The Surprisingly High-Stakes Fight Over a Traffic-Taming ‘Digital Twin’

Imagine driving through Los Angeles in the year 2040. There’s a mix of self-driving and human-controlled vehicles on Santa Monica Boulevard. A serious collision slows traffic to a crawl. But then a special orchestration of traffic signals flips on, parting the sea of cars for an ambulance to throttle through the streets.

This traffic engineering fantasy may be inching to reality, as companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, and HERE Maps develop what’s known as “digital twin” technology. The term describes a virtual simulacrum of something in the physical world—whether it’s a car engine, a casino floor, or the street network of a major city—that visualizes real changes as they occur, and is “smart” enough to model possible scenario outcomes. In the L.A. example, imagine that a downtown city worker viewed a traffic simulation seconds after the car crash and approved a recommended route for the ambulance, alerting all those connected self-driving vehicles to move aside.