Imagine a world in which vehicles, public transit, and traffic infrastructure communicated with one another to reduce congestion and seamlessly control the flow of traffic. It sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but one company with a close connection to a research lab at the University of Alberta is making it a reality.

iSmartways was founded in 2014 by University of Alberta Transportation Engineering Professor Dr. Tony Qiu, and is using high-tech data to change the way we move around our cities. Dr. Qiu developed a number of technologies and algorithms that extract anonymous data from roadside equipment and vehicles, as well as speed and congestion information.

“Our technology uses anonymous data and high-level artificial intelligence methods to estimate how many people move from one zone to another zone every day, through the whole city and province,” explains Dr. Qiu. “It’s very valuable information for infrastructure and planning.”

The technology is integrated in two ways: to provide real-time traffic information to citizens through 511 services, and for long-term planning by municipalities to optimize winter maintenance budgets, regional and provincial transportation planning and modelling, and transportation systems operations to support high-traffic times like big events.

For governments, the benefits are many: better planning for transportation budgets, improving public ridership and service level for public transit, and optimizing transit networks. Individuals can better plan their routes with real-time speed and congestion information.

The second technology that iSmartways has developed is the digitization of infrastructure to support changes in vehicle technology. “Our vehicles are connected through WiFi and Bluetooth, and in the future, our vehicles will be able to ‘talk’ to infrastructure,” says Dr. Qiu.

Through iSmartways, Dr. Qiu is working with all levels of government to help decision-makers better prepare our infrastructure for smart vehicles. For example, the City of Edmonton is currently exploring the potential for the technology to help improve the efficiency of transit operation and emergency response vehicles to coordinate their movement with signal lights. If travel time for an ambulance is decreased by only seconds, it can make a big difference while reducing confusion for drivers and improving road safety.

As a part of TEC Edmonton’s T-Squared Accelerator Program, iSmartways has partnered with TELUS to provide big data and analytics to support smart city initiatives in Edmonton and across Alberta. The challenge now lies with identifying potential clients in the commercial vehicle industry and municipalities.

As T-Squared participants, iSmartways has been getting assistance with business planning and strategy, as well as market research from TEC Edmonton’s Executives in Residence.

“It allows us to focus on technology development, and how we can convert research into a service, and market a product,” explains Dr. Qiu. “TEC Edmonton provided a very good platform, and played an important role in connecting us with TELUS.”

With the help of TEC Edmonton and TELUS, iSmartways is making its products available in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. Beyond this, it’s trying to expand into other regions as quickly as possible. Next on the agenda is building a bigger team to help the company grow beyond its current size of four full-time and two part-time employees.

Dr. Qiu is looking to the future with iSmartways, and is producing new data products to meet the clients’ increasing needs. He has also built strategic partnerships with international players, and is expanding his products into the Asian market, including China.

“If a research is only in the lab, we don’t know what is needed,” says Dr. Qiu. “Commercialization is a very good way to make our research more accountable, and to understand the real needs of society.”