Las Vegas Bets on AI to End Gridlock

Cameras and traffic sensors installed at 30 intersections

A couple of weeks ago, Las Vegas city officials announced a plan to deal with the city’s gridlock and traffic congestion.

Las Vegas is installing cameras and traffic sensors at 30 intersections that connect to an artificial intelligence system to help direct traffic in a more efficient way. The city plans to add another 50 intersections by early 2020. The system will allow making changes in the timing of traffic lights and the location of digital traffic signs, such as those that announce lane closures.

Data collected by the cameras and traffic sensors is sent to a server stored in Las Vegas’s City Hall, where it’s analysed by artificial intelligence software developed by NTT. The city claims that the system destroys the video and image files after they’ve been analysed by the artificial intelligence to protect individual privacy. The data produced is then sent to a data storage facility about 10 miles away from City Hall, where city officials can look through it when needed.

The modern three-signal traffic light was created in 1920 by Detroit police and hasn’t changed much since then. The traffic lights work on simple timers, programmed based on estimates of traffic flows at given times of the day. Although Silicon Valley companies want to embed artificial intelligence in every device, only 3% of all traffic lights in the US are considered smart.

Las Vegas and Southern Nevada work well for smart city pilots mainly because of the way the government departments deal with traffic regionally. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is a one-stop shop for start-ups and companies with ideas to improve traffic, whereas setting shop in other cities might mean talking with a dozen departments.

Las Vegas’ director of IT Michael Sherwood said, “The goal eventually is to create a smart intersection that is capable of self-learning and self-diagnosing and changing based on vehicle patterns”.

Of course, changes at one intersection will have an effect on neighbouring intersections. Also, major events, like big sports games, concerts or incidents, can affect a region of a city spanning many intersections, so an overall system view will be needed for the city.

Smart traffic systems have several advantages over traditional traffic lights. They can adapt better to abnormal situations like inclement weather. Rain and snow cause significant traffic slowdowns, and pre-programmed traffic lights typically don’t accommodate for weather-related delays. Smart traffic management systems, however, could be fed weather data, or collect it themselves, and change their timing accordingly. They could also clear the way for emergency services by accelerating certain lanes of traffic or blocking cars from entering an intersection before first responders pass through.

Las Vegas officials hope to eventually integrate self-driving cars into the artificial intelligence-based traffic management system, and the imminent adoption of 5G mobile networks will further improve the solution. Building smarter traffic lights could bring benefits that go well beyond driver convenience.