Monday, April 13, 2015

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.

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