Keep That Traffic Moving!

E-mail Melanie Martella

So. Hands up if you've ever found yourself sitting at a traffic light when the timing of said light is not appropriate to the volume of traffic. And you wait, impatiently, for the light to change. Good news! Researchers from Rutgers think they've got a handle on smart traffic lights.

Smart vs. Dumb
If you're interested in the current state of traffic control in the U.S. and elsewhere, you may want to check out the Institute of Transportation Engineers who are dedicated to keeping traffic moving smoothly (although, if you've just hit every single red light in a half-mile stretch of road liberally bedecked with lights you may not believe this.) According to a presentation given by James T. Harris at the 2005 ITE Annual Meeting, there have actually been some very successful retiming projects. He mentions three, in Texas, California, and Portland, OR, which achieved significant reductions in delays. Now, ideally traffic engineers should be reviewing light timing continuously but that's not always possible. What if the traffic itself could help out?

That's where the technology described in the NewScientist article, "Could smart traffic lights stop motorists fuming?" comes in. Let's ignore, for the moment, the idea that motorists will not simply find a new and different reason to fume and imagine a halcyon world in which the traffic lights can set their own timing based on sensed traffic flow and can also alert you when they were about to change. The researchers, led by Liviu Iftode of Rutgers University, collected peak traffic data at one of the busiest intersections in Bucharest, Romania, and then used this to model traffic flow. The researchers contend that if vehicles could send information on their position and speed to the central computer controlling the traffic lights, the lights could adjust their timing to optimize traffic flow. Also, if the lights could signal that they were about to change, drivers seeing that warning could adjust their speed accordingly. Result? A smoother driving experience for all.

Cars Talking to Cars
The article also mentions a number of vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems, one of which (the Dash Express) will be commercially available later this year. The common thread to all of these systems is that vehicles will transmit data on their location and local traffic conditions that can then be relayed to other vehicles to provide real-time traffic information and, ultimately, to a city's traffic signal control computer. The goal is to have fewer delays, less gridlock, and to keep the cars moving, thus lessening maintenance on the roadways, lessening fuel consumption, and keeping the air just a tad less pollution-laden. (To keep abreast of vehicle-related technology, you may want to check out IEEE's Vehicular Technical Conference which is positively awash with interesting ideas.)

As much as I applaud this notion, and look forward to its implementation—because there's nothing as annoying as being stuck on a crowded interstate only to discover that an accident has closed both north- and southbound lanes and it's too late to take evasive action—I suspect that one of the base assumptions to these systems is that the drivers of these vehicles are sane and reasonable. Considering that we already have drivers ignoring the evidence of their own eyes to follow the instructions of their GPS unit, driving into rivers and other immovable objects, how will we adapt to real-time traffic information like this? Do you yearn for real-time traffic info or do you see shoals ahead? Do you have a dream vehicle technology and if so, what is it?

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