FEATURE: E&T Magazine – How quantum computers are transforming travel

Avinguda Diagonal street in Barcelona ; Shutterstock ID 1028707069; Auftragsnummer: -

While still in an early stage of development quantum computers are already making an impact in the automotive and aerospace sectors.

As cars become increasingly connected and aircraft ever more sensor-laden, automotive and aerospace companies are making a transition from being ‘nuts and bolts’ manufacturers to so-called ‘mobility companies’ that collect and use unprecedented amounts of data.

Data, it is believed, will provide new insights to help shape the future of transport, via futuristic business models and technologies that will mitigate the many challenges presented by growing populations and increasing congestion amid the need for decarbonisation.

All information, however, requires processing at super-fast speeds if it’s to be useful. To do this, companies are exploring not only AI and machine learning but also the more experimental realm of quantum computing, to see if it can extract better solutions faster than the classical equivalent.

Leading the charge is Volkswagen AG. In November last year, the company announced it had, for the first time, used a quantum computer to develop a traffic management system that, it claims, “will replace forecasts of urban traffic volumes, transport demand and travel times by precise calculations”.

According to the company’s chief information officer Martin Hofmann, this means taxis and buses won’t have to wait for passengers or drive considerable distances empty, and public transport operators can add additional trips to their fixed timetables in line with demand.

The technology could help the company achieve its vision of developing “an air-traffic control-type system that can augment the entire mobility system [of a city] and control it with intelligent algorithms that constantly interact with moving objects – a car, a bike, people – to give predictive optimised routing information”, according to Hofmann. In other words, build “a supercomputer to rule the roads”.

Volkswagen is not alone in its quantum efforts. Nearly every automotive company is currently developing a quantum strategy, including Daimler, BMW, Ford and Toyota. In aerospace, Airbus launched its ‘Airbus Quantum Computing Challenge’ in January.

To develop the traffic management system, Volkswagen experts used, via the cloud, a D-Wave Systems quantum computer or ‘quantum annealer’, to be more precise.

The company’s data science partner, Swiss firm Teralytics, fed anonymised movement data from Orange-connected smartphones and transmitters in vehicles around the Barcelona ICC conference centre into the D-Wave machine and programmed it to predict the need for taxis in the surrounding area.

According to Hofmann, the machine calculated traffic accumulations and customer demand with a 95 per cent probability meaning supply and demand of taxis could be optimised up to one hour in advance. So, using the algorithm, it would be possible to know where a taxi will be one hour in advance or in five minutes.

However, it’s important to note that the solutions provided by the D-Wave machine are only ‘probably’ the best available.