Artificial intelligence (AI) is redefining the way we interact with the digital universe. Whether at work or at home, AI has already infiltrated most of what we do online.
But this is only the beginning. Still to come are some truly revolutionary advances in our relationship with the physical world, and nowhere is this likely to be more prevalent in the way we travel. Much of this will come from the intelligent automation of data collection and analytics to streamline traffic and improve safety.
But there are also ways in which AI is poised to reinvent transportation infrastructure to make it more durable and less costly to build and maintain.
All the Smarter Ways to Travel
Take a simple road as an example. From the dirt paths of primordial times to the modern, engineered constructs of today, roads essentially serve as the surface that enabled a reasonably smooth ride for wheeled means of conveyance.
In the modern world, roads have taken on a new role as digital conduits. They now facilitate efficient transportation from one location to another. These digital roads enable optimized routes, helping us get to our destinations in the most effective way possible.
According to Andrey Koptelov, innovation analyst at custom software development company Itransition, intelligent roadways will not only guide our vehicles to their appropriate destinations but enforce traffic laws, enable emergency services, reduce traffic jams, and even prevent accidents. Once outfitted with a plethora of sensors, cameras, and other devices – including in the pavement itself – intelligent management systems will have ample data to ensure that roads are functioning under optimal conditions in terms of weather, volume, and a host of other factors.
Even better, much of the signage and signaling required to navigate complex layouts might fade into obsolescence. Red lights, for one, may give way to intelligent guidance systems that direct vehicles through cross points quickly and safely. Optimal routes can be mapped and updated in real time, which will get you to your destination faster, reduce wear-and-tear on the roadway and the vehicle, and either reduce carbon emissions or prolong battery life.
Intelligent roadways are also seen as the answer to the growing diversity of transportation options, particularly in dense urban areas. With the ability to track movement in all its forms, AI will help ensure that pedestrians, cyclists, and users of battery-powered vehicles like hoverboards can share the roads with heavier vehicles safely and, in many cases, without requiring drastic changes to the roadways themselves.
Air travel is also ripe for an AI makeover. Few people these days would question the need to improve the flying experience, both in the air and through the airport. Modern airlines and airport authorities are facing a perfect storm of rising demand and diminishing labor, with the added burdens of security and weather-related disruptions thrown in for good measure.
As AviationFile noted recently, the entire industry is targeting AI for all of these problems and more. Predictive maintenance, for one, is greatly enhanced by intelligent systems drawing on sensor-driven data. This heads off many serious issues in the aircraft, on the runway, in the tower, and in critical systems like boarding and baggage handling.
Security can also be handled in a far less intrusive manner through the use of facial recognition and behavioral analytics. At the same time, self-help kiosks and mobile services empowered with intelligent chatbots and virtual assistants allow travelers to make or change reservations, navigate through airports, and access a host of other services, which reduces demand on already-overburdened airport staff.
Yet another crucial piece of transportation infrastructure is the railway. As recent events have demonstrated, a robust rail industry is vital for the economy and public safety.
Global Railway Review recently highlighted the myriad ways AI could make railways safer and more efficient. As AI has a proven capacity for spotting trouble before it results in accidents, some of these include:
- Automated driving and braking;
- Condition-based monitoring;
- Collision protection;
- Predictive maintenance.
Using tools like the Nvidia Jetson platform, rail operators are deploying AI at all levels of infrastructure – from the engine and cars themselves to tracks, switches, and stations – in order to gain a complete view of physical and operational conditions in real time. Even when vehicles lose their direct connections to the cloud or central servers, onboard intelligent systems have the capacity to infer from context to make decisions independently.
AI is also aiding in the design and construction of new infrastructure to make roads, bridges, and other constructs safer and more durable. A recent collaboration between AutoDesk and design firm Dar produced a 5-meter bridge that was 3-D printed from recycled materials and integrated with sensors in the deck and support structures.
The design not only opens the possibility of building even larger structures on site, but integrating them into existing infrastructure robotically, reducing costs and disruption to traffic flows while improving safety.
Even as the world becomes more digitized and we embrace the possibility of seeing the world virtually from the safety of our couches, goods, and people will still need to physically move from place to place. As populations grow, however, this promises to be an increasingly difficult and costly endeavor unless new and better ways can be found to deploy and maintain transportation infrastructure.
AI essentially brings the same capabilities to this task as it does to the worlds of finance, healthcare, and IT – by assuming all the rote, repetitive responsibilities so humans can concentrate on the more creative, rewarding elements of the job. Along the way, it removes other critical limiting factors like cost and complexity, allowing infrastructure to advance in ways that meet the needs of a 21st-century economy.
And with more efficient transportation at our disposal, the benefits of human productivity should become easier to distribute throughout the world.