Science Scope

Smarter traffic lights can cut down your time stuck in traffic

Posting in Technology

European researchers want traffic lights to be self-organizing to reduce your time stuck in traffic.

Beyond the obvious annoyance of sitting in traffic, road congestion costs the nation $100 billion each year. Sure, riding more bikes, building more roads, encouraging people to car pool, and buying more eco-friendly cars will help ease traffic jams.

Stefan Lämmer at the Institute of Transport & Economics of TU Dresden showed that it is possible to improve the traffic situation by simply re-doing how we control traffic.

We are accustomed to the cyclic pattern of traffic lights turning on and off like clock work. It's predictable. But it needs the occasional touch from traffic engineers to update its operation based on recent traffic patterns.

While the light schedule considers peak hours and supercomputers are tapped to make sense of what's going on, so many other factors can mess the flow up.

When this happens, you have traffic. Look what happened in China with the nine-day traffic jam!

Lämmer thought the road traffic should flow more like fluid pumping through pipes and wanted to lights to be self-organizing. Once armed with sensors, the lights could decide when to turn green. Computer chips determine the flow of traffic and figure out the most efficient light pattern.

But each light doesn't react on its own — that would be chaotic. Instead, it considers how changing a certain light would impact the whole smart traffic network.

The computer models predict this new way of dealing with traffic could reduce delay time by up to 30%. The German traffic agency is working with the researchers to get this program on the road.

Considering we waste 10 billion liters of fuel while we sit in traffic, the self-organizing system has more mileage than just saving us time.

Photo: U-g-g-B-o-y-(-Photograph-World-Sense-) / flickr

Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure