Mark Nicholson is the CEO of the UK mobility start-up Vivacity Labs. He met his fellow co-founders, Yang Lu and Peter Mildon at Cambridge University, while designing, building and racing a solar-powered car.
Nicholson explains: “It was a student-run project, done in our spare time around our degrees, and we raised £500,000, built a road-legal experimental vehicle which was 50x more efficient than a normal car, and took 20 people to Australia to race it. While that project didn’t lead to the success we wanted, it gave us the entrepreneurial bug, and so, after a couple of years in ‘normal’ jobs, we got itchy feet, which led to us founding Vivacity.”
The UK start-up, which is now five years old, has developed artificial intelligence sensors and ‘Smart Junctions’ signal control that gather detailed and anonymous data.
“Without that solar car project, we simply wouldn’t be here today – not just because we wouldn’t have met, but because we wouldn’t have learnt the critical lessons needed to get a company off the ground. Learning those lessons wasn’t always easy (we left £10,000+ of solar panels in dust on the road after an 85kmph crash!), but they were formative.”
(Nicholson notes that the driver walked away from the accident, without significant injuries).
Vivacity Labs’ ‘Smart Junctions’ are able to identify different types of road users at selected junctions and control traffic signals to promote more sustainable modes of transport, such as cyclists and buses.
“With more cyclists on the road since the pandemic, these Smart Junctions are able to give priority to people on foot or bike where and when appropriate, helping to create safer journeys,” says Nicholson
The system enables cities and transport authorities to efficiently adapt to different policy priorities, including reducing emissions and improving air quality. This can be achieved by reducing congestion and queuing with AI-powered traffic lights that respond better and more quickly to changes in traffic conditions than existing systems.
“One of the system’s great benefits is its ability to prioritise and provide anonymous data on different road users, and, in particular, active travel modes (e.g. cycling and walking). The data helps authorities to make active travel infrastructure changes and monitor the success (or failure) of such initiatives. These changes, and the priority created by the system for active travel users, helps to encourage shifts in travel behaviour and the uptake of active travel, thus creating more sustainable travel in the city.”
“By responding to changes in traffic conditions and prioritising different modes, the system is also further reducing emissions by reducing congestion – something which is a key priority for cities moving forward,” he adds.
Focusing on a Green Recovery
As with all technology that gathers and analyses public data, there are concerns over privacy. But Nicholson tells us that privacy is at the heart of everything Vivacity labs does and the future of the smart city has to be citizen-centric.
“We founded the company with a clear European, citizen-first vision of the smart city. Forget a human watching a video feed 24/7 – our sensors have been trained to classify different types of transport modes, from cars, vans, and HGVs, to pedestrians and cyclists.”
“Only anonymous data ever leaves the sensor, which uses AI to detect what type of road user is passing when. For example, five counts of cyclists, two pedestrians and one bus,” he adds.
Over the past twelve months, we’ve witnessed changes to urban mobility due to the pandemic. As lockdowns comes to an end, Vivacity Labs’ technology can be used by local authorities to help cut congestion and improve air quality. For example, in Cambridge, a year-long trial will investigate how camera-based sensors and machine learning can be used to optimise traffic signals to improve traffic flow, reduce journey times and help cut emissions from idling vehicles.
“Providing anonymous data on the impact of road changes and travel behaviours can help authorities better manage high footfall areas, public transport and active travel. This will be crucial in ensuring safety as restrictions start to ease.”
With travel patterns and volume now less predictable and the end of rush hour potentially becoming a reality, technologies such as AI sensors and Smart Junctions can also help to control traffic signals, monitor traffic flow, and prioritise active travel, adapting in real-time to changes in traffic levels. We have to focus on a ‘green recovery’, to help reduce congestion, emissions and facilitate sustainable ways to travel.”
“The smarter our cities become, the more interconnected, sustainable and safer our journeys will be, and the easier it will be for us to return to a new normal,” he says.
Looking ahead, the roll-out of super-highspeed 5G technology is set to have a major impact on smart cities and mobility infrastructure.
“5G is an exciting new technology. For us, while the increases in bandwidth are interesting, it’s really the improvements in latency that unlock new use cases. When controlling traffic lights, you’d be surprised at how much difference half a second can make – yet on the old networks, latency can be up to half a second at busy times, and is frequently at quarter of a second.” explains Nicholson.
“5G will allow us to really reduce that latency, supporting cities in moving more of the intelligence to the cloud and allowing coordination at city scale.”
Data will have a huge role in the evolution of the smart city.
Vivacity Labs recently secured £5m of Series A funding in a VC round led by UK investor Mobeus, with additional funding from existing investors Downing Ventures and London Co-Investment Fund.
“We’re planning to double our company headcount, and we are recruiting for roles across the company, including in R&D/software development, sales and marketing, and operations.”
“We’re looking to continue our expansion in the UK, as well as international markets for smarter transport insights too. So, in the next six months, we’ll be adjusting our focus to support customers in countries including the Nordics, Benelux, and Australia,” he adds.
Finally, we asked Nicholson to predict the future, and asked him what smart cities and urban mobility will look like by 2030.
“By 2030, we will have more advanced datasets on our roads and transport networks, real-time control systems for existing infrastructure and we will see huge correlation between vehicle technologies and infrastructure that is in place. Data will have a huge role in the evolution of the smart city too, as our cities continue to grow and authorities look at methods to aid a ‘green recovery’,” he concludes.