New York Green Light: The Israeli Startup that Advanced From the Metro to the Traffic Jam on Fifth Avenue


November 7, 2018

A phone call from a friend working on the light rail project in Jerusalem changed the life of Ilan Weizman: In early 2009, the world was still licking the wounds from the financial crisis that broke out a year earlier. Weizman, a Technion graduate and former senior at the Intel Development Center in Israel, was at a crossroads. Behind him was an impressive resume which included, among other things, a position as R&D director, and one of the leading 3DV start-ups who developed advanced 3D motion recognition technology for the gaming worlds. Four years after Weizman’s retirement, the company was sold to Microsoft for $34 million.

It was an exit, but not really fairytale. The technology developed by the company was used on Microsoft’s Kinket console, but the sale was a few million dollars lower than the company’s total investment, which faced stiff competition from giants such as Sony and Nintendo and strong Israeli competitors such as Freemasons (later sold to Apple for 10 times higher).

After leaving 3DV, Weizman worked at an Intel-acquired Oplus startup and from there continued to the position of VP of Marketing at Surf Communications. The phone call found Weizman, then about forty, at a time when he was considering continuing. “They talk to me about priorities in traffic lights, algorithms, and I have no idea what they’re talking about! Come help me,” said the friend on the other end of the line.

I met with them,” Weizman tells Globes, “and that’s how it all began. I found that the tools available in the market do not provide a smart traffic light solution as project operators expect. So I did what I know best – to bridge technology and customer problems in the field. To work with the light rail as a free consultant, to learn and to build a reputation for myself.”

From Jerusalem to the New York intersections
Weizmann’s first clients were French Alstom and Israel Ashtrom, the light rail franchise in Jerusalem. Weizman initially worked alone, then formed a team of five developers and founded Axilion. The startup is developing an artificial intelligence algorithm that turns regular traffic lights into smart traffic lights, and can catapult city traffic through prioritizing public transportation and significantly shortening traffic stops. Axilion was established without investors, on the basis of paying customers only – that in Israel they are the light rail in Jerusalem and the Matron in Haifa. Axilion currently employs 20 people at the company’s Azrieli Sharona Towers center in Tel Aviv and Sofia, Bulgaria.

The first investors, including some of Mobileye’s first investors, only joined in 2014 and provided the basis for the company’s first attempts to break the boundaries of the Israeli market and out into the world. But the break was shameful: “I talked to investors about a linked car and smart traffic lights and they looked at me like I had fallen off the moon. I understood that the software was ahead of its time: We developed it, it was rich in capabilities, but the demand was not yet reached,” Weizman recalls.

The break-in awaited, Weizman had to wait a few more years. In mid-2017, a friend of Weizman sold a longtime acquaintance, Oren Dror, who previously served as VP of Microsoft-Israel Enterprise and Senior Director of Microsoft, and currently serves as a member of the Azrieli Group’s board of directors. The two, who were neighbors about 20 years ago, met for dinner at Weizman’s. “I have great technology – why shouldn’t we become a global company?” Weizman asked. Dror was turned on, bought 50% of the company’s shares and was appointed CEO, while Weizman sat on the technology director’s chair (CTO) in the company.

After Dror took office, the two embarked on a campaign to raise investors and staff the company’s advisory team (Advisory) and arrived as part of their wanderings for a conference in New York. A professional magazine was rolled out with the two articles on the challenges associated with traffic light preference systems. The article was signed by a traffic engineer named Mark Yadlin who worked for a company that provided services to the New York City Municipality. “Let’s call him,” Dror said, and so it happened. Weizman and Dror met with Yadlin and introduced him to the software: “We were not surprised when he told us that they were exactly the problems he was dealing with.”

Yadlin linked the two to his article writing partner, who worked in the New York City Council, and within a month they found themselves in the midst of a pilot on 125th Avenue. After being satisfied with the performance at four intersections, the city moved to another axis in Queens with 60 traffic lights. The pilots have led to a procurement deal under which Axilion is currently assimilating its products, and by January it will already become the brain behind traffic lights on Fifth Avenue in the city.

