He's Helping Pittsburgher Drivers Get The Green Light

Stephen Smith knows how artificial intelligence will speed up your commute.




photo by TOM M JOHNSON

 

About six years ago, Stephen Smith was stopped at a traffic light in East Liberty, driving home from Carnegie Mellon University. The robotics professor had been working over a tricky problem — how to make urban traffic flow more efficiently. Computer simulations showed his proposed system worked, but he needed a place to test it amidst aggressive drivers, slow buses and errant pedestrians.

And then he saw it: At the traffic light, mounted on a pole, was a camera. 

Smith, 63, had no experience as a traffic engineer — he had spent his career working on technologies for automated warehouses, manufacturers and other uses. But he had been pulled into the Traffic21 Institute at CMU, initially funded by the Hillman Foundation in 2009 to make Pittsburgh a hub for intelligent transportation. The Hillman grant helped to pay for 12 projects, including real-time bus-arrival tracking with the Port Authority of Allegheny County, a parking app and vehicle sensors to detect road conditions.

Developing the adaptive traffic lights Smith had in mind was one of the more complicated projects. Conventional traffic-light systems are pretty straightforward. An engineer does a short study to assess traffic flows, builds a system of traffic phases and puts it online. Unless a police officer assumes command at the corner, the system is locked for average conditions.

But such systems can fall wildly short in non-average traffic, so Smith and his team installed computers that were capable of assessing traffic and adjusting on the fly at nine East Liberty intersections. If cameras saw a backlog of cars, computers could allow a green light to linger for a few extra seconds; if no one was turning left, computers skipped the left-arrow phase entirely.

The system helped reduce travel time through those intersections by an average of 25 percent, according to studies conducted by Traffic21, which turned the system on and off at different times of day.

“It’s not because you’re driving faster but because you’re stopping less and not stopping for as long,” Smith says. The system now includes 50 lights, running from Penn Avenue at Bakery Square into Oakland on Baum Boulevard.

Smith subsequently spun off a company, Rapid Flow Technologies, from CMU and licensed the technology he and his research group created, dubbed “Surtrac.” The company is receiving part of a recent $10.9 million federal grant to add another 150 lights to the system, including some Downtown.

“We’re trying to see what we can get out of the tech in the short term,” Smith says. Eventually, he envisons consumer vehicles outfitted with radios to transmit their locations, as well as potential routes, to traffic lights. Armed with both, an adaptive traffic system would make the flow even more efficient, he says.

With the rise of automated vehicles, Smith thinks the need for smart traffic systems will only grow. “A lot of people claim either rightly or wrongly that we will see less vehicles on the road. I’m not so sure I believe that; there will be less need for parking. But congestion is not going to go away — more and more people are moving to the city.” 
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

In a letter for The Players' Tribune, Fleury recounts his 14-year career as a Pittsburgh Penguin and the bittersweet weeks leading up to his departure to Las Vegas.
Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2017: When & Where to Watch Them

Pittsburgh-Area Fireworks 2017: When & Where to Watch Them

You can get your fill of fireworks throughout the long holiday weekend, if you know where and when to look.
See The Tiny House with Room to Grow

See The Tiny House with Room to Grow

The housing company Module, a Pittsburgh start-up, creates an alternative housing model that grows in size as you grow in income.
Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

Watch: Pittsburgh Penguins Video Tribute to Marc-André Fleury

With a tear in our eye, we bid the “Flower” Au Revoir.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Best of the 'Burgh 2017

Host an event in Pittsburgh’s urban sustainable homestead. Join a club for mushroom hunters. Tour a coal mine. Listen to some banjo music. We list our new favorite experiences, food, drink, personalities, stores, items and activities in the ’Burgh.
Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Daytripping: The ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’

Fourteen years ago this month, the mighty Kinzua Viaduct met its match.
Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.
Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

Thrive: Smooth Moves While Getting Lost in the Music

FASTER Pittsburghʼs Hip Hop Cardio promises to get your workout into a groove.
Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

Curling in Pittsburgh: ‘It's Basically Golf and Chess on Ice’

On the eve of its largest annual event, the Pittsburgh Curling Club has plans to increase Pittsburgh’s appreciation for its intricate sport.
Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

Top Ten Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

Marc-André Fleury Pens Loving Farewell Letter to Pittsburgh

In a letter for The Players' Tribune, Fleury recounts his 14-year career as a Pittsburgh Penguin and the bittersweet weeks leading up to his departure to Las Vegas.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Pusadee's Garden Will Close at End of Year (But Not Forever)

Look for some big changes at the Upper Lawrenceville restaurant, which is expected to shutter for at least a year.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Best Places for Kids on Rainy Days in Pittsburgh

Read on for some under-the-radar ideas on how you and the kids can survive a rainy day this summer.

Comments


High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

High-Wire Acts at Carnegie Science Center

The North Shore landmark's new ropes course is a draw for adults and youths alike.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Pittsburgh Pirates Looking for Relief from Their Bullpen

Pittsburgh Pirates Looking for Relief from Their Bullpen

The just-completed, pivotal 10-game stretch began and ended the same way for the Pittsburgh Pirates –– with no one having an answer for the faltering bullpen.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

Make the Cut with Jonathan Moran Woodworks

The Strip District-based woodworker's cutting boards can be custom made with the wood of your choice.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Buckle Up ... Again, as Cars 3 Hits Theaters

Reviews of "Cars 3" and "47 Meters Down," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Brewing Up Romance: A Couple Comes Together over Beer

Brewing Up Romance: A Couple Comes Together over Beer

See how this couple used their love of beer and breweries to create their special moments.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

Blooming: Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Hosts Town & Country Tour

From a forest of Japanese maples to a rocky urban sanctuary, the annual tour covers 14 very different gardens across the East End.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

Visit Thiel College for a Summer BBQ

On three days this summer, the college will host visit days for prospective students.

Comments

Edit Module