Traffic lights haven’t changed much over the years. We’ve added cameras here and sensors there, but the basic concept is the same. Now, traffic engineers across the country are working with traffic light technology that will be able to change the future of driving. Someday soon, traffic lights will be able to manage traffic by predicting driver behavior and reacting instantly to traffic patterns, making traffic move smoothly and even reducing emissions.
In most parts of the country, traffic planners review data every few years to adjust traffic signals and improve traffic movement. But thanks to several advanced signal system across the US, that’s all changing. For instance, in Utah, traffic planners can actually adjust a signal in almost real-time because of a system made up of a network of closed-circuit cameras connected to a fiberoptic network. The system allows traffic planners to adjust signals in as few as 30 seconds to react to changing traffic needs.
By some estimates, investing in signaling pays back at a ratio of 40 to 1. That’s something you don’t see with other traffic management strategies like building new roads. Even better, efficient traffic flow means fewer emissions. But Utah’s system can be expensive to install and run. To make the system feasible and affordable for any city, Stephen Smith at Carnegie Mellon University in New Jersey is working on an automated system (Utah’s is monitored by live people) that uses radar censors and cameras so that it can adjust real-time.
Smith’s team has been testing the system for a few years now, and they found that travel times actually went down 25 percent and idle time reduced a whopping 40 percent. That translated to a 20 percent emissions drop. At MIT in Massachusetts, Carolina Osorio is working on another system that actually predicts how drivers will behave and can allow cities to prioritize traffic based on different needs, like pedestrian flow. This, added to vehicle communication systems like those being tested by Audi, and the streets are about to become a much more efficient place to be.