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Could quantum computing be the key to cracking congestion?

In a joint research pilot, Microsoft and Ford are using quantum-inspired technology to achieve more balanced, less "selfish" routing suggestions.

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The technology has helped to improve congestion by 73 per cent in scenario-testing
The technology has helped to improve congestion by 73 per cent in scenario-testing

Ford and Microsoft are using quantum-inspired computing technology to reduce traffic congestion. Through a joint research pilot, scientists have used the technology to simulate thousands of vehicles and their impact on congestion in the US city of Seattle.

 

Ford said it is still early in the project but “encouraging progress” has been made and it is further expanding its partnership with the tech giant.

 

Quantum approaches

 

The companies teamed up in 2018 to develop new quantum approaches running on classical computers already available to help reduce Seattle’s traffic congestion.

 

Writing on a blog post on Medium.com, Dr Ken Washington, chief technology officer, Ford Motor Company, explained that during rush hour, numerous drivers request the shortest possible routes at the same time, but current navigation services handle 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.”

 

What is required is a more balanced routing system that could manage all the various route requests from drivers and provide optimised route suggestions, reducing the number of vehicles on a particular road.

 

“These and more are all variables we’ll need to test for to ensure balanced routing can truly deliver tangible improvements for cities.”

 

Traditional computers don’t have the computational power to do this but, as Washington explained, in a quantum computer, information is processed by a quantum bit (or a qubit) and can simultaneously exist "in two different states" before it gets measured.

 

“This ultimately enables a quantum computer to process information with a faster speed,” he wrote. “Attempts to simulate some specific features of a quantum computer on non-quantum hardware have led to quantum-inspired technology – powerful algorithms that mimic certain quantum behaviours and run on specialised conventional hardware. That enables organisations to start realising some benefits before fully scaled quantum hardware becomes available."

 

Testing it out

 

Working with Microsoft, Ford 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. It reports that in 20 seconds, balanced routing suggestions were delivered to the vehicles that resulted in a 73 per cent improvement in total congestion when compared to “selfish” routing.

 

The average commute time, meanwhile, was also cut by eight per cent – representing an annual reduction of more than 55,000 hours across this simulated fleet.

 

Based on these results, Ford is expanding its partnership 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?” wrote Washington. “These and more are all variables we’ll need to test for to ensure balanced routing can truly deliver tangible improvements for cities.”

 

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