicated grounds where you can easily iterate and reiterate your partially built product towards a more complete solution.

The biggest benefit of a test facility is that a solution can be assessed for safety considerations without endangering people if it doesn’t work properly. Working with pedestrian or cyclist dummies on sleds allows engineers to determine if the system reacts properly when it encounters the real thing without anyone being hurt. Engineers can continue to introduce various elements to test the bounds of the system’s safety measures, focusing on the necessary tests without having to worry about deploying manual “on-call” drivers.

The other big benefit of a private testing facility is that tests can be done repeatedly under controlled conditions. It can be extremely difficult to find and fix bugs unless you can reproduce conditions exactly. And testing against fixed conditions is necessary for regression tests that ensure you haven’t broken existing capabilities as new ones are introduced. Private testing facilities give you the opportunity to replicate a precise “near-real-world” environment and test against it repeatedly. This is something that cannot be done at all on public streets and is very difficult in semi-controlled areas like company parking lots or in limited indoor spaces like garages.


Limited-scale public deployments

Of course, once your solution is deemed safe in a private environment, it can’t go directly to deployment. The step from private test facility to open public usage involves an intermediate step – limited-scale public deployments. These form a crucial bridge between the controllability of private test grounds and the wild wooliness of real-world conditions. Data collected during a limited public deployment provides valuable data on a system’s performance outside of the lab. It ultimately leads to safer systems since engineers can protect for situations that might not arise in controlled testing.

Maintaining safety in a public test is complex but can be done – first, by limiting the scope of the test in area and in time and second, by brainstorming what could go wrong and standing by with a team that’s prepared for those possibilities. This is also the place to incorporate manual overrides and emergency shutdown procedures – those things that may not be necessary in a private test facility but become crucial once your pre-production solution is exposed to the randomness of limited public trials.



Any cybersecurity expert will tell you that security cannot be “bolted on” just before production. It’s important early in the product development process to create an idea of your cybersecurity architecture, system vulnerabilities, and defensive strategy.

You can’t build a safe product without incorporating security – the two are married together – so it’s ideal to consult early on with cybersecurity experts, even before you’ve finished your system architecture. And check in with that expert team throughout, to ensure that your development process is solid and introduces as few vulnerabilities as possible. Finally, you’ll want to ensure that the system has received adequate cybersecurity testing before it sees real streets, such as white box, black box, and/or pen testing.


Keeping it safe

Producing technologies to support advancements like drone deliveries and autonomous buses requires rigorous and extensive testing, validation, and demonstration to fully assess safety, security, and performance in any condition. After all, no one can afford to have hiccups in the safety of these solutions once they are on public streets.

This is the key guiding principle on which Area X.O is built. This R&D complex for next-gen smart mobility, autonomy, and connectivity technologies operated by Invest Ottawa includes a private, gated innovation facility for tests that can not be conducted safely on city streets; and a public test facility on open city streets when technologies are ready for implementation. The City of Ottawa has installed a plug-and-play smart intersection in the Area X.O public test track, making it easy to swap technology in and out. This infrastructure can be customized to the needs of client companies once their solution is rigorously tested and validated, and implemented with the support of Area X.O and the City. It’s truly a game-changer for companies to gather real-world data and establish a first use case that demonstrates the impact of their solution in snow, sleet, ice, or any weather condition. This accelerates the safe future adoption of these new technologies.

We’ll be discussing this important topic and other smart-city challenges at the upcoming CAV Canada on December 5. A panel with worldwide experts will help us understand the full picture when it comes to smart-city adoption, the remaining hurdles, and why safety is still one of the biggest challenges. Registration is free.

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