High-tech traffic lights could reshape the future of driving

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Imagine driving into Cleveland on Aug. 5, 1914, and being greeted at the intersection of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street by a strange glowing orb that was put there to tell you when to go and when to stop.

Fast-forward exactly 100 years, and traffic lights serve the same basic purpose. We’re still sitting at an intersection, waiting for the light to turn green.

Now, several experts are wondering if traffic lights can be improved, or whether they will even have a place in a future society where vehicles can think, react and drive on their own.

“The traffic light originally consisted of a simple mechanical controller with rings and phases stuffed together. It was a little steampunk, like an artifact from a Dan Brown novel,” said Ben Collar, an R&D director at Siemens’ Infrastructure and Cities division in Austin, Texas.

The modern traffic light, with its red, green and yellow “phases” to control traffic flows, evolved in the ’70s, when engineers added a printed circuit board, Collar said. Later, in the ’90s, adaptive management systems were developed to monitor traffic flow and adjust the lights accordingly.

Today, cities use computer-controlled traffic lights that adjust their timing based on traffic levels, the time of day and even the number of trucks on the road. In Los Angeles, for example, city officials use traffic management to control their 4,400 traffic lights, reducing travel time by 12 percent.

“The intersections are connected to a central traffic management system called ATSAC (Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control) that works across the city to reduce travel times, car idling to reduce pollution and to keep the rapid buses on schedule,” said Peter Marx, the city’s chief innovation technology officer and an advisory board member for the Los Angeles Connected Car Expo.

But the lights are about to change. In the next few years, they’ll start communicating directly with your car, and even your smartphone. Among other things, you’ll get an alert when the light turns green.

“We’re entering a new phase of communications called vehicle-to-infrastructure that utilizes a variant of Wi-Fi called 802.11p for low-latency communications for both safety and informational alerts,” said Jeremy Carlson, an analyst with IHS Automotive in El Segundo, Calif. He said the technology to “see” traffic lights might even become mandatory in new cars by 2024.

“The first applications will be information, advice and warnings to drivers,” said Mike Shulman, a tech lead with Ford Research and Innovation in Detroit. “After that experience, vehicle control applications may follow, with the driver retaining responsibility for the operation of the vehicle.”

The idea is already being tested in Germany and Italy, where Audi is conducting experiments with “online traffic lights” that show drivers the speed they need to go to make the next light and the wait time at a red light. The car can automatically shut off during the wait.

But someday, it could even be lights out for traffic lights. Collar said autonomous cars will be able to communicate with other cars, allowing you to sit back, read the paper, sip your coffee and let your car control its own speed. Dozens of cars might meet at an intersection and yield to one another automatically.

“If you are in the vehicle, you might notice that the car slows down a little as other cars zoom past you,” Collar said. “There will be complex and fast calculations of what the speed of every vehicle is, so they can cross each other’s path without running into each other.”

But a few red lights are slowing down progress. Public perception is one issue; we’re accustomed to traffic lights, and handing control over to the car might seem a bit worrisome.

Most experts agree the connected car of the future will know more about the road than any human. Maybe it won’t mind waiting for the light to turn green.