Nobody likes traffic jams. And we may not be forced to live with them for the rest of our lives.
Young startup Urban Engines hopes to solve traffic jams by applying the lessons learned from keeping the internet up and running.*
If anyone can do that, it’s the founders of Urban Engines. Balaji Prabhakar is a Stanford professor and one of the world’s authorities on “internet congestion” or how to keep internet sites up even when they get pounded with traffic.* Ditto for Shiva Shivakumar, who spent 10 years as an engineer at Google working his way up to vice president and helping build products like Gmail and AdSense.
Their idea is to watch real world traffic so cities can make changes on the fly when they see traffic problems coming, much the same as big internet companies like Google watches their websites.
The idea hit Prabhakar in December, 2007, when he was late for a meeting and “stuck in the mother of all traffic jams,” he recounted to Business Insider. It occurred to him that street traffic and internet traffic are the same problem, too many people trying to get to the same place at once. He had helped solve internet congestion, could he do the same for real live traffic?
Shivakumar had a similar epiphany while working on Gmail. His team had just figured out how to a make each email open 50 milliseconds faster.* “That was a big deal. We had a few hundred million people using Gmail” so when you added up all those milliseconds, “it was a lot of time,” he told Business Insider.*
He started wondering “how you could apply that 50 milliseconds savings to the real world to really give people back a lot time.” He enrolled in Stanford to study the problem and met professor Prabhakar and the genesis of a cool new startup, Urban Engines, was born.
When a city can treat its transit systems the way Google treats its website, it can see when a traffic jam develops and take immediate steps to solve it, like shifting extra trains to the congested area, or re-routing buses and so on.
A lot of companies are trying to sell cities millions of dollars of new sensors and equipment to build “smart cities” that can do this sort of thing. But Urban Engines discovered that you could track traffic using city-issued items people were already using, like their bus and train passes.
It built a system, which it sells to cities, that collects data from these items, so they can predict traffic problems in real time. “You don’t need to install more sensors,” Shivakumar tells us. This should make it more affordable for more cities to attack the traffic jam problem. Maybe one day, a traffic jam could become as rare an event as a Google outage.
Urban Engines has not revealed how much money it has raised but it is backed by heavy hitters Google Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, early Google investor and board member Ram Shriram, SVAngel, Greylock Partners, and Samsung Ventures.
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Correction, October 29: This article originally misstated Balaji Prabhakar’s credentials. He is a professor at Stanford, not a former professor. It also misidentified Urban Engines as UrbanEngines. The article misstated how much Google has sped up opening Gmail. It is by 50 milliseconds, not nanoseconds.