California wants to reduce traffic. The Newsom administration thinks AI can help

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

California wants to reduce traffic. The Newsom administration thinks AI can help

California politics, transportation, artificial intelligence, homepage news

Queenie Wong

January 8, 2024

Getting stuck in traffic is a familiar problem for many Californians, but state officials want to harness the power of artificial intelligence to discover new solutions.

The California Department of Transportation,


collaborate with other government agencies, asks tech companies by January

. uari

25 to propose generative AI tools that could help California reduce traffic and make roads safer


especially for pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders. Generative AI tools like ChatGPT can quickly produce text and images


and other content, but the technology can also help employees brainstorm ideas.

The request shows how California is trying to tap AI to improve government services at a time when lawmakers want to protect themselves from the technologies’ potential risks. As Microsoft-backed OpenAI, Google and other tech giants roll out new AI-powered tools, the rapid pace of advancement of the technologies has raised concerns about misinformation, job losses, copyright infringement and privacy.

The state’s plan to potentially use artificial intelligence to help alleviate congestion comes from an executive order from the governor. Gavin Newsom signed off on generative AI in September. As part of the order, the state also released a report outlining the benefits and risks of using AI in state government.

State agencies in California have access to a wealth of valuable data, including that from thousands of traffic sensors and cameras. Analyzing that data to quickly reduce traffic and improve safety can be a challenge. The enormous amount of data comes in different forms such as photos, videos and text.

The state is currently using technology to help analyze traffic data, but agencies rely heavily on employees to decide what to do to improve traffic flow in real time. Generative AI could come up with better solutions.

“It would probably change the strategy much faster than a human could do,” said Amy Tong, secretary of government operations for California.

There are many reasons why traffic jams occur, including accidents, debris on the roadway, large events that draw large crowds, and bad weather. But there are also recurring problems that can cause road congestion, says California Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin.

For example, a narrow section of a road can hinder the flow of traffic. Employees can use generative AI to brainstorm different solutions.

“There’s potential that generative AI can actually help us better direct traffic through those areas, rather than automatically thinking ‘oh, let’s just widen the road. That’s the solution,'” he said.

Caltrans also wants to use generative AI to help realize its vision of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2050. By analyzing crash locations, lighting conditions, traffic patterns and behavior of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, Caltrans says AI helps workers identify areas at higher risk for crashes and suggest safety measures.

This proactive approach will allow transportation system operators and engineers to anticipate and address safety issues in advance or more quickly, rather than just reacting to them after the fact, a document that outlines the problem Caltrans states is trying to solve.

As technology becomes more incorporated into the work of state government, Omishakin expects jobs will change, but not be completely replaced.

Companies are already using AI to analyze traffic patterns and the movements of people on the road, including drivers and cyclists. For example, Google has a research initiative known as Project Green Light that cities like Seattle are participating in, which aims to improve traffic flow and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars on the road. As part of the project, Google uses AI to identify when engineers can adjust the timing of traffic lights and provides recommendations to city officials.

INRIX, a transportation analytics company, announced a new generative AI-powered product in November that could help cities better manage traffic flow. A report from the company found that Los Angeles was the sixth-busiest city in the United States in 2022, with delays costing drivers 95 lost hours and $1,601.

Technology is also not perfect and people need to be involved to ensure the AI ​​system uses data from the right sources and doesn’t spit out errors, Tong said. The state is also taking steps to limit potential data security and privacy issues. State data that vendors use in the AI ​​systems must be stored within the California Department of Technology’s “managed cloud environments,” according to a document on the state proposal.

The state’s request for innovative ideas involves several steps, including the state evaluating the solutions the companies propose. California, which is facing a record $68 billion deficit, could then award a contract to companies. Other government agencies also plan to ask companies to submit ideas to help improve other state services, including call centers that help taxpayers, Tong said.

“We certainly keep budget constraints in mind, but at the same time, public safety is a high priority for the government,” Tong said. “So that’s why we continue to explore these options.”


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