Ford, Microsoft study how quantum computers can reduce rush hour traffic

Goal is to deliver individual mapping to thousands of drivers

Ford and Microsoft have teamed up to try to help solve America’s rush hour traffic problem.

The automotive and tech giants recently completed a research project in Seattle that studied how quantum computers can deliver individual mapping to thousands of drivers to significantly reduce rush hour traffic.

The research uses software that aims to help cities solve a range of mobility issues by using quantum-inspired algorithms to investigate how these algorithms can solve everyday issues, such as how to reduce congestion or manage traffic.

The companies say early results are “promising,” showing improved congestion and reduced commute times. Ford is expanding the partnership with Microsoft to further improve the algorithm and understand its effectiveness in more real-world scenarios.

“Quantum computing has the potential to transform the auto industry and the way we move,” said Julie Love, a senior director at Microsoft leading the company’s quantum computing business development program, a news release. “To do that we need to have a deep understanding of the problems that companies like Ford want to solve, which is why collaborations like these are so important."

Here’s part of a post from Dr. Ken Washington, Ford chief technology officer, that explains the research:

These researchers teamed up in 2018 to develop new quantum approaches running on the classical computers already available to help reduce Seattle's traffic congestion.

During rush hour driving, numerous drivers request the shortest possible routes at the same time, but current navigation services handle all these requests in a vacuum. They do not take into consideration the number of similar incoming requests, including areas where other drivers are all planning to share the same route segments, when delivering results.

Just imagine a regular family trying to get ready for work and school in the morning with similar departure times. If an individual day planning app gave each person the quickest way to get going, there likely would be a bottle-neck at the bathroom. Now scale that to a family of thousands ...

Instead of this type of individualized routing, what if we could develop a more balanced routing system - one that could consider all the various route requests from drivers and optimize route suggestions so that the number of vehicles sharing the same roads is minimized? That sounds great - and could save everyone time, not to mention aggravation - but one major roadblock towards balanced routing is the fact that it would require extensive computational resources.

Simply put, it’s not feasible to have traditional computers handle all these possible route variations and calculations in a timely manner. That’s where quantum computing can help. Essentially, modern computers translate information into either a 1 or a 0, otherwise known as a bit. But in a quantum computer, information can be translated into a 1, 0, and somewhere in between - meaning a lot more information can be stored and processed on a single quantum bit than a traditional bit. Understanding how these qubits behave has led to quantum-inspired technology - powerful algorithms that mimic quantum behavior and run on conventional hardware, enabling organizations to start realizing the benefits of quantum before fully-scaled quantum hardware becomes available.

With the ability to process vast amounts of data that’s not possible today, it’s easier to imagine how quantum computing has the potential to deliver balanced routing to drivers, which could create a series of cascading benefits: smoother flow of traffic, more efficient commutes, and even reduced pollution.

Working with Microsoft, we tested several different possibilities, including a scenario involving as many as 5,000 vehicles -- each with 10 different route choices available to them -- simultaneously requesting routes across Metro Seattle. In 20 seconds, balanced routing suggestions were delivered to the vehicles that resulted in a 73 percent improvement in total congestion when compared to “selfish” routing. The average commuting time, meanwhile, was also reduced by 8 percent - equating to a reduction in more than 55,000 hours saved in congestion across this simulated fleet.

These results are promising, so now we're expanding our involvement with Microsoft to further improve the algorithm and understand its effectiveness in more real-world scenarios. For example, will this method still deliver similar results when some streets are known to be closed, if route options aren't equal for all drivers, or if some drivers decide to not follow suggested routes? These and more are all variables we'll need to test for to ensure balanced routing can truly deliver tangible improvements for cities.

Our collaboration with NASA last year also involved similar work around a routing efficiency problem for fleet vehicles, but our growing quantum computing team is working with Microsoft and others to investigate how this technology can be used in areas ranging from robotics to aerodynamics, as Ford continues to seek out ways to create better products and experiences for people.

This work with Microsoft is another example of how Ford is dedicated to finding innovative solutions for problems our cities face. Our recently unveiled City Insights Platform uses data and advanced software tools to enable cities to explore and solve a variety of mobility issues. By leveraging parking, transit, traffic, safety and census data, City Insights Platform lets local planners test various concepts even before implementing them in the real world.

The scenario we explored with Microsoft is just one way that quantum-inspired solutions could be of interest to cities. Since we know how a quantum computer would attempt to solve a problem like this, we’ve reached a point where we can apply our knowledge to address near-term issues with hardware that we already have. That puts the future much closer to our grasp than many may have initially thought - and we are intent on seizing the opportunity.

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