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Flying cars to AI feature in contest to solve Bangalore gridlock

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In Bangalore, tech giants and startups typically spend their days fiercely battling each other for customers. Now they are turning their attention to a common enemy: the Indian city's infernal traffic congestion.

[BANGALORE] In Bangalore, tech giants and startups typically spend their days fiercely battling each other for customers. Now they are turning their attention to a common enemy: the Indian city's infernal traffic congestion.

Cross-town commutes that can take hours has inspired Gridlock Hackathon, a contest initiated by Flipkart Online Services Pvt for technology workers to find solutions to the snarled roads that cost the economy billions of dollars. While the prize totals a mere US$5,500, it's attracting teams from global giants Microsoft Corp, Google and Amazon.com. Inc. to local startups including Ola.

The online contest is crowdsourcing solutions for Bangalore, a city of more than 10 million, as it grapples with inadequate roads, unprecedented growth and overpopulation. The technology industry began booming decades ago and with its base of talent, it continues to attract companies. Just last month, Intel Corp. said it would invest US$178 million and add more workers to expand its R&D operations.

The ideas put forward at the hackathon range from using artificial intelligence and big data on traffic flows to true moonshots, such as flying cars.

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The gridlock remains a problem for a city dependent on its technology industry and seeking to attract new investment. Bangalore is home to Asian outsourcing giants Infosys Ltd and Wipro Ltd along with 800,000 tech workers that account for 38 per cent of the country's US$116-billion software outsourcing industry, according to Priyank Kharge, state minister of Information Technology.

"Traffic is the only negative Bangalore has," Mr Kharge said, "When delegations bring investment proposals to the government, I tell them, 'The city is fantastic in every way, weather-wise and otherwise.'" Yet, so bad is the traffic that Bangalore's most infamous logjam at Silk Board Junction has inspired its own Twitter parody account for what it calls "India's largest parking lot." V. Ravichandar, urban infrastructure expert and chairman at market researcher Feedback Consulting, estimates that traffic jams directly shave about 2 per cent from the city's estimated GDP of US$30 billion. The opportunity, health care, slackened productivity and other related costs are immense and could take the actual losses into the billions.

Gridlock Hackathon came about as part of the 10-year celebrations of Flipkart, India's most valuable startup. The Bangalore-based company's 30,000 workers, including hundreds of deliverymen, spend hours stuck in jams.

"The city has the potential to become a truly-world class business and social destination if only its traffic were a little less unruly," said Binny Bansal, Flipkart's group chief executive officer. "Any solution can only have an impact if it originates from and has the support of citizens - the people who use the city's roads and contribute to the traffic problem to begin with." The contest has drawn more than 1,000 teams with entries from as far afield as Seattle, Atlanta and Dubai with quirky names like NoHonk, RushHour and CitizenCop. Submissions closed last week.

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