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If streetlights and cars could talk: Firms demonstrate 'smart infrastructure' tech in downtown St. Louis

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The "on-demand transportation service" will enable point-to-point travel for users in electric, five-passenger "eCabs" that can be hailed on the street or through an app or phone number.

ST. LOUIS • What if streetlights could detect a car accident and send a message to travelers to avoid the intersection?

Two startups operating in St. Louis say it could be a possibility with a new technology they demonstrated Monday night that allowed electric vehicles to connect through a wireless system built into some city streetlights on Market Street. 

The developers, Labyrinth Technologies and Electric Cab of North America, say it could be important step in building the sort of infrastructure that would make for a smart city: a utopian vision in which a city equips infrastructure with information-processing technology to improve efficiency and modernize the way it tackles problems.

For a few minutes Monday, a computer in an electric car parked near Market and 10th streets displayed in real time the speed and turn signals of a second electric car driving up and down the street. 

The cars transmitted data to one another through the streetlights, part of a a $4 million Downtown STL Inc. project to brand downtown and improve public safety by installing more than 2,000 curved, colorful light strips with "smart technology" downtown. 

About 135 of those lights have been installed on Market Street from the Arch grounds to Union Station. They're programmed to change color via a "secure wireless network smart technology," to which officials hope to add other applications, like gunshot detection software. 

Electric Cab of North America, which recently coordinated with Downtown STL Inc to offer free electric cab service, connected two of its electric five-passenger "eCabs" to the lighting system's wireless network. 

Both companies say the technology could eventually be used for a wide range of applications by connecting infrastructure like a computer system: it could redirect traffic to avoid congestion, for example, or dim or brighten lights depending on traffic. 

"You can keep adding uses as you come up with things that people need," said Ted Stegeman of Labyrinth Technologies. “It's a walk, then jog, then run sort of situation."

It's also an alternative to building expensive self-driving cars, said Kris Bailey, COO of Electric Cab. Rather than build cars packed with technology to gather and process data individually, the cars could all speak to one another, he said. 

"It’s making everything connected and getting different things talking to different things and making our city work more efficiently because of that," Bailey said. "It’s like the evolution from the fax machine to the internet. I would put it on that caliber."

The project did not involve city officials nor use any tax dollars, Bailey said. 

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Reporter covering St. Louis County politics. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi, and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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