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USC duo gets behind the wheel on ways to lighten LA traffic

Weary of long commutes on congested freeways? Two USC Viterbi researchers may have a solution

Los Angeles, Freeway, Traffic, cars
ClearPath sets itself apart from other apps by predicting changes that occur over the course of the route, (Photo/Tatiane Santos)

Ugur Demiryurek loves a challenge. While most researchers are frustrated by seemingly unsolvable situations, Demiryurek works against the grain.

“As a researcher, problems are more important for me than the solutions. When someone brings me a difficult problem, I definitely like the problem more than the solution, and the rest follows,” he said.

In 2006, Demiryurek began his Ph.D. studies in computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering under the direction of Cyrus Shahabi, professor of computer science and electrical engineering. Noting Demiryurek’s love of problems, Shahabi challenged him with a personal situation.

Each weekday, Shahabi commutes from his Irvine home to USC. While using routing apps during his commute, Shahabi spotted a problem: areas marked as high-traffic zones at the time he began driving would be clear by the time he reached them — and vice versa.

I realized that given all the information we have on traffic, we can do better.

Cyrus Shahabi

“I realized that given all the information we have on traffic, we can do better,” Shahabi said.

Predicting a clear path

Shahabi began researching predictive path planning, a routing system that adjusts to real-time traffic changes. When Demiryurek went to Shahabi for a doctoral project, Shahabi realized he was the perfect partner to make predictive path planning a reality.

“I go to a lot of students with problems, but they cannot put them in the context of a research objective and approach it,” Shahabi said. “Ugur understood the problem from my description and brought it to the research stage through his Ph.D. dissertation.”

Flash forward five years later, and the two are now co-workers: Demiryurek serves as assistant director of USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center — Shahabi is the director.

And through funding from agencies like the National Science Foundation and Fortune 500 companies, what began as Demiryurek’s Ph.D. dissertation has grown into an array of research ventures, all with the common goal of routing Los Angeles.

“Before he actually got his Ph.D., I was already looking at him more as a colleague than a student . . . the transition just happened naturally,” Shahabi said.

Using traffic data from the Los Angeles Metro Authority, the partners turned a project into a product with ClearPath, which sets itself apart from other routing apps, like Waze and GoogleMaps, by predicting traffic changes that occur over the course of the route, using historic traffic patterns and updating them with real-time events. According to Demiryurek, the application shaves travel time by 18 percent.

ClearPath attracted interest from venture capitalists and companies alike and is set to launch as a spinoff later this year.

More vehicles, more routing

Now that they’ve solved the predictive routing problem for individual vehicles, Shahabi and Demiryurek have moved onto a new project — predictive routing for fleets of vehicles, such as delivery trucks.

Minimizing the time these vehicles spend on the road would bring many benefits. Customers would receive packages faster and truck companies would save money on fuel — even the environment would benefit through less carbon emissions. The traffic-fighting pair partnered with Oracle, an engineering hardware and software company, on the new venture.

According to Bloomberg Business, reducing travel distance by just one mile per day for every truck could save a company the size of UPS up to $50 million a year in time, fuel and vehicle maintenance.

“I am pretty sure that our idea will save even more . . . because seeing in front of you what will happen, with a system that reacts to real-time events, is priceless,” Demiryurek said.

And the traffic-fighting duo isn’t stopping with delivery trucks. For their next project, Demiryurek and Shahabi hope to streamline the city’s notorious public transportation system by analyzing bus routes, continuing their quest for clearer, faster commutes for Angelenos.

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USC duo gets behind the wheel on ways to lighten LA traffic

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