Robots are taking over intersections in the East End. Not anthropomorphic robocops directing traffic but Surtrac’s artificial intelligence-based system that has been quietly deployed over select intersections in East Liberty.

Founded by a team of roboticists and a spin-off of Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic21 research initiative, Surtrac’s system could spell the end of gridlock.

Surtrac stands for Scalable Urban Traffic Control and the company’s technology performs traffic signal control that responds in real-time not only over single intersections but throughout the system where it is deployed. “When we say real-time it’s true real-time. A lot of people talk about real-time and they mean about 15 minutes. We are talking real-time to the second. You are driving down the road and we are optimizing for you,” explains Gregory Barlow, one of the company’s co-founders.

Most modern traffic signals’ largely archaic functionality runs lights through a fixed cycle that may change slightly depending on time of day. Unless there is manual intervention, very few traffic signal systems dynamically respond to changes in traffic volume.

“There are other companies that do adaptive traffic signal control—they are optimized for one road. This really limits what can happen,” adds Barlow. “We coordinate on grids and optimize for the whole network at any given time.”

Surtrac utilizes sensor data—from cameras or radar—at intersections and takes data across the entire grid to optimize traffic for the cars that are actually on the road. It means the end to sitting aimlessly at an empty intersection.

“The way to think about it—we are combining traffic theory with artificial intelligence (AI)—we are using AI and applying it to traffic signal control. We’ve developed algorithms that are able to solve those optimization problems very fast,” says Barlow.

He is pleased with the results from Surtrac’s initial deployment. “On average, travel time has been reduced by 25%, wait time by 40% and consequently, emissions have also decreased by 20%.”

Surtrac’s goal this year is to increase its network to 50 intersections, covering the area from Penn Ave. and Braddock Ave. to Baum Blvd. and N. Craig St.

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.