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Smart City Challenge competition winner Columbus, Ohio issued a final report showing its five-year effort to innovate around transportation showed progress. (Credit: Getty Images)  

By AI Trends Staff  

Four years ago, the first international AI City Challenge was conducted to spur the development of AI to support transportation infrastructure in a smarter way. Teams representing American companies or universities took the top spots.  

Last year, Chinese companies took the top three out of four competitions, and in June, Chinese tech companies Alibaba and Baidu swept the AI City Challenge, beating competitors from some 40 nations.  

The results were a payoff of investments in smart cities by the government in China, which is conducting pilot programs in hundreds of cities and has by some estimates half of the world’s smart cities, according to a recent account in Wired.  

China is investing more than the US in areas of emerging technology, according to Stan Caldwell, executive director of Mobility21, a project at Carnegie Mellon University to assist smart-city development in Pittsburgh. AI researchers in the US can compete for government grants, from the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge, or the Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge.   

“We want the technologies to develop, because we want to improve safety and efficiency and sustainability. But selfishly, we also want this technology to develop here and improve our economy,” Caldwell stated in the Wired account.  

Final Report on Smart Columbus Cites Some Promising Endeavors 

The first Smart City Challenge sponsored by the US Department of Transportation selected Columbus, Ohio, to receive $50 million to be spent over five years to reshape the city’s transportation options by tapping into new technology. A final report recently issued by the city’s Smart Columbus Program described the effort as promising and falling a bit short.  

Part of it was bad luck. Several programs set to get off the ground hit just as the pandemic led to lockdowns in 2020, reducing demand for transportation options. “It was not supposed to be a competition for who has more sensors, or anything like that, and I think we got a little distracted at a certain point,” stated Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus, to Wired.   

His organization is charged with continuing the work of the challenge. He said the focus will be, “How do we use technology to improve quality of life, so solve community issues of equity, to mitigate climate change and to achieve prosperity in the region?”  

The selection of Columbus led to a flood of proposals from companies that proved difficult to manage. “A lot of people were expecting a lot from this project, and perhaps too much,” stated Harvey Miller, a geography professor and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis at Ohio State University, who helped plan and evaluate the challenge. “What Columbus did was test revolutionary ideas,” Miller stated. “They learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.”   

Five of the eight projects launched by the challenge will continue, including a citywide “operating system” to share data between government and private entities, for the support of smart kiosks and parking and trip-planning apps.   

Pivot App from Etch Helps Soft Multimodal Transportation Options   

Etch, a geospatial solutions startup, was founded in 2018 in Columbus. The company got its start by working with Smart Columbus on a multimodal transportation app, called Pivot, to help users plan trips throughout central Ohio using buses, ride hailing, carpool, micro mobility or personal vehicles.  

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Darlene Magold, CEO and co-founder, Etch

“The mobility problem in Columbus is access to mobility and people not understanding or knowing what options are available to them,” stated Darlene Magold, CEO and co-founder of Etch, stated in an account in TechCrunch “Part of our mission was to show the community what was available and give them options to sort those options based on cost or other information.” 

The app uses these open-source tools: OpenStreetMap to get up-to-date crowdsourcing information from the community, similar to how the driving app Waze works; and OpenTripPlanner to find itineraries for different modes of transportation.  

“Because we are open source, the integration with Uber, Lyft and other mobility providers really gives users a lot of options, so they can actually see what mobility options are available, other than their own vehicle if they have one,” stated Magold. “It takes away that anxiety of traveling” using different modes such as a scooter, bike, bus or Uber, she suggested. 

The Pivot app had 3,849 downloads in late June; the city will continue to fund its development and use. 

Connected Vehicle Traffic Management Test Aimed at Distracted Driving 

In an attempt to cut down accidents attributed to distracted driving, Columbus experimented with connected vehicles. From October 2020 to March 2021, the city worked with Siemens, which provided onboard and roadside units to create a vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) infrastructure. The connected vehicles could “talk” to each other and to 85 intersections, seven of which had the highest crash rates in central Ohio. The investment with the German multinational conglomerate was $11.3 million.  

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Mandy Bishop,  program manager, Smart Columbus

“We were looking at 11 different applications including red light signal warning, school zone notifications, intersection collision warning, freight signal priority and transit signal priority, using the connected vehicle technology,” stated Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager, to TechCrunch. 

The project was deployed to 1,100 vehicles in a region with about one million residents. Results were encouraging. “We did see drivers using signals coming from the connected vehicle environment. We’re seeing improvements in driver behavior,” Bishop stated.   

Autonomous Traffic Management Platform Being Tried in Oakland 

The city of Oakland, Calif. Is testing an autonomous traffic management platform from startup Hayden AI, with vision-based perception devices that attempt to plug into the city’s transportation infrastructure. The goal of Hayden AI is to deliver reliable, sustainable and equitable public transportation, according to a recent account in Forbes. 

Hayden’s devices are mounted in multiple types of vehicles in the city’s fleet, including transit buses, street sweepers, and garbage trucks.  Each perception device has precise localization, enabling it to detect and map lane lines, traffic lights, street signs, fire hydrants, parking meters and trees. The data is used to create a “digital twin,” a rich, 3D virtual model of the city. 

“The network of spatially aware perception devices collaborate to build a real-time 3D map of the city. These devices learn over time and from each other to provide data and insights that can be shared across city agencies,” stated Vaibhav Ghadiok, co-founder and VP of Engineering with Hayden AI. “This can be used to make buses run on time by clearing bus lanes of parked vehicles, or help with city planning through better parking and curbside management.” 

Ghadiok applied his expertise in robotics, computer vision, and machine learning to develop the system, which has a range of uses. For one, the system can identify open parking meters, alerting drivers to available parking spaces nearby. Also, the platform can perform traffic pattern analysis to determine pedestrian traffic through intersections by time of day, enabling delivery trucks to schedule curb space deliveries more efficiently.   

Read the source articles and information in Wired, in TechCrunch and in Forbes. 

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