By Michael Belfiore, Contributor
A dashboard countdown tells a driver when a traffic light will turn green and what speed to maintain in order to avoid red lights down the road. Machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) built into streetlights collect data on traffic to assist city planners without compromising privacy. Vehicles warn drivers of upcoming hazards and potential collisions.
These scenes are already playing out on roads around the world, all thanks to a quiet revolution brought about by cities and automobiles becoming increasingly connected.
The trend will only accelerate with the rollout of 5G cellular service and the expansion of the internet of things (IoT), according to Tal Kreisler, co-founder and CEO of NoTraffic, a startup based in Tel Aviv and Silicon Valley that’s helping bring about the revolution in connected cars and city infrastructure. The coronavirus crisis and its aftermath may actually provide an additional catalyst for the trend as cities are forced to rapidly adapt their transportation infrastructures.
“There is an exciting era ahead of us, where the collaboration between advanced vehicles and advanced infrastructure will create a much more efficient and safer road for all of us.”
—Tal Kreisler, co-founder and CEO, NoTraffic
Pushing the envelope even further, Kreisler’s company is pioneering an autonomous traffic management system, which aims to reduce congestion, prevent collisions, and reward drivers for driving at off-peak times once things return to normal. This vision provides a glimpse of the future of roadways that Kreisler and others call road-as-a-service (RaaS). “There is an exciting era ahead of us,” Kreisler says, “where the collaboration between advanced vehicles and advanced infrastructure will create a much more efficient and safer road for all of us.”
What Is RaaS?
In 2018, more than 36,000 people died on American roads alone. The majority of the deaths occurred in cities. “That is something that can be prevented by infrastructure,” says Kreisler, who points to RaaS as the solution that can reduce accidents, incentivize safer driving, and raise funds for improvements.
RaaS works by charging drivers based on how they use roads rather than through indiscriminate levies such as fuel taxes, which don’t take usage into account. This change is needed, Kreisler believes, because the shift toward electric vehicles will increasingly squeeze city budgets that have relied on fuel taxes. “Today, there are more and more cars on the roads. However, since vehicles are becoming more efficient and electric cars are more significant, there is a vital budget shortage for infrastructure.”
For that reason alone, Kreisler predicts that city and highway planners will increasingly tax road-use rather than vehicle-use. The rise of congestion pricing within cities is one such example. New York City, the first in the U.S. slated to begin congestion pricing, so far plans to charge a single fee for vehicles entering the area between 60th Street and the southern tip of Manhattan.
Kreisler and his team, however, believe RaaS offers an even more nuanced approach that will better benefit drivers, pedestrians, and planners alike via connected vehicles and infrastructure. RaaS could, for example, charge drivers to take shorter routes to their destinations, perhaps through residential areas that would like to see less traffic; meanwhile, tolls could charge ride-sharing vehicles different amounts depending on the number of passengers on board and which areas they travel through.
Changes to Come
The switch to RaaS won’t require a heavy infrastructure lift. Instead, cheap sensors and AI chips will help manage toll collection in the form of micropayments according to traffic conditions, time of day, and driver behavior. “Once the intersections become smart and connected,” Kreisler says, “you can think about every intersection as a checkpoint. When a vehicle passes through, it will pay a small fee.”
Already, automakers are adding the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology that’s required to help realize the vision for RaaS.
Audi debuted its Traffic Light Information system in Las Vegas in 2016 and has since rolled it out to a dozen more U.S. metro areas, and added Green Light Optimized Speed Advisory to the service. Working with connected traffic lights, the system lets drivers know when lights are about to change and the optimal speed to travel to avoid red lights.
And, after trailing its Hazard Light Alert and Slippery Road Alert system in Sweden and Norway, Volvo released it across Europe in 2019. The system alerts Volvo drivers when other Volvo drivers ahead of them encounter slippery road conditions or when they turn on their hazard lights.
Infrastructure changes underway, including the move to faster, low-latency cellular service in the form of 5G networks, will accelerate the shift, Kreisler continues. “5G will allow for better and faster data sharing between various IoT devices and vehicles, and will effectively enable some services without the need to deploy expensive fiber optics.”
With the infrastructure in place, Kreisler says, the dynamic pricing models that RaaS will enable will benefit everyone involved. “The city can implement models like micropayments,” Kreisler explains. In other words, cities could levy small charges that drivers would pay to drive through certain areas at peak times. The system could also benefit certain driver behaviors at the city’s discretion. “They can reverse micropayments, for example, to pay drivers that drive at off-peak times.”
The Benefits of Autonomy
“Traffic management today requires a lot of manual work,” says Kreisler. “Agencies are performing manual traffic counts and manually adjusting every intersection.” No one could manage all the small adjustments required in real time for RaaS, which is why, Kreisler believes, autonomous traffic management is what the future needs.
In this reality, explains Kreisler, computers would handle the number-crunching needed for RaaS as vehicles travel through the streets. That would let city planners focus on the policies they want to implement, like slowing traffic near schools, giving city buses the right of way, and clearing traffic patterns for emergency vehicles. “Since traffic is dynamic, the traffic lights should be dynamic, as well, and respond to the real-time changing environment.”
Kreisler says tests of NoTraffic’s autonomous traffic management system have already demonstrated significant safety benefits. In March 2020, the company announced a partnership with Eye-Net Mobile, a connected vehicle warning system developer, to further refine accident prevention systems.
“The world is moving to a new model,” Kreisler says. “Autonomous traffic management is the next generation of traffic management.”