An Australian company founded by three academics has an ambitious goal: to reduce the human, social and economic cost of traffic accidents globally. Its sophisticated technology is already revolutionising road safety and lowering crash rates.
Some decades ago the medical profession realised that, when it came to cancer and heart disease, prevention was far more effective than treatment. In Professor Simon Washington’s view, the same “paradigm shift” is required within the road safety community, which remains largely focused on reacting to crashes after they happen rather than seeking to avert them.
Washington is an internationally renowned road safety expert with a stellar 30-year academic career behind him. He heads a Brisbane-based start-up AMAG (Advanced Mobility Analytics Group), which has pioneered and commercialised technologically advanced software to be used for monitoring and analysing road users’ movements and interactions.
Based on its data-driven insights, transport authorities can assess accident risks, evaluate the impact of new safety measures and take proactive action to prevent future crashes.
“It’s a shift from intervention to prevention,” says Washington, who left the University of Queensland in 2019 to found AMAG with the Queensland University of Technology’s Professor Mazharul Haque and the University of British Columbia’s Professor Tarek Sayed.
Central to AMAG’s technology is the established link between the near misses – or ‘critical conflicts’ that occur at locations such as intersections, roundabouts and school zones – and the probability of future crashes. In contrast to the methods traditionally used to observe critical conflicts, the new technology can measure them objectively, resulting in what Washington calls “an ongoing snapshot of crash risk for all road users, particularly the most vulnerable users, such as pedestrians and cyclists”.
AMAG’s platforms are now being used by Governments and Transport Authorities to plan, operate and manage transport systems in more than 20 cities in Australia, the US, Canada and the Middle East. When they are deployed in a concentrated way, “we can expect to achieve 20 to 30 per cent reductions in road toll statistics”, Washington says.
Deploying cutting-edge technology to pinpoint near misses
Currently, it can take years for new safety measures to be approved, funded and implemented at potentially risky locations. Transport engineers need several crashes to happen at a site before they can determine the causes and contributing factors. Crashes, though, are relatively rare, meaning the process is long and, by that time, deaths and injuries may have occurred.
With AMAG’s technology, which is based on reliable forewarnings of future accidents, the process is much faster. The company’s platforms use advanced AI, machine learning and algorithms to track the critical conflicts that occur regularly involving road users such as pedestrians, cyclists, cars, trucks and buses, and captured by a roadside camera over days or weeks.
The metrics gathered include speed and acceleration, as well as how close road users came to colliding and at what velocity and angle. These enable the severity of a crash to be reliably predicted. Safety improvements are then trialled and can be quickly evaluated through further monitoring.
Washington calls the potential impact of the technology “game changing”. Nearly 1200 people died on Australian roads in 2022, with tens of thousands seriously injured. Globally, 1.25 million people are killed in traffic accidents annually, at an estimated cost of US$870 billion.
Such statistics motivated Washington, one of the world’s most highly cited road safety academics, to enter a commercial space where he could apply his experience and knowledge for real-world benefit. “I always used to say to my students: transport is one of the civil engineering disciplines where you can make a difference to people’s everyday lives,” he says.
A welcome cash injection
Raising funds for a technology start-up is not easy, however. A $750,000 Accelerating Commercialisation grant that AMAG received under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme was “absolutely critical” to research and development as the company prepared for its market launch, Washington says.
At that stage, AMAG had already developed platforms for observing and analysing information recorded by cameras. Within the road safety community, though, there was growing interest in LiDAR, laser beams that detect and measure the environment. With the grant, the company was able to tailor its products to process LiDAR as well as visual data.
Washington and his colleagues also received advice and assistance from Larry Weng, a facilitator with i4 Connect, the Accelerating Commercialisation service delivery partner. Weng not only guided AMAG through the grant application process, but also provided crucial support pre-commercialisation. “Larry was amazing,” says Washington. “He was incredibly constructive and helpful, and he was just a champion to work with.”
For his part, Weng says AMAG was a prime candidate for the Accelerating Commercialisation program, thanks to the founders’ reputations and combined expertise, as well as their innovative technology and the fact they already had enthusiastic would-be customers.
“Simon Washington is a unique character because he’s got that expert knowledge, but he also has commercial savvy and an open mindset. He’s really approachable and uses language that people can understand,” says Weng, who introduced AMAG to other companies with potential synergies, as well as sharing his Government connections.
Negotiating a challenging market
Market penetration has its challenges: traffic engineers are understandably risk-averse and reluctant to institute changes, Government Agencies have long procurement cycles, and the market is crowded with new technology providers. Nevertheless, Washington is pursuing his vision of delivering safer and more efficient transport systems.
Among AMAG’s customers is the City of Bellevue, near Seattle, which rolled out new safety measures for pedestrians city-wide after witnessing a significant drop in near misses at six intersections.
The company is poised to trial its latest technology on Sydney’s North Shore, which will allow engineers to automatically monitor traffic movements in real time, detect road users at potential risk and intervene, for example, by adjusting signals.
“This is real leading-edge technology, but it’s the way of the future,” says Washington. “There will be a lot more dynamically controlled locations, and our technology will enable that.”