Monday, April 13, 2015

Smarter Traffic Control - Part 2

As promised from part 1 of the smarter traffic control I want to discuss stop signs.

These non-tech octagonal, red objects that most of us really don't like but deal with anyways are a daily part of our lives. Do a Google search on stop signs around the world, they are basically the same everywhere. There is no mistaking them, yet there is a fundamental problem with them, actually a few.

1. They are not always needed.
What I mean by this is that they may be put in place just to attempt to slow down traffic. There have been many studies that show more stop signs will actually increase the mean speed on a street(1).

As an example to this, the residential street where I grew up and my parents sill live on never had any stop signs except for one major intersection. The "loud" neighbors demanded traffic calming solutions to slow down the speeders on the street. First they tried speed humps but the fire department complained that it slowed their trucks down too much. So out went the speed humps and in went 4 stop signs at each intersection along the street. Now we have more problems with speeding but the cops seem happy enough to give out tickets for not making complete stops.

They even went as far as to put two stop signs on a corner just so there was an even amount between the street above and our street. As far as could I read into the local laws, that is not even an intersection and the stop signs are not even enforceable! My parents live at the end of the street. So each and every day minutes of their lives as well as all those around them are wasted unnecessarily. That can add up to almost a quarter of a day over the course of a year.

2. They can do more harm than good.
If a stop sign is unnecessary or misplaced it can actually cause more accidents(2). This is because there is a complacency from drivers that approach the intersection. Each driver is trusting that the other drivers will stop and follow the traffic rules. Instead most drivers that stop tens if not hundreds of times a day will make their stop and continue, many times without even checking if anyone else stopped.

3. When they are needed people are tired of them.
As I stated above drivers become complacent and blindly continue through an intersection after a stop. When going through many stop signs on a street drivers become "numb" and are more likely to make a mistake. Whereas on a street that may not be that busy and an intersection say has a two way stops for lower traffic side streets. Those drivers are much more likely to pay attention.

What we should do.
- Local governance should create rules about when a stop sign is required and these rules should used to decide if a sign is warranted or not. Such as:
  * How many accidents does the intersection have each year?
  * Are their blind corners near the intersection?
  * Is it an actual intersection where there is cross traffic?
  * Is there a substantial enough amount of cross traffic to cause one direction or another to have to wait for an extended amount of time?
  * Will it make the intersection safer?
  * Is it just being requested to slow traffic? If so then the request should be denied for this reason alone.

- Use of more yield signs where traffic speeds are slower. This will keep cars from having to stop all the time while still alerting drivers to pay attention for cross traffic.

- More 2 way stops vs all way stops. When there is cross traffic that is significantly heavier than say a side street. Why stop 100% of the cars when you only need to stop 5% of the cars.

- More traffic studies before installing a stop sign. Just do a simple traffic study on an intersection to decide if a stop sign is really needed. If it is determine what type of stop. 2 way, all way, 1 way, whatever way.

- Don't let squeaky wheels influence traffic control decisions. Democracy when it comes to traffic control does not work. Statistics and engineering need to decide how to control traffic, not loud mouth residents.

Lets get rid of stop signs as much as we can. Just think of the global impact all the cars stopping and starting for millions of stop signs around the world has on our environment. Not to mention all the brake pads, transmissions, engines, and anything else that moves on your car. Sure auto mechanics, part shops, and part manufactures love stop signs, but you don't have to.

Last note:
This goes out to all law enforcement that like to sit there and give out tickets to people that don't make a complete stop at a stop sign (California rolling stop). There are much better things for you to do than to prey on your tax paying constituents that "broke the law" by not coming to a full stop. They are not hurting anything and all you do is make people dislike you (law enforcement in general)... Yes it is revenue but it is not making anyone safer. In my opinion it causes resentment and will make people disrespect stop signs and those that enforce them. Now that can be dangerous.


Smarter Traffic Control - Part 1

How many hundreds of hours in our lives have been wasted waiting at stop lights and stop signs!

Yes, they are necessary traffic control otherwise there would be chaos on the streets. But how many times have you said to yourself "there is no one else at this intersection, why do I need to stop". Or "the stupid light turned red and now the other light is green but no one is there".

