In the fourth of his six-part blog series on “melting the glacier” of traffic technology adoption, which outlines the five major ways transportation agencies are increasingly embracing so many of the life-saving, mobility-improving strategies that are available today, Iteris’ Mark Nogaki argues that, despite the continued proliferation of connected and automated vehicle technologies, the need for traffic signals will sustain for many generations to come.
A couple of years ago, I was in a conversation with an engineer friend of mine, who doesn’t come out of the traffic industry but is nonetheless a bona fide technologist and one of the smartest guys I know. As we debated the future of traffic technology, he surmised that, with the increasing advancement of connected and automated (CAV) vehicle technologies, and the eventual reality that every square inch of urban spaces would be permeated with some sort of networking technology, traffic signals will somehow become obsolete and disappear. My premise was that, yes, