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Posted at 12:04 PM ET, 01/27/2011

Smart computers vs stupid commutes

By Luke Rosiak

A team of researchers today discussed technology that could dynamically control an urban street grid, rerouting traffic in the way most efficient for any given conditions. Described as an automatic architecture for real-time traffic, the street grid would learn from experience, remembering which strategies were most effective in the real world.

The scientists were part of a panel on artificial intelligence in transportation at the annual Transportation Research Board meeting, a gathering of 10,000 policymakers, professionals, and academics.

The system was inspired by the human body, a researcher said, and like humans, is fundamentally about "reflection, routine and reaction."

It would default to operating on a timeline and pattern that it has found to be most efficient for a given circumstance in the past. Sensors would monitor road conditions such as the weather and how heavy the traffic is and detect obstructions and accidents and their severity.

When a problem arose, it would respond by changing patterns in the smallest possible area--similar, the researcher said, to the way your body picks up a pen with its hands--no need to disrupt the legs. Similarly, as soon as that unit is freed up, the unit can begin maximizing some other aspect of traffic management, just as your hand could go on to do something else.

Specifically, the system's architecture divides the grid into small rectangular units to respond to conditions. Where it's necessary or most efficient, those units can then interact with neighboring units. That interaction can expand as necessary until many blocks are interconnected--in the maximally efficient way.

And it would evaluate how successful that strategy was, for use in the future.

While much of the math is in place, this is mostly all still theory, however.

One problem involves where to define the boundaries for each small unit, and another is how to detect incidents.

(Yesterday's Post contained an article on technology in which cars use WiFi to send information to other cars nearby, aimed at preventing crashes. That technology is affordable and in place, though it would have to become widely-adopted or standard on all cars to be most effective.)

By Luke Rosiak  | January 27, 2011; 12:04 PM ET
Categories:  Driving, Transportation Politics  
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What does "rerouting" mean in this context? Somehow convincing an actual driver to take a different route than the one he's planned?

People think they're smarter than average, smarter than group knowledge - it's partly why the variable speed limits on the beltway in VA didn't work. Here, how do you get the right number of drivers to take the right detour? Give them a 5-minute red light with green right arrow and hope they choose to turn?

If drivers know there's something to be avoided, then they might choose to - if the alternative doesn't appear worse.

Posted by: Chris737 | January 26, 2011 5:16 PM | Report abuse

This makes no sense. People freak out when their expected route changes for any reason. Changing routes on the fly is simply not practical, not as long as humans are doing the driving.

I could see AI being used to control traffic signals, but not routing.

Posted by: slar | January 26, 2011 5:28 PM | Report abuse

When are we going to have artificial intelligence to tackle stupid drivers?

I think the idea behind this artificial intelligence is that when we have cars that drive themselves, you just enter your destination and the car takes you there, on the route that is best for the population as a whole (as opposed to what is the best route for you as an individual). That shortcut you take may save you 5 minutes, but may cause extra delay for a lot of other people when you merge back into the normal the artificial intelligence decides it is better for everyone if no one takes the shortcut. In otherwords, you don't get to pick the route, the car does.

Somehow I doubt this will be a practical reality anytime soon.

Posted by: thetan | January 27, 2011 1:58 PM | Report abuse

You forget the weak-link in the equation....stupid, selfish commuters. No technology can fix that.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 27, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

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