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Sidewalk Labs is making a tool to prep cities for self-driving cars

Google's 'smart city' spin-off has a new platform called Flow

Sidewalk Labs, the "smart city" company spun off from Google last year, unveiled a new tool Thursday it built to help cities better manage traffic congestion, parking problems, and ultimately prepare themselves for the expected onslaught of self-driving cars. Flow is described as a "transportation platform" that uses aggregated, anonymous traffic data to help city managers identify bottlenecks or redirect trains and buses to transit-starved neighborhoods, as well as drivers get real-time parking information during their commutes.

If that sounds a little abstract, it's because Flow has yet to be tested in a real-life setting. That will change later this year, when the US Department of Transportation announces the winner of its Smart City contest, in which dozens of medium-sized cities were competing for $40 million in federal funds to pull their transportation infrastructure out of the Dark Ages. Last week, DOT unveiled the seven finalists at South By Southwest: Austin, Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Columbus, Kansas City, and Portland. Each was given $100,000 by the agency to better develop their ideas, and the winner will be announced in June.

"understand the ground truth in real-time"

In addition to the money, the winning city will also get Sidewalk Labs' Flow platform, as well as up 100 public Wi-Fi hubs, much like the LinkNYC kiosks the company is currently installing in New York City. If the city authorizes it, those hubs will also contain sensors that the company says can help route drivers directly to available parking, and allow cities to adjust transit routes or change traffic patterns to respond to real-time demands. Flow can also gather data from third-party apps like Google Maps and Waze (both owned by Sidewalk Labs' parent company), but it will need their permission first.

"We will build a platform for ingesting lots of different kinds of data to enable users... to understand the ground truth in real-time," said Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, in a conference call with reporters Thursday. "It will be fed essentially into an analytical engine that will enable cities map assets against demand, create dashboards for transportation, parking, maybe even permitting. And on top of that, we can potentially build applications over time, some of which may be consumer applications."

"Autonomous vehicles — they're coming"

The idea that Flow would eventually lead to some kind of smartphone app to help average citizens solve everyday transportation challenges is what most excites DOT secretary Anthony Foxx, who said he especially wants this partnership with Sidewalk Labs to help people who live in cities with crappy, crumbling infrastructure. "Does this solve the infrastructure deficit by itself? No," Foxx said. "Does it give us some roadmaps to look at how we might use technology and innovation to reduce the cost of mobility the way we want it? Yeah."

Sidewalk Labs has expressed interest in creating or acquiring new technologies to help cities begin to lay the groundwork for the introduction of self-driving cars. Flow is an example of this, Doctoroff said. "Autonomous vehicles — they're coming," he said. "A core foundational element of ultimately making that available, making it possible for autonomous vehicles to exist is to have data of what's actually going on on the streets themselves."