Business, Exporting
Signs of the transport times
Signs of the transport times

Through innovation, Kiwi high-tech company HMI Technologies is committed to solving motorists’ safety and communication needs around the world.

Ask anyone what the most striking, not-to-be-ignored, traffic sign in New Zealand is and you’ll almost certainly be told it’s the school zone warning one (which now integrates radar to measure traffic speeds). It’s an early signal HMI Technologies is on top of its business niche – and that name is beginning to resonate around the world.

Founded at the turn of the century by brothers, Mohammed and Ahmed Hikmet, previously owners of a successful overseas IT business, the company has blossomed into a digital signage company making everything from large road signs to LED scoreboards and digital name tags. They even turned their hands to providing Wellington’s NZX share price ticker board and the scoreboards for the ASB Tennis Centre. 

Recently appointed global CEO Stephen Matthews, who has a blue-chip CV in the fuel and motor industries, takes up the story:
“As the Intelligent Transport System (ITS) industry developed internationally, the business became increasingly focused on developing signage which integrated superior technology, exceeded national standards and topped the quality of big corporate, imported systems. 

“We have a significant R&D team in Auckland which integrate HMI's products with a range of other technologies and, increasingly, develop bespoke and innovative solutions, like the signage system being installed on major government projects in Victoria, Australia, including the CityLink tolled motorway in Melbourne.

“As a New Zealand-owned company we have steadily built local credibility and been awarded several large contracts with NZTA and Auckland Transport, in particular. That has helped to secure export deals too,” says Matthews.

“BNZ and Callaghan Innovation have been great supporters of our approach and the Minister of Transport has been particularly encouraging, but that doesn’t always translate to follow-through or orders from departments. So we need to look offshore too.”

Matthews is most enthused about their RouteTIP – a “World First in Intelligent Transport Systems” being trialled in the South Island, which is attracting interest across Australia, particularly in New South Wales; as well as the first fully autonomous vehicle trial in Australasia – in partnership with Christchurch International Airport, and including Christchurch City Council, University of Canterbury, NZTA and MoT. 

An Australian airport will follow shortly too, again using HMI technology. 

A proven, French-designed vehicle, a “NAVYA ARMA”, which carries 10-15 people but could also carry freight is being used for the Christchurch Airport trial. The public will be invited to participate once the vehicle has successfully and safely undertaken a significant amount of testing on the routes chosen around the airport campus. 

The vehicle is fully electric and will be used only on airport roads during the trial. 

Matthews notes operational conditions in New Zealand can frequently vary substantially from those found in other countries. Canterbury University, which has access to information from a similar project run by the University of Michigan, has been a strong supporter from the outset and will be involved in assisting in the design and conducting a number of significant elements of the related research.  

The project is managed by another expert recruit, Dave Verma, the director of their Australasian Driverless Vehicle Initiatives, with an international track record in managing complex ITS technology projects, as well as extensive experience in directing the delivery of high-value back-office systems. 

Verma returned to New Zealand specifically to steer the project. The three main objectives are:

  • The technical and infrastructure requirements for fully autonomous vehicles to safely operate on local roads inside and beyond the airport environs.
  • The human and behavioural issues which need to be managed for these vehicles to operate safely. 
  • The safety use issues the regulator will need to be satisfied with in order to license a fully autonomous vehicle for use on New Zealand roads.

“The New Zealand Government, particularly the Ministry of Transport and NZTA is fully supportive of this ground-breaking initiative. The government will want to explore and determine how the regulatory framework should respond to this emerging technology before it is fully implemented. But watch this space,” says Matthews.

HMI has also hired Steffen Schaefer as Chief Digital Officer. He has been working in Europe on ‘Internet of Things’ solutions for more than 15 years, primarily in the ‘connected mobility space’. Steffen had HQ responsibility for digital innovations in their Mobility Management unit. Previously, at IBM he worked on their Smarter Cities initiative from the get-go, as one of the thought-leaders for advanced mobility and intelligent transport solutions. 

“Needless-to-say there is a good deal of interest in our progress across the transport world. As there is in our use of Bluetooth-linked, roadside signage to communicate with passing vehicles, and distribute safety and travel-time information, in an audio-only message,” says Matthews.

“The system is currently being trialled in a fleet of rental cars operating between Christchurch and Queenstown – especially involving remote locations, with some beacons installed in remote alpine locations, using mostly solar-powered and standalone or ‘off the grid’ power,” he says. “Meaning they are sternly tested as to durability and reliability.” 

RouteTIP is a network of relocatable beacons, either stand-alone or attached to street lights, bridges, or sign posts. It is linked to an app in mobiles and provides location-specific messages, completely hands-free, needing no interaction from the motorist. The system doesn’t record any personal data – or vehicular speed. 

The beacons ‘talk’ to phones via Bluetooth, which means the system doesn't use phone data or WiFi to connect; which saves mobile battery life. 

“So only positive results,” says Matthews, “given it interfaces with existing technology, such as traffic management software, journey-time sensors, traffic lights, weather sensors and more.

“Typically messages cover traffic conditions, including accidents and congestion; speed restriction reminders; journey-time information; road conditions such as ice or snow; while other beacons might be there to simply advise of a specific hazard, such as temporary roadworks. 

There is further interest in communicating with foreign drivers and for enhancing the Civil Defence network capability in rural areas. 

The system is capable of providing weather and other important information too.

“Interestingly, the Australian opportunity here is using the system post a forest fire.” 

Another HMI product attracting international interest is their AraFlow sensor-network which measures, records and identifies trends in traffic-flow and helps traffic operations’ centres to manage their transport networks. 

Anyone in Auckland Council listening?   

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Kevin Kevany is a freelance business writer. Email kevwrite@xtra.Co.nz

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