Blog Scott Belcher Cheats Death, Italy’s Utopia Goes Head to Head with LA’s ATCS

Yesterday, one of our burning questions was answered: Are those automatic cars really avoiding things on their own?
Well it turns out that at least one is – as was proven today (unintentionally) by ITS America CEO Scott Belcher. Scott walked across the 11th Ave. test track unaware that a live demonstration was going on. A second later an autonomous SSTI test vehicle came zipping around some barrels. Some excitement ensued as the vehicle detected him and automatically stopped. Security started yelling (until he realized it was his boss in the track). So Scott cheats death (and so do a few engineers, I’d imagine) and the SSTI crew gets a good story to tell.
Unfortunately, even despite the new votes of confidence, no one was willing to let me hop in the back seat of one of those fancy cars with a few drinks and tour Manhattan with no driver. I can see it now: “Yes, officer, I have been drinking, but the car hasn’t, and it’s the one that was driving.”

Back to traffics signals. The more European traffic experts I interviewed, the more it became clear that at least in Europe, Mizar’s Utopia/Spot is the undisputed leader in adaptive signaling (Utopia is the system, Spot is the signal controller itself).
One was hard pressed to find any real defenders of SCOOT or SCAT, though they both have significant deployments. Utopia is a proprietary system initially developed more than 20 years ago in Torino, Italy. It is a lot more open than SCOOT and SCAT, though, in that it is mostly hardware agnostic. It also supports transit priority and they claim it increases the speed of transit vehicles by 20 percent. It has the ability to predict the arrival of transit vehicles and preemptively clear a path — most other systems just grant the transit vehicle priority when it arrives at a given intersection.
Side note: I personally wonder why we can’t tie the priority of transit vehicles to the number of passengers onboard. If the bus is full it should get a higher priority than an empty bus and most bus rapid transit systems already keep track of how many people board.
Utopia has been piloted in the US but it was not very successful. More than one person I talked with attributed that to it being improperly deployed. In any event, the real news is that Utopia just gained a U.S. distributor, California-based McCain Inc. This puts them in the backyard of and in direct competition with LADOTs ATCS system.
Spain has a system of its own that appears to be similar to SCOOT and is heavily deployed there. It controls 57 percent of all signals in Spain and 61 percent of the signals in city centers.
As far as I could tell, Asia doesn’t really have a competitive adaptive offering of its own. Several Asian and Australian cities have SCOOT or SCAT deployments and Japan has its mature UTMS system. From what I can tell, UTMS is more of a “traffic responsive” or “plan selective” system than a truly adaptive one. I’m admittedly a little hazy on the details though mostly due to the fact that my Japanese is significantly worse than my English (which isn’t even that great on its own). There is supposed to be a newer system coming out of Australia called STREAM, but I wasn’t able to track down anyone who knew much about it.
The combination of strong competing technologies and open detection, communication, and control hardware has me optimistic about the future. There are also some interesting ideas coming down the theoretical pipe. Today, I had a chance to look at a paper called “Application of Parallel Genetic Algorithm (PGA) in Adaptive Traffic Signal Timing Optimization” that appears to offer significant improvements over current methods. I also think it would be worthwhile to look at the European countries own comparisons of these systems; I had more than one country offer them to me.
We can all hope that the future will hold more national and international cooperation on these technologies and hopefully some solid open source signal control systems. Few things would thrill me more than seeing a group do for signal control what Apache and Linux did for the Internet.

Matthew Scholz

Matt is Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Oisín Bio. A serial entrepreneur with a background in computer security and immunology, Matt is also the founder and CEO of Immusoft, a biotech firm developing a breakthrough technology that will turn a patient's B cells into miniature drug factories. Matthew speaks and presents regularly to university, association and scientific audiences, including those at his alma mater, the University of Washington. He served for several years as a mentor to recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, a program that awarded grants to some of the world’s brightest scientific minds under age 20.