Traffic lights that think for themselves


The ways in which traffic signals handle oncoming vehicles is a complicated science, and how well engineers manage that science impacts on how much traffic congestion we experience while driving. A new patent on self-organising traffic signals, which aim to manage the flow of vehicles to minimise waiting at intersections by doing the ‘thinking’ for themselves, could reduce delay times by 10-30%, according to the inventors.

Stefan Lämmer at the Institute of Transport & Economics of TU Dresden and Dirk Helbing of ETH Zurich have come up with a program that allows traffic signals to communicate with one another and come up with their own timing based on the amount of oncoming traffic. The signals are equipped with sensors that send information about traffic conditions to a computer, which then calculates what the flow of traffic in the near future is likely to be. It then determines how long the signals should stay green to minimise traffic pressure. What happens at one intersection is noted by signals at other intersections, so that the whole system is connected, with the signals working together to keep cars moving as efficiently as possible.

The benefits of such a system are varied – drivers save on time, fuel and carbon emissions. AlphaGalileo reports that in the “United States alone, delays linked to backed-up traffic cost nearly $100
billion each year, and waste more than 10 billion litres of fuel, not to mention countless human hours. And then there’s all the extra CO2 and other pollutants spewed into the atmosphere. As developing nations become more industrialized, these problems will only grow worse.”

Read more on these self-organising traffic signals on the Planet Green site here, on the Good.is site here, or the original paper submitted on the AlphaGalileo site here.

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