14 km without stopping at a traffic light
So how exactly does Axilion make traffic lights smart? Typically, traffic light systems are pre-programmed, and only updated once every few years – sometimes 10 years. The Axilion system adds to the processor of the existing traffic lights a software component that allows them to become smart traffic lights and respond in real time to a bus or light rail approaching the intersection. This is done with special sensors installed on the road: in Haifa, for example, the sensors are submerged in the ground, while in New York there is a wireless network and GPS on the buses. In this way, the system recognizes the public vehicle approaching the intersection and adjusts for it a green wave, which allows public transport to move almost without stopping – thus helping to reduce overall travel time.

Axilion gives the example of the light rail in Jerusalem: along a 14 km line, the train passes through some 70 intersection intersections, and does not have to stop or even slow down before any of them. The use of the system allowed the journey time from Pisgat Ze’ev to Mount Herzl to be reduced by about 80 minutes. For 49 minutes, the system was first deployed in Jerusalem in 2011 and included 30% of traffic light on the light rail route, following the success in 2014 of all traffic lights upgraded to smart traffic lights: As a result, although the number of passengers in those years increased four times, the number could be reduced. The trains are on line every five minutes, once every fifteen minutes.

Work on the traffic light system in Haifa – the metro line connecting the industrial area in the southern city to the Crimea – began in 2013 and launched in 2014. There, according to Axilion, travel times were shortened from 73 minutes to 58 minutes.

With Dror’s entry into the company, he brought together a team of consultants that includes Mark Joseph, CEO of The Americas for the bus giant and light rail transdev who helped the company open its doors to U.S. transportation authorities. Joseph hooked Axilion to another senior, John Porcari, who served for about four and a half years as Deputy Secretary of Transportation during the first half of Barack Obama’s tenure as US President from 2009 to 2013. This is a post that is a personal appointment of President. In his role, also defined as chief operating officer (COO), Porcari managed a $ 77 billion federal investment budget in transportation infrastructure, and 10 US government agencies employing 55,000 employees.

I am a geek of transportation,” says Porcari, who joined the conversation with Weizmann and Dror. Prior to his tenure, he served as Maryland’s Secretary of Transportation in two terms, where he managed all of the state’s public transportation operations, under which he managed 9,300 employees and an annual budget of $ 3.2 billion. Porcari currently serves as the U.S. Division President at the WSP International Engineering Firm, active in transportation, infrastructure, energy, construction, water and environmental engineering, and employs more than 7,000 employees in more than 100 offices across the United States.

The Maryland Department of Transportation operates the subway, light rail, suburban, city and interurban buses, and the light rail passes through downtown Baltimore. This line was established in the first place to drive people to jobs, the journey lasting 40 minutes, so the line never reached its full potential.

“I inherited this system no matter what we did – we doubled the tracks or changed the traffic lights – nothing could do what the Axilion system can do. The technology simply didn’t exist. The existing traffic management system is mechanical, and because of how it works it cannot prioritize a particular means of transport without harming the rest.”

American connections have already led to the fact that, in parallel with New York, three-way pilots are being held in Washington, DC, not far from the White House, and in Downtown Las Vegas. Future applications of the technology, Axilion promises, will allow future interfaces with autonomous vehicles and services such as Waze and Uber to prioritize vehicles according to their type and number of passengers.

When will the technology reach Gush Dan?
Axilion is, of course, not the only company operating in the field: among the other companies that develop engineering and infrastructure software, American Rhythm Engineering. At the same time, the major traffic light manufacturers, such as the American Econolite or the Austrian Kapsch, also operate. However, it can be said that the entire field is still in its infancy.

