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Flying cars to AI feature in contest to solve Bengaluru gridlock

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-07-2017 Saritha Rai

Bangalore: In Bengaluru, tech giants and startups typically spend their days fiercely battling each other for customers. Now they are turning their attention to a common enemy: the Indian city’s infernal traffic congestion.

Cross-town commutes that can take hours has inspired Gridlock Hackathon, a contest initiated by Flipkart Online Services Pvt. for technology workers to find solutions to the snarled roads that cost the economy billions of dollars. While the prize totals a mere $5,500, it’s attracting teams from global giants Microsoft Corp., Google and Amazon.com. Inc. to local startups including Ola.

The online contest is crowdsourcing solutions for Bengaluru, a city of more than 10 million, as it grapples with inadequate roads, unprecedented growth and overpopulation. The technology industry began booming decades ago and with its base of talent, it continues to attract companies. Just last month, Intel Corp. said it would invest $178 million and add more workers to expand its R&D operations.

The ideas put forward at the hackathon range from using artificial intelligence and big data on traffic flows to true moonshots, such as flying cars.

The gridlock remains a problem for a city dependent on its technology industry and seeking to attract new investment. Bengaluru is home to Asian outsourcing giants Infosys Ltd. and Wipro Ltd along with 800,000 tech workers that account for 38% of the country’s $116-billion software outsourcing industry, according to Priyank Kharge, state minister of Information Technology.

Parody tweets

“Traffic is the only negative Bengaluru has,” Kharge said, “When delegations bring investment proposals to the government, I tell them, ‘The city is fantastic in every way, weather-wise and otherwise.’”

Yet, so bad is the traffic that Bengaluru’s most infamous logjam at Silk Board Junction has inspired its own Twitter parody account for what it calls “India’s largest parking lot.”

V. Ravichandar, urban infrastructure expert and chairman at market researcher Feedback Consulting, estimates that traffic jams directly shave about 2 percent from the city’s estimated GDP of $30 billion. The opportunity, health care, slackened productivity and other related costs are immense and could take the actual losses into the billions.

Gridlock Hackathon came about as part of the 10-year celebrations of Flipkart, India’s most valuable startup. The Bengaluru-based company’s 30,000 workers, including hundreds of deliverymen, spend hours stuck in jams.

1,000 teams

“The city has the potential to become a truly-world class business and social destination if only its traffic were a little less unruly,” said Binny Bansal, Flipkart’s group chief executive officer. “Any solution can only have an impact if it originates from and has the support of citizens – the people who use the city’s roads and contribute to the traffic problem to begin with.”

The contest has drawn more than 1,000 teams with entries from as far afield as Seattle, Atlanta and Dubai with quirky names like NoHonk, RushHour and CitizenCop. Submissions closed last week.

From IT workers stuck in cars and buses to Flipkart and Amazon workers sweating it out in the dust, the cost of Bengaluru’s gridlock is visible everywhere. Drivers for ride-hailing apps Ola and Uber Technologies Inc., who have incentives to hit a certain number of daily trips, end up working ever-longer hours to meet the company-assigned ride targets.

Midnight delivery

Akshay Rao, a Seattle-based engineer who works on process improvement at Amazon, put in his entry, proposing to reform the driver licensing system by creating incentives for the right road behaviour and propagating timely information on public transport for paid users.

Rao, a former officer in the Indian Navy, had plenty of experience on the city’s roads when he led the start of Amazon India’s logistics operations in 2013 and subsequent roll out of next-day delivery and same-day delivery.

“If we missed distribution schedules, we would run into rush hour traffic,” said Rao, who recalled delivering at midnight to angry customers and at 4.30 am to a customer catching a train. To get around ‘choke points’, deliverymen on scooters did short relays, memorized the shortcuts and on some occasions carried packages by hand.

Other entries suggested including Internet of Things-powered road dividers that change orientation to handle changing situations. There is also a proposal for a reporting system that tracks vehicles that don’t conform to the road rules, a device to track social media to generate traffic reports and a network of smart satellite townships to ease the flow of vehicles.

Then there are the more ambitious. Utkarsh B, a seven-year veteran at Flipkart who is overseeing the competition, said a team suggested building smart roads underneath the city and another has sent in detailed drawings of flying cars.

Among those participating is Harish Mamtani, a former Morgan Stanley banker who splits his time between Atlanta and Hyderabad, where he runs a low-cost school. His idea is an app platform that helps crowdsource and report traffic violations to the cloud that police can use to nab violators and levy penalties.

Cloud solution

“The traffic police in Indian cities probably have no inkling what a cloud is, they cannot be expected to come up with technology solutions,” said Mamtani, who was spurred to think up a fix when he was hit by an autorickshaw going the wrong way only to be abused by the driver. His proposal aims to help police tackle the sheer volume of violators and is customizable across cities.

While much is made of Bengaluru’s traffic woes, other Indian cities are no better, said Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director of Indian biotechnology company, Bengaluru-based Biocon Ltd. She spoke from Mumbai where she had just missed a flight after being stuck in a 1.5-hour, 4 mile-traffic jam en route to the airport.

Gridlock Hackathon is the kind of contest that Indian cities desperately need, she said. “Only innovative thinkers can come up with technology solutions for the problems that plague cities nationwide,” said Mazumdar-Shaw. “Age-old solutions will no longer work.” Bloomberg

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