All this stopping waste not only your time and millions of others but it waste gas, adds stress to our lives, as well as wear and tear on our cars (brakes, engine, transmission, etc). So what can be done to fix this problem while still having safe and effective traffic control?

Lets start with traffic lights. Traffic lights were around in the early 1900s but were manually operated and required a traffic operator to control them. Traffic lights today are computer controlled with inductive sensor loops in the street (you can see these most of the time) to sense if there is a car in that lane. The programming will then direct traffic accordingly and typically in the same pattern from one direction of the intersection to the next. Some traffic signals are smart enough to skip directions where there are no cars as well as adjust wait times based on traffic flow. One of the big problems with the induction loops is they sometimes do not sense motorcycles or small cars. As well as cars that have gone into the intersection too much (passed the line) or are not close enough to the line. To compensate for these issues many traffic signals will allow a direction to go even if it does not sense anything. This is why sometimes in the middle of the night when you are the only one at a light but the other direction is green.

So lets get smarter about this. MUCH SMARTER!
Put cameras on the intersections to watch what is actually in the lane. Not a red light camera, those are lame. I am talking a camera that can actually see things like a motorcycle (or not) as well as cars that are coming toward the intersection (or not). These cameras could be visible, infrared, as well as thermal or all of the above to allow the algorithms to clearly identify traffic. Now how will this help.
- Less waiting for non-existent cross traffic.
- Less stopping of cars that are almost to the intersection but have not tripped the inductive pickup.
- No more having to show a green light to nothing or no one.
- Trigger a light change before an approaching car even needs to stop.

Now for traffic flow there are lights that are designed to talk to other nearby intersections. But it seems like they are being used more for speed control than for traffic flow. I always felt that the purpose of traffic lights is to stop you as much as possible. The real purpose is to (or should be) to get as much traffic as possible through an intersection as safely as possible. With this goal in mind we need smarter code to look at traffic patterns including time of day, day of the week, is it a holiday, is there an accident or emergency nearby, density of traffic in the different directions, speed of traffic between intersections, and so on.

To have an algorithm that can control traffic signals you need a lot more input beyond inductive sensor loops in the street. Cameras are a good start but how about talking to Google maps or Waze for example. How about a calendar so the lights know it is a work holiday, or that it is a weekend. What about when a school gets out 2 miles away? These factors dramatically affect traffic and should be taken into consideration.

Now for action!
None of the above can be implemented for free so there needs to be a justification to cities and other governing jurisdictions to flip the bill for these changes. Plus much of this technology does not yet exist but if the demand was there I guarantee it would. Think of the benefits:
- Better traffic flow
  * Would get more people though the area faster
  * More cars can get in and out of businesses faster
- Less stress on the drivers
- Less pollution from less stopping and accelerating
- Less wear on your car
  * Brakes
  * Engine
  * Transmission
- Happier tax payers everywhere!

In the future there will be autonomous (self-driving) cars that will take the human error out of driving. So will we need traffic control in the future once people stop driving? Maybe not, or at least not as much of it.

Still thinking about stop signs... Will blog about that at another time. That is not going to be a short story.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Feel at Home Wherever your Office is

For many years I had an office or should I say a cubical until I finally became self employed. I would put up a few pictures have some toys to play with on my desk and a few other things that made my daily place of work feel a bit more like mine.

But office spaces are changing. Now there are people working from home, sharing desk, open areas with desk all facing each other, etc. These changes are making it difficult to have a personal space that feels like it is "your" desk.

Here is my suggestion. Create some simple cloud based software (why cloud, I will get to that in a minute) and then a simple adapter that will connect to TVs and monitors with very little to no configuration. Think HDMI, Display Port, DVI, VGA, USB. You can then have a personalized space where you can virtually put up pictures, toys, things to play with, notes, a bulletin board, etc. Think widgets galore that you can download and customize. If you have a touch screen even better! Or you could have a device that connects to the side of the screen that will track your finger to make it a touch screen (these already exist).

Now when you sit down and log in to your work computer a proximity device will activate your profile from the cloud and download all your widgets and settings. Including up to date pictures of your family, friends, dog, cat, what you did on your vacation, just save the inappropriate stuff for home. Your profile would even know what devices are where so that picture of you that really shouldn't exist but you think its funny anyways would only display at home.

Your work could have policies that might only allow approved widgets as well as being able to block some or all of your content if there was a complaint. If your work provided the hardware they could register that hardware under their account thus giving them control over it. The content that you own would not be able to be modified or downloaded but could be censored if there was a complaint. The owner/controller of the hardware would never be able to see much more than a small thumbnail representation of your virtual office screens for privacy. Your company would also likely set policies to limit sharing so that you don't waste all day sharing things on their equipment with your friends outside of work.

Based on where you are you can even share with other people. This can be a shared task list and would be based on your location. You could slide a note over to another co-worker or friend from your screen to theirs. The company itself could have a company wide calendar that is mandatory on all screens they own/control.

Customization does not have to stop with a few screens. It could play music (or share music with others that subscribe to you, think being a DJ at work), control the lighting, temperature, how about if your desk itself was a screen.

Now for the cloud part. Here are the reasons for being in the cloud.
 1. Portability - Does not matter where you are, just need an Internet connection.
 2. Ownership - Do you want your work "owning" or storing personal pictures or communications?
 3. Apps or widgets - Almost like an app store but with widget plugins.
 4. Move data around - Because everyone is connected you could use this to send files to each other. Would be limited to just data files, no executable files.

Now to execute this I would suggest a simple Android based system since that eco-system is already developed and is open-sourced. There are many Android devices that simply plug right into an HDMI port (as an example) that are ready to go. Just need some software and a catchy name...

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

3D Printers Go Mainstream

In the next 5-10 years I think it will be common place to have 3D printers in the home and to have more advanced 3D printers at businesses printing everything from trinkets to replacement parts.

Instead of having to stock thousands of parts an auto parts store could simply have some 3D printers that can print parts containing plastic all the way to tempered metals. Even as advanced as printing circuit boards. In a home a simple 3D printer that can product plastic pieces for toys, trinkets, parts, etc.

The uses are endless, here are a few examples I came up with:

- Installing a new appliance, instead of including 5 different parts depending on how you install the appliance it could simply come with QR codes to scan where you can download the exact parts you need and print them. You could even customize the color and size of the part. This would reduce waste and make the install more precise.

- Working on your car and you need a special retainer clip. This has happened to me and they are cheap but I have to drive down to the auto parts store to get one. What if I could go online and print a few in minutes. No wasted time or gas.

- Toy broke and it just needs an arm. In the future toys should have a code to scan on them where you can print replacement parts online. Just go to the manufactures website and put in the code from the toy. an hour or so later you have your replacement part and the toy is as good as new.

- 3D printers might even be able to repair cracked or broken items. Just place an item in a printer that can scan the item and patch or fill in the problem areas.

- Custom create ergonomic mice, handles, grips, inserts, and countless other custom items that fit your hands, feet, whatever on your body. Just imagine taking a few pictures or a 3D scan of your hand to print a customized mouse body that perfectly fits your hand. A vendor could sell the internal pieces of a mouse, send you to their website where you can upload a 3D scan of your hand and in return download a 3D model to print the perfect mouse for you.

This technology is rapidly evolving and will soon be mainstream. One of the main issues with 3D printing is what you print. You need a 3D model to print from and either you have to make it yourself or you have to download it. There needs to be money involved otherwise people are not going to spend their time making these 3D models for download.

I am not the biggest fan or DRM (Digital Rights Management) but in this respects I think there needs to be some sort of DRM like system that allows someone to create a 3D model, sell it, and then protect its usage.

Lets say for example you want to print a cool new toy for your kid and there is a 3D model for $39 online. You go online, pay for the model and print it. A few hours later your kid has a new toy. But what is to prevent you from making 40 of these or a 100? What is to prevent you from sharing this with your friends?

I suggest a DRM type platform where the printer itself has a standard it follows to only allow the product to be printed how ever many times you paid for it if there is DRM on the model. The seller would embed a serial number for that download and the printer would redeem that serial number when the print is successful.

Obviously with any DRM they are never 100% secure .But it would keep honest people honest and those that spend a lot of time developing the toys, parts, etc would be much more likely to be paid.

3D printing is already a revolution that is in it's infancy. Mark my words it will be as common as having a microwave or a TV. Everyone will have a 3D printer someday and there will be less and less trips to the store for parts and pieces.