Science fiction becomes real as Volkswagen puts quantum computing to work

Chances are, if you didn’t use your smartphone to navigate traffic today, you will soon. Millions of people rely on their navigation apps to not just point them in the right direction, but plot out a route around traffic on the road. These systems all work well, but they’re limited in their ability to map only individual vehicles rather than taking the entire system into account.

What if a more powerful computing system could provide navigation that anticipated where traffic was building up and adjusted its recommendations on the fly? That’s the concept behind a test Volkswagen Group ran last month to demonstrate one of the first real-world uses of quantum computing.

Over the past couple of years, quantum computing has taken the first steps from theoretical papers and science fiction into reality. A typical computer processor basically handles data as a series of math equations that it has to work through in order to find a single answer. Modern computers grow more powerful by performing that math faster; your newest smartphone can handle 600 billion operations every second.

But there are some problems that are so complex that even the fastest processors would need years to solve them. Quantum computing uses the oddity of quantum physics to handle far more complex math problems far faster than traditional machines — allowing them to tackle new types of challenges.

One of those: How do you route a vehicle through traffic without creating more backups? Volkswagen researchers in the United States and Germany have been working for the past three years on a potential answer that uses the power of quantum computing. They call it “quantum routing.”

Last month, Volkswagen performed its first real-world test of the system during the WebSummit conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Working with the city’s transit system, Volkswagen outfitted nine buses with tablets linked to the quantum routing system. The buses were assigned routes from the airport to the convention center with 26 stops. Before each trip, the quantum routing system provided them a custom route that accounted for not just existing traffic, but the other eight buses it was routing as well.

Volkswagen’s system relies on the D-Wave quantum annealer, a different kind of machine than the universal quantum computers under development by other firms, including Google. Quantum annealers can only solve very specific distribution problems, and researchers at VW Data Labs in San Francisco and Munich believe traffic optimization can be one of them.

“Traffic in major cities is highly complex due to a large number of road users,” says Abdallah Shanti, Global CIO Volkswagen Brand and CIO Region Americas. “That’s why we’ve tried to solve this problem with D-Wave’s quantum computers.”

Based on the successful test, Volkswagen plans to continue developing quantum computing and quantum routing applications. Volkswagen developers have designed the system so that it can work in any city and with vehicle fleets of any size. Such a system could be used by public transport companies, taxi companies or other fleet operators.

“The biggest challenge is to solve the vehicle distribution problem under consideration of all other vehicles in the traffic system quickly. Traffic optimization, due to the dynamics of traffic and quick changes, requires us to solve this problem in the shortest possible time,” said Florian Neukart, Volkswagen Director for Advanced Technologies in San Francisco.