Traffic is the perennial bane of the motorist, costing countless hours of lost time and turning the dream of the open road into a nightmare of traffic jams snaking as far as the eye can see. And in a world with an increasingly urban population (the global urban population increased from 34% to 54% between 1960 and 2014 according to the WHO) this issue is not going to resolve itself.

This is where technology comes in.

While traditional solutions to traffic management – pedestrianised zones, bus lanes, car free days – have had a positive impact, technologists are coming to realise that data has huge potential when it comes to freeing up our roads. 'Smart city' has become a buzz phrase in recent years, bundling together technologies as diverse as energy infrastructure, cloud services and smart phones. With regard to traffic however, the potential really does exist to harness the data being generated and gathered by millions of journeys every day, and use that data to better manage flow.

For some this might all sound something like science-fiction but real world applications of these techniques are easy to find. New York city for example, recently began trialling a system which collects drivers mobile phone data via a huge network of sensors – allowing traffic to be live tracked throughout the city and bottlenecks dealt with before they arise. Meanwhile Sydney, Australia has been using the SCATS system (Sydney Coordinated Adaptive Traffic System) since the 1970's, a system developed by programmers which has seen impressive reductions in traffic and emissions.

On a smaller scale too, developers are bringing a host of apps to the fore, from apps which collect and share data about their user's journeys to devices which allow vehicles to communicate with each other.

Underpinning many of these developments, and a technology that will be key to their growth, is artificial intelligence. As with any innovation, entrepreneurs and businesses in this space will need to protect the investments they make in developing the solutions to our traffic problems with intellectual property (IP). Clearly, patents are key to this and a cursory glance at global patent filing data reveals the scale of AI's likely influence on driving and traffic. Globally, 2018 has seen a massive 36,660 patent applications relating to AI systems in vehicles, up from 30,727 in 2017 and 11,863 in 2008.

The impact on traffic of smarter vehicles and traffic management systems, which can gather and share real-time data, will be immense.

Of course, patenting software has traditionally been challenging, but it is generally accepted that innovation that solves a technical problem with a technical solution, and is not merely an abstract concept, merits protection. Indeed, governments are now looking to harness the patent system to drive AI innovation: the European Patent Office (EPO) recently hosted a first conference on patenting Artificial Intelligence and further guidance is expected from the EPO later in the autumn.

Despite the challenges, it is clear that as more of us move into urban centres, traffic management will continue to be a growth market. With the right IP, the rewards will be great for those businesses that successfully confine traffic jams to the history books

This article first appeared in Automotive World, 1 October 2018.

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