Thinking Tech

Smart traffic lights communicate to fix jams before they happen

Smart traffic lights communicate to fix jams before they happen

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What if the flow of traffic controlled the traffic lights, rather than the other way around?

A group of mechanical engineers in both Germany and here in the States are working on a new system of traffic lights that communicate to help lessen gridlock and increase the natural flow of traffic.

These days, traffic lights are typically pre-programmed at certain times of day to have a particular rhythm, which theoretically is ideal for that area at that time. But traffic is variable, and unforeseen events like accidents or holidays can throw that off--as one of the engineers says, "that average situation never occurs." The mechanical engineers have a different idea: What if the flow of traffic controls the lights, rather than the lights controlling the flow of traffic?

Their system is adaptive, based on algorithms fed by data from both incoming and outgoing traffic at each light. The ultimate goal is what Science News calls "'the green wave', the bam, bam, bam of greens that allows platoons of vehicles to move smoothly through intersection after intersection." That wave helps both the speed of traffic and the ease of merging for any oncoming vehicle.

These lights measure the amount of traffic and beam that information to the next light, which reacts to information it's getting from all other sides and works to ensure a proper flow.

Interestingly, the team tried out their work on a section of Dresden and found some encouraging results: There was a reduction in waiting time by 56% for buses, 9% for cars and trucks, and 36% for pedestrians. The cities of Dresden and Zurich are seriously considering implementing the new system city-wide.

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Dan Nosowitz

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dan Nosowitz has written for Popular Science, Fast Company and Gizmodo. He holds a degree from McGill University in Canada. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure