A pedestrian walks their scooter across Ocean Boulevard on Pine Street in Downtown Long Beach, Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Long Beach’s street congestion and air quality could soon see improvements, thanks to a new pilot program that will test the ability of traffic lights to respond to traffic patterns in real time.

Coined Project X, the collaboration between Mercedes Benz, the city of Long Beach and the Los Angeles-based technology company Xtelligent will deploy a fleet of up to 50 smart vehicles and an artificial intelligence-driven software in the city. The vehicles and software will communicate with each other to provide real-time data to traffic signals.

The project, which will last 10 months, is expected to launch by the end of the year. If successful, the program could move into a second phase once the pilot concludes.

“We’re expecting intelligent vehicles and connected traffic signals to become industry standard in the next few years,” said Ryan Kurtzman, Long Beach’s smart cities program manager. “We’re getting a sneak peek.”

The three partners announced that a contract had been signed on Thursday, kicking off the process of selecting a project area and implementing Xtelligent’s software to test on traffic signals in the selected region.

The cars will mainly be sharing location data, something many cars already do to enable onboard navigation systems. But in this project, they will be sharing this data with city infrastructure, allowing Xtelligent’s software—and by extension, city engineers—to measure congestion, even calculating emissions based on the type of vehicle and its movements.

The data will be anonymized, preventing anyone in possession of the data to follow any individual car’s movements, according to a Mercedes Benz representative.

The potential benefits are manifold, Kurtzman noted.

The implications for traffic flow, for example, are clear. When high congestion is an issue, like around a car crash or during school drop-off and pickup times, customized red and green periods at specific intersections could make traffic flow more smoothly, said Michael Lim, co-founder of Xtelligent.

In the long run, the technology could even allow the city to prioritize carpools or buses, similar to a high occupancy vehicle or bus lane, creating incentives for environmentally-friendly travel, according to Kurtzman.

The system could also improve air quality. In areas that suffer from high pollution, such as major transit and transportation corridors, adaptive traffic signaling could reduce the amount of time cars spend idling at red lights.

“If a passenger vehicle is spending less time idling at a red light, that’s less time the vehicle is polluting the environment,” Kurtzman said. A study of Xtelligent’s algorithm by the Argonne National Laboratory projected roughly 15% emissions savings as a result of traffic optimization using the company’s technology.

Drivers of electric vehicles also stand to benefit from the new technology. Lim, of Xtelligent, drives a Nissan Leaf and said he often struggles with the car’s limited range, having to make inconvenient stops just to charge. More efficient traffic signaling can help electric cars like his go farther, he said.

“When you have a more predictive, flowing type of movement, they’re able to maintain energy more effectively,” Lim said. Having a city infrastructure model that could improve the range of electric vehicles like his, he said, might also encourage more people to make the switch from fossil fuels to electric.

But the first step is launching the pilot program to analyze how well the technology works and what could be improved.

Details of the program, like which streets this particular fleet of intelligent cars will be roaming, are still to be decided. The Atlantic Avenue corridor, parts of Downtown and an area near the Mercedes-Benz’s facility near the intersection of the 710 and 405 freeways are among the potential locations.

The city is carefully considering the potential impact of the operation on local traffic and the community overall, Kurtzman said.

“We need to make sure that the area makes sense from an engineering standpoint,” he said, “and from a community standpoint.”

The group also plans to start a STEM education program for local students at the Mercedes Benz facility as part of the project, but the details of that program have not yet been released.

If successful, the new technology could have significant benefits for the city, he added.

“Systems like that have the potential to improve the efficiency of our transportation network,” Kurtzman said. “This project helps us inform how we could deploy this type of technology on a larger scale across the city.”