Sidewalk Labs, the Google/Alphabet spinoff designing transportation technology for cities and municipalities, has positioned itself as a partner developing high-tech solutions for critical problems. But according to a recent Guardian investigation, there may be ulterior motives behind the company's plans to help radically overhaul transportation.
The paper used public records laws to obtain documents sent by Sidewalk Labs to the cities participating in the Smart Cities Challenge, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s program to help fund a big leap forward in city transportation technology. The Guardian discovered that the services being advanced, specifically those that improve parking efficiency and create hybrid transport options, may "gut traditional bus services and require cities to heavily invest in Google’s own technologies," according to experts.
The two main technologies include a high-tech parking system that would utilize Google technology, including Street View cars, to create a database of available parking spaces, directing drivers to open spots to reduce congestion. Sidewalks Labs also hopes to sell property owners on the idea of renting spaces via an online marketplace, increasing the amounts of available parking while making a tidy profit. The system would also optimize the routes for city traffic cops, an efficiency expected to bring in millions in additional revenue every year.
While this idea of variably priced, "virtualised" spaces hasn’t worked as well as expected in pilot program, its the proposed transport solutions that have experts worried. According to the documents obtained by The Guardian, The Sidewalk Labs’s Flow Transit platform would be utilized to create a marketplace for transportation, integrating payment systems as well as numerous transport options such as buses, taxis, Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar. Some of the experts fear that if a city such as Columbus, Ohio, which won the Smart City Challenge, integrated this technology into its transport network, it would threaten traditional bus services, since a good portion of the money spent in such a system would end up in the hands of transportation network companies such as Uber.
These technologies also introduce the thorny issue of private control of public data and services. Columbus has yet to commit to any technologies, but with cities searching for ways to upgrade infrastructure and improve transportation, the pros and cons of public-private partnerships are sure to become an area of heated debate.