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Ford and Microsoft try to tackle traffic jams with quantum research

Image of a Seattle traffic jam
Traffic in Seattle. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

Ford and Microsoft have figured out how to leverage quantum computing — the powerful but not yet commercialized technology — to tackle traffic in Seattle.

Why it matters: By running quantum-inspired algorithms on conventional computer hardware, companies can process more data, giving them a head start on solving complex problems like how to direct thousands of vehicles simultaneously to smooth traffic flow.

  • "We don’t have to wait until quantum computers are deployed at large scale," Ben Porter, director of business development for quantum computing at Microsoft, tells Axios.

The big picture: Imagine a family trying to get ready for work and school with similar departure times, Ken Washington, Ford's chief technology officer, writes in a new blog post.

  • "If an individual day-planning app gave each person the quickest way to get going, there likely would be a bottleneck at the bathroom. Now scale that to a family of thousands…"
  • Just as families stagger bathroom time, traffic routing software could consider all the various route requests from drivers, then optimize route suggestions to minimize the number of cars sharing the road at the same time.

Today's computers can't calculate all the possible route variations fast enough, which is where quantum computing can help, Washington writes.

  • While modern computers translate information into bits — either a 1 or a 0 —
    a quantum computer can translate information into a 1, 0, and somewhere in between, meaning a lot more information can be stored and processed on a single quantum bit.
  • Yes, but: Quantum technology is fickle and still inching from theory to practice.

Microsoft has developed a method to emulate quantum behavior on traditional computers and started working with Ford in 2018 to see how the simulated approach could help tackle real world problems today.

How it works:

  • In one scenario, 5,000 vehicles — each with 10 possible routes — requested directions across Metro Seattle simultaneously.
  • In 20 seconds, balanced routing suggestions were delivered to all 5,000 vehicles.
  • The result: total congestion improved by 73% and average commuting time dropped 8% when compared to routing each car individually, in a vacuum.

What to watch: The companies will continue to try to refine their simulated approach with the goal of using quantum computing to solve intractable problems like optimizing manufacturing processes or improving batteries for electric vehicles.

Go deeper: A surprising quantum frontrunner