Technology Could Phase Out Traffic Lights—or Add a Color

Researchers study options for safer flow of connected cars
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 11, 2024 3:55 PM CDT
Smarter Vehicles Could Make Traffic Lights Obsolete
This undated photo provided by University of Michigan College of Engineering shows Xingmin Wang, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, showing off a visualization of connected vehicle trajectory data insights that aid in the optimization of traffic signals.   (Jeremy Little/University of Michigan College of Engineering via AP)

As cars and trucks get smarter and more connected, the humble lights that have controlled the flow of traffic for more than a century could also be on the cusp of a major transformation. Researchers are exploring ways to use features in modern cars, such as GPS, to make traffic safer and more efficient. Eventually, the upgrades could do away entirely with the red, yellow, and green lights of today, ceding control to driverless cars. Henry Liu, a civil engineering professor who is leading a study through the University of Michigan, said the rollout of a new traffic signal system could be a lot closer than people realize.

"The pace of artificial intelligence progress is very fast, and I think it's coming," Liu said. Among those reimagining traffic flows is a team at North Carolina State University led by Ali Hajbabaie, an associate engineering professor. Rather than doing away with today's traffic signals, Hajbabaie suggests adding a fourth light, perhaps a white one, to indicate when there are enough autonomous vehicles on the road to take charge and lead the way. "When we get to the intersection, we stop if it's red and we go if it's green," said Hajbabaie, per the AP. "But if the white light is active, you just follow the vehicle in front of you."

Such an approach would require 40% to 50% of vehicles on the road to be self-driving, Hajbabaie acknowledged. University of Michigan researchers have taken a different approach. Their pilot program in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham used insights from the speed and location data in General Motors vehicles to alter the timing of traffic lights. The researchers landed a grant under the bipartisan infrastructure law to test how to make the changes in real time. Because the Michigan research deals with vehicles that have drivers, it could be much closer to wide implementation than what Hajbabaie is seeking. Liu said even with as little as 6% of the vehicles on Birmingham's streets connected to the GM system, they provide enough data to adjust the timing of the traffic lights to smooth the flow.

(More traffic light stories.)

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