Traffic Lights Could Hold the Key to Your Happiness

Downtown Pittsburgh 1 photo
Photo: Google Street View screenshot
The plague of the 21st century is urban traffic. Of course, there are ways around it like using the public transport (particularly the subway, wherever available) or riding a bike, but for all those who cannot or will not give up on their cars, sitting in traffic is literally wasting their lives away.
At the moment, it seems like the solution to this problem is the autonomous vehicles. Not only will drivers be able to do other things while sitting in the car - reading, writing emails, watching TV shows, playing or even catching up on sleep - but smart, interconnected cars will also make better use of the green traffic lights by traveling closer together regardless of the speed.

Others suggest that once self-driving cars become the norm, we won't need any traffic lights whatsoever since vehicles will communicate with each other over who has the right of way. Even more interesting is the future envisioned by MIT researchers who think that autonomous cars will be able to go through an intersection at cruising speeds like a zipper, without having to stop.

That sounds swell, but if we're honest and realistic, these things are at least a few decades away from where we stand right now. And people like you and I who will probably be retired and senile by then need a solution now.

The city of Pittsburgh has been running a pilot project for a while that's meant to help alleviate some of the heavy rush hour traffic. The idea is so simple, you're probably wondering why it hasn't been more widely used so far. We're afraid we have no answer to that question, as the same thing is bothering us as well.

Carnegie Mellon University professor of robotics Stephen Smith has a different question to ask, though: why wait to make cars intelligent ten years from now, when you can do the same thing to the traffic lights right now? He addressed this question mainly to himself, so he came up with a startup company called Surtrac that works exactly on that.

The numbers he provided, quoted by Spectrum IEEE, are frightening: the traffic congestion costs the US economy $121 billion a year and releases 25 billion kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere. But the effects on the quality of living is something that can't be quantified that easily, as drivers spend, on average, 40 percent of their time in car idling.

His solution is an intelligent, computerized traffic lights system that uses cameras, radars, and an AI that coordinates the whole show so that it "moves all the vehicles it knows about through the intersection in the most efficient way possible," according to Smith.

The difference between Smith's solution and other interactive traffic lights management system is that his is completely autonomous, relying on the AI to read the data and make the decisions. Surtrac's system has been in use since 2012 and currently covers 50 intersections, but given the very positive results (it has cut travel time by 25 percent and idling time by 40 percent), it should go city-wide shortly.

The car companies are hard at work trying to make our cars smarter, but while we wait, our city planners should really start working on the intelligence of the traffic lights. It's a relatively simple and low-cost solution to one of the greatest modern-life problem.
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About the author: Vlad Mitrache
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"Boy meets car, boy loves car, boy gets journalism degree and starts job writing and editing at a car magazine" - 5/5. (Vlad Mitrache if he was a movie)
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