By Balazs Kiss

Intelligent transportation systems are improving transport efficiency across the globe. In a large-scale application of artificial intelligence, Alibaba’s City Brain has embedded the technology into a larger smart city concept and has brought China to the forefront of the smart city race.

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An AI-empowered technology for increased transport efficiency

Intelligent transportation systems (ITS) are vital elements of any smart city concept. The overall objective of such systems is to improve traffic efficiency and enhance safety and passenger comfort. Data is collected by a wide array of sensors, GPS vehicle locators and cameras. Data transmission and analysis is undertaken in real time. Data processing is empowered by computer vision and other machine learning tools used for image detection and classification.

Intelligent transportation systems give travellers real-time information on traffic accidents and road conditions, and the availability of seats or parking. For transport authorities, the data gathered facilitate real-time traffic interventions and general maintenance and surveillance. And these features are only the tip of the iceberg. Intelligent transportation systems have endless possibilities, and many cities have already implemented different solutions – although with varying levels of complexity and robustness.

City Brain is an answer to China’s car problem

With the rapid growth of China’s economy In recent decades, the country’s metropolises grew tremendously. As people grew more prosperous, the number of registered vehicles has risen. Coupled with badly designed roads and a high accident rate, the expansion of car ownership caused serious pollution and congestion problems across China. In 2017, 10 of the 25 most congested cities were in mainland China – one of them being Hanghzou, the pilot city of the City Brain project.

Alibaba’s City Brain is a prominent example of the use of AI in transport. It is a trailblazer, standing as the “big brother” to many similar solutions. First introduced in Hangzhou in September 2016, by 2020 it had been adopted by 23 cities across China. In 2019 Kuala Lumpur became the first non-Chinese city to implement the system.

City Brain is an intelligent transportation system – and much more than that

The core of City Brain is traffic optimization. It makes recommendations and traffic predictions, and optimises the flow of vehicles and traffic signals. It also helps match supply with demand by assessing live traffic video and passenger density in different areas, allowing fleet owners to estimate vehicle demand in real time. As a result, from being the fifth most congested Chinese city, Hangzhou has dropped to 57th only two years after the launch. Between 2017 and 2019, travel time on the 22-kilometre Zhonghe-Shangtang highway was reduced by 4.6 minutes on average. The smart automation of traffic lights has increased travel speed by about 15%.

City Brain also connects several urban management systems such as traffic command, emergency dispatch, and parking, medical and hotel databases. This integration gives emergency services free passage by controlling traffic lights, resulting in a 49 percent decrease in their arrival time. In the hospitality sector, fast-tracked hotel check-ins with the help of facial recognition take only 30 seconds on average. With the “treat first, pay later” principle, medical treatment can be paid retroactively, saving about an hour at every visit to the doctor.

City brains are becoming commonplace

Driven by the need for pandemic control, citizen monitoring and curbing pollution, such city brains are now used across China, not in megacities only. Other companies, such as the now ill-famed Huawei, are providing solutions similar to City Brain. Alibaba’s product has also grown tremendously in recent years, as it now has a “clone” of Hangzhou that can be used for large-scale simulations on, say, dealing with a terrorist attack or predicting urban development in coming years.

Manufacturers in the West are also producing ITS-related features. One prominent example is the Pittsburgh-based Surtrac with its smart traffic light technology. Manufacturers such as Volskwagen and Siemens have teamed up to deliver similar ITS solutions.

The thin line between surveillance and efficiency

For other smart city features, non-Chinese manufacturers and Western countries will need to assess the thin line between mass surveillance and smart city efficiency. The discussion should not be whether these solutions are good or bad in themselves, but about how data should be handled. Use of data should be properly regulated, and it should be  clear to the public who stores the data, who owns the data, and with whom it can be shared. Data servers should be heavily protected against ransomware attacks. Individuals need to have a say in whether and how and their data can be used by others.

There are valid concerns about invasion of privacy with regard to Chinese city brains, but the features themselves are not malicious – smart cities can indeed help with social distancing, police and emergency operations, and even leisure activities. The West needs to have this privacy discussion. Smart transportation and smart cities are here to stay. We should ensure that they do not become tools of corporate or government data collection efforts.