For Axilion, this is indeed just the beginning. “It is imperative to connect the traffic light systems to the autonomous vehicle to create a market of over $ 100 billion to upgrade existing systems,” says Dror. “The main obstacle for transportation authorities, Porcari adds, “is that no local authority, whether it is a small town or New York City, can afford to replace the entire system from the ground up, not even in ten years.” This obstacle, of course, is the opportunity for Axilion, hopes for society.

To support this, the company is currently raising $ 15-20 million in round A to raise capital for “expanding sales and marketing operations in the United States, and continuing to develop smart traffic light and interconnected technologies, and advanced traffic congestion-based dynamic traffic management algorithms” around the city.”

Unlike cases where Israeli companies try to break into the US market because of its accessibility and size, in the case of public transport, and perhaps unlike Europe, which is known for its efficient mass transit systems, the US is an outdated infrastructure that threw technology into the 21st century. Dollars have been poured down the ages on public transportation systems that are nowhere near the full potential, “says porcari. “The system loses passengers, becomes at least comfortable, and in some ways becomes an abandoned asset. But with the right layer of technology, it can make it work and at the same time change the interface of Uber’s existing public transport, with Lyft and Byrd that existing transport systems are as uncomfortable as they should be. The result is that they take passengers to public transport while a more balanced solution, for example, will only provide service at the edges.”

After New York, Haifa and Jerusalem, when will a smart prioritization system also reach Gush Dan and Tel Aviv with multiple traffic loads? Government officials with whom we spoke said that “if a collaboration were established that would unite the capabilities of companies such as Axilion with other Israeli companies such as Waycare and Notraffic, the traffic jams in Israel could be mowed down.”

How does Axilion make traffic lights smart?
The Axilion system is based on sensors that detect the locations of the buses and transmit them to a traffic light. Everywhere in the world there is a preference for different sensor technology: in Israel, discrete detectors are intercepted on the road and report a preferred vehicle approach – train or bus – they give a good indication of when the vehicles will reach the traffic light. In addition, the traffic light system compensates the private vehicles and gives them the same amount of time given to the light rail; In New York, they work with a system that combines GPS with a wireless system that broadcasts bus locations, and in fact provides ongoing information that is updated regularly. The traffic light system there does not compensate the private vehicles with longer green light.

Expectations of arrival are important to the system’s algorithm: the earlier an indication of a preferred vehicle arrival system can be prepared accordingly. For example, if there is a detector 300 meters from the intersection and know that the bus travels at an average speed of 25 km / h, it can be calculated in a few seconds before it reaches the stop line. The first thing the system does when notifying a bus arrival is to prepare the intersection by providing green light to the pedestrians so that they can reach the station, then the software calculates when a green wave should be given to the bus on. After the bus has passed the intersection, it is the turn of the cancellation detector who reports that the bus has crossed the intersection and traffic has to be compensated for the same number of seconds the bus has received. To receive a continuous green wave, the other traffic lights are waiting for the traffic light ahead of them.

Axilion, it should be noted, reads information from the various detectors installed in each city, and operates on the simple processor that already exists in traffic lights, using predictive analytics and machine learning. Each traffic light manages its own algorithm and communicates with the other traffic lights. In some cities, they are connected to a central system but this is more for monitoring and control and less for ongoing management.

When needed, if the system is challenged and creates a demand to release traffic jams created by a green wave for public transport, bus and subway priority can be lowered from 100 percent to a lower index – 80 or 60 percent, and even to 0.

In addition to the simple detectors that are currently used as information sources, advanced technologies will be used to add information to the equation based on online sources such as WIS and cellular networks. Private vehicles will be able to join thanks to V2X – Vehicle-to-everything technology, which will allow communication between vehicles and themselves and between vehicles and transport infrastructure. One of the Israeli companies that specializes in this technology is Autotalks. This technology is already around the corner and as of 2021 all Toyota vehicles will include it. In the more distant future in Axilion, they aim to take the service to the cloud and get rid of all the local hardware infrastructure.

The Axilion pricing model is a one-time, light traffic light, plus an annual maintenance fee. According to network estimates, a public transportation line generates millions of dollars in profits.