Soon to be a thing of the past? Traffic backs up on an Israeli highway. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Israel’s Drive toward Smart Roads

How technology is shaping the country’s highways

Traffic is a universal scourge, and standing or crawling vehicles are a source of stress for drivers and pedestrians alike, a cause for a growing number of deaths and even a reason for billions of dollars in productivity loss.

Last year, Israel’s roads saw a spike in traffic-related deaths. The year 2019 broke a steady decline in traffic-related fatalities, according to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, with over 22,000 incidents that killed more than 350 – a jump from 316 in 2018 – and seriously injured more than 2,000.

“Texting and the use of cellphones while driving” is the leading cause of road fatalities, Malka Moira, of the National Road Safety Authority, told The Media Line, although she stressed that this was not specific just to Israel. “In the whole world, there has been a rise in accidents.”

Around 1 million additional cars entered Israel’s roads in the past decade, with the number of registered vehicles peaking at around 3.5 million in 2018 in a country with a population closing in on 9 million.

State authorities took the logical step for handling the influx by increasing the capacity of Israel’s road network. But the building spree of new highways, intersections, bridges and tunnels can only go so far due to Israel’s size and geography.

“In 10 to 20 years, we won’t have the space to build more roads,” Ben Gutman, a spokesman for Netivei Israel, a government road infrastructure company, told The Media Line. “We have to manage our routes in a smart way.”

Gutman added that the Israeli government was working with over 300 startups, hoping to use technology to make getting around more efficient.

Yakir Machluf is director of business development and the mobility lead for OurCrowd, a $1.4 billion investment firm working with startups to help bring their innovative solutions to market.

He explains that there are three main areas being worked on to reduce road congestion and fatalities.

One of them, dubbed V2V for “vehicle to vehicle,” is about helping cars communicate with one another. It is a technology, he says, that is key to the development of autonomous vehicles, although a fully autonomous fleet is “many years away” and “we shouldn’t expect autonomous vehicles to change everything right away.”

Machluf states that even if autonomous vehicles are perfected, internal data suggests that 50% of the cars on the road will still be human-controlled and that other solutions will be needed to improve efficiency and safety.

The startup Intelligent Traffic Control (ITC) is adopting another method to solve road issues in Israel. Its platform is built on V2I, or “vehicle to infrastructure” technology, which uses a network of cameras and artificial intelligence algorithms to create a series of “smart” traffic lights that know the optimal time to change signals.

Dvir Kenig, ITC’s chief technical officer, told The Media Line that the company’s goal is to “manage traffic jams before they happen.”

The technology has been piloted on Route 461, close to Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, which, according to Kenig, has received positive feedback.

“There’s so much to say. There have been good negotiations in Lisbon and Paris,” he said. “Every government we talk to, things are moving very quickly.”

NoTraffic, another Israeli firm focusing on camera-based V2I technology, has deployed its system in Phoenix, Arizona, and is seeking to expand to more markets, says OurCrowd’s Machluf.

ITC’s Kenig says the effectiveness of each system varies according to local traffic factors, although his firm’s system has seen a “50% reduction in traffic jams,” adding that “even one minute saved with 80,000 cars is NIS 80,000 saved.”

Kenig also says there will be an impact on safety, as ITC’s system will automatically monitor for dangerous drivers and change traffic signals if a vehicle is moving too fast or in danger of running a red light.

“Innocent cars will be spared,” he explained, noting that the system will not change a light to green until there is no danger.

Pedestrians are another key factor in traffic deaths, and tech solutions for that aspect of road safety are also being developed, Machluf says.

“One of the most difficult things to manage is the pedestrian,” he states.

“There’s a company,” he continues, “called VisibleZone, which uses a connection to smart devices to alert drivers and pedestrians by predicting pedestrian movement three seconds ahead of time. It can track cyclists [and] scooters without a line of sight, using the technology that already exists in phones.”

This type of approach has been dubbed V2X, for “vehicle to environment.”

According to Machluf, VisibleZone is using the receivers and transmitters already built into cellular phones to send signals that can be received by displays in vehicles.

“It’ll alert the driver if a person is watching YouTube and crossing the street,” he says by way of example, adding that the effective range has been tested at 180 meters, with further developments to increase this to 300m.

While the technology is already developed, universal application “lies in finding the right partner,” he explains, noting that without a strong regulatory framework and clear government policies, these technologies will probably not proliferate to the maximum level.

Another problem is the use of cellphones by drivers. OurCrowd believes a solution is not as far off as it seems, with investors eyeing technology by a startup called SaverOne that can lock a phone if its user is sensed as being in the driver’s seat.

The National Road Safety Authority’s Moira says her organization is keen on the use of more technology to save lives, noting that it can start with the simple things.

“It was the beeping that cars did when a person didn’t have their seatbelt on” that increased the rate of seatbelt use in Israel, she says.

Shakir Rimzy is a student in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.

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