Bell is exploring road condition-monitoring technology for cities and insurance firms

Illustration by Hanna Lee

Bell is exploring road condition-monitoring technology for cities and insurance companies, The Logic has learned. 

The technology uses smartphones to measure the speed, location, vibration and weather on roads. Bell describes it as a way for municipalities to repair roads more efficiently and avoid lawsuits from drivers.

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Talking Point

Bell has applied for two patents for road condition-monitoring technology. The applications detail how cities could use the technology to help avoid lawsuits, and insurance firms could use them to adjust rates. The move would potentially offer a new line of revenue for the $42-billion telecom as it faces growing pressure from the federal government to cut prices in its lucrative wireless division.

This technology could add to Bell’s growing smart-city business, which offers potential new revenue for the $42-billion telecom as it faces growing pressure from the federal government to cut prices in its lucrative wireless division. 

Bell has applied for two patents in the U.S. and Canada, which are “a result of ongoing research into IoT [Internet of Things] applications as part of our focus on innovative Smart City solutions,” said company spokesperson Marc Choma. 

“Information pertaining to road conditions is invaluable,” reads Bell’s patent applications, which were filed in December 2018 and made public in June.

“Road condition information is rather limited and requires a human to visually examine the road and identify the condition and any issues thereof,” they say. “The city may not be aware of a road issue until long after the issue has started, leading to inefficiencies in repairing roads.”

“Insurance companies may also be interested in using road condition information to adjust insurance rates,” read the applications. “For example, a driver that consistently drives on a road that has numerous potholes may be more at risk of sustaining damage to their vehicle than a driver who drives on a road without potholes.”

The telecom has already built up a number of smart city-related business lines. In February, Bell signed a partnership with Markham, Ont., in which the firm promised to create an integrated platform that analyzes water leaks, energy use in city buildings and the locations of city vehicles. 

Asked if Bell was in negotiations with or had secured any partnerships with cities for the technology it’s seeking to patent, Choma would only say it is not under further development, and has not been “commercially deployed.” 

Parts of Bell’s smart-city division cover areas similar to those outlined in the patent applications. The telecom has a “fleet management” department, which provides tech solutions for trucking companies using telematics systems, which track metrics like a vehicle’s location, acceleration and braking. These new applications suggest vehicle telematics would be combined with smartphone-collected data. 

However, these patents propose an approach to vehicle monitoring that is significantly more ambitious than Bell’s current efforts, leveraging the millions of phones the telecom already has on the market in lieu of municipally linked IoT devices on things like trucks and water mains. 

“If Bell can convert its phones into another revenue line, that’s a potentially massive market opportunity,” said Bilal Farooq, a professor at Ryerson University and Canada Research Chair in Disruptive Technologies. 

“Some insurance companies are already asking customers to download apps so they can monitor their behaviour in-car,” said Farooq. “Bell is looking to collect more types of data than most of these apps, so if they can get the tech right, they’ll have more accurate information and be able to offer more precise services.”

The road condition-monitoring market is getting increasingly competitive in Canada. Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto are all partnering with Google subsidiary Waze, sharing data to keep residents up to date on traffic. 

Bell’s patent applications suggest raw data collected by smartphones and telematics could be cross-referenced with information from third parties such as weather services. 

“For example, the road condition server may receive vibration data and location data from mobile device. The vibration data may suggest that the drive along the road is very bumpy, which may be indicative of … deteriorating road conditions,” they read. “However, weather data at the location of the mobile device where the road appeared to be bumpy [may] indicate that significant snow has fallen which may be the cause for the apparent deteriorating road conditions.”

The phone data could be put in a server and combined with information that city workers—including drivers, engineers and maintenance—send in via mobile phone or computer on road conditions they see.

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City staff and insurance firms could then be provided access to that information.

Bell has been looking into other technology-focused businesses recently; in November, The Logic broke the news that the firm was looking into developing wearable technology it claimed would be better than that used by Apple Watch or Fitbit.