It’s the wee hours of the morning and the streets are empty, but you’re stuck waiting for what feels like an eternity at a red light. That’s just one of the frustrating situations that NoTraffic Ltd., an Israeli technology startup, with offices in Tel Aviv and Palo Alto, Calif., can prevent with its smart-traffic-light system, according to company chief executive officer Tal Kreisler.
Several intersections on the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus became the first in Canada to have NoTraffic’s smart traffic-management platform installed. The system, which uses cameras and radar to monitor intersections and optimize traffic flow in real time, will start actively managing campus intersections early next year.
“As a driver, you will feel much more ease on the road,” Kreisler said in a video call. “If the [traffic light] network is operating in a non-efficient way, we have a lot of congestion. A lot of it can be solved, or can be reduced dramatically [with a smart system].”
The platform is already operating in several U.S. cities, including Phoenix, Tucson, Palo Alto and Fort Worth, serving “millions of drivers per day.” In a real-world study No Traffic conducted for the city of Redlands, Calif., NoTraffic found its system reduced the average delay time per vehicle at intersections by about 40 per cent, and optimized signals so they spent 14 per cent more time on green instead of yellow. In two months, in operation at only 2 per cent of city intersections, NoTraffic claimed its system eliminated 900 hours of delay for all drivers, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It also found fewer drivers ran red lights in comparable periods.
It’s not just drivers who could benefit from better traffic management. “On public transportation, you will get a smoother ride because it will get the right priority,” Kreisler said. “As a pedestrian, you can get more priority next to certain locations that the city defines, like schools or kindergartens.”
NoTraffic partnered with Rogers Communications last year to break into the Canadian market, starting with the UBC campus. Several Canadian cities have also expressed interest in NoTraffic’s platform, Kreisler said, but wouldn’t disclose which ones because no deals have been signed.
Given the country-wide Rogers outage in July, and the fact that NoTraffic’s platform uses cellular-data networks, it’s reasonable to wonder what might happen if a similar outage occurred in the future. “There’s a lot of redundancy mechanisms, but worst-case scenario, the [traffic lights] go back to the original default, meaning back to the timer control,” Kreisler said.
Room for improvement
“Reducing congestion is like looking for a cure for cancer; everybody’s working on it,” said Baher Abdulhai, who has been in the field since 2000. He is a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto and director of the Toronto Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre research facility.
Traffic lights typically operate on a timer, which is programmed based on periodic traffic counts conducted by cities. Some intersections also have buttons and sensors to detect cars, bicycles and pedestrians. The timers are digital these days, but most traffic lights aren’t much smarter than they were in 1914 when the first electronic light was installed in Ohio.
“The majority of traffic lights in the U.S., North America and worldwide are not even connected to any network. It’s an offline industry,” Kreisler said.
Traffic signals can often be inefficient and frustrating for drivers, according to a 2004 paper published by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It found that of the 330,000 traffic lights in the United States, more than 75 per cent of them could be made more efficient by upgrading equipment or simply adjusting the timing.
There’s still a lot of room for improvement, Abdulhai said. Smart signals are only one tool in the fight against congestion, but they can reduce time spent waiting at intersections by 40 per cent, or even 60 per cent in some cases, according to his latest research.
So, for example, if your commute includes 20 intersections, and you wait at each one for a minute, smart signals could shave 10 minutes off your drive.
NoTraffic’s system makes “dumb” intersections smart by installing its camera and radar sensor pods and cloud-connected control unit to existing traffic lights. The system can distinguish between cyclists, pedestrians, buses, cars, garbage trucks and emergency vehicles, tracking their speed and prioritizing different road users according to criteria defined by the city, the company says. Smart traffic lights can also work together as a network, further improving traffic flow. Cities pay an annual or ongoing fee to use the company’s platform.
The Israeli company is just one of several offering intelligent traffic systems.
Toronto, for example, installed its first Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System (SCATS) in 2018, and by the end of 2022 the system is slated to be in use at 50 city intersections. SCATS, which was developed in New South Wales, Australia, advertises a 28-per-cent reduction in travel time.
Google is working on similar technology. In a pilot project in Israel last year, the company says its smart traffic-light system cut fuel use and traffic delays at four locations by 10 to 20 per cent.
Similarly, Chinese tech giant Alibaba rolled out its City Brain system to the entire city of Hangzhou in 2017. The company used a mapping app as well as hundreds of thousands of cameras to monitor vehicles in the city of 10 million people. It successfully improved traffic flow and Alibaba’s City Brain is now being used in several major cities across Asia.
Eyes on the road
Of course, this technology has the potential to be a nightmare for data privacy advocates. It could be unnerving to know you’re being watched and tracked by cameras at every intersection.
No Traffic owns the rights to the data from its system, according to a company spokesperson. But, the company doesn’t stream video from its traffic cameras, Kreisler says. The data is processed locally and only anonymized meta-data is shared over the network, enabling, for example, co-ordination among multiple intersections.
NoTraffic says the platform isn’t intended to help police hand out traffic tickets either. “We don’t see enforcement as a core vertical that needs to be served; we see other ways to increase safety,” Kreisler said.
A company spokesperson confirmed, however, the data could be used to identify locations with high levels of red-light running.
At UBC, the NoTraffic system was installed on campus roads operated by the university, not the City of Vancouver. The initial goal was to integrate the smart traffic-light platform into the school’s Aurora connected-vehicle test bed, a research facility studying technologies that enable safer, more efficient transportation.
“Working alongside the other technologies and sensors that are part of the test bed, the NoTraffic technology is generating data that allow our research team to develop better traffic models and data reduction algorithms, evaluate new connected vehicle-use cases, and develop valuable teaching tools,” wrote David Michelson, director of the Aurora project and a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering.
There’s no doubt that drivers and all road users would benefit from smoother commutes and less time wasted at red lights in a world where cars, traffic signals and other infrastructure are all connected.
Sadly, however, not even the smartest traffic lights or the most connected cars can solve the problem of rush-hour congestion completely. To do that, we’ll need fewer cars, improved public transit or more road space than any city or the planet can afford. And, as Abdulhai said, double-decking all the roads isn’t a sustainable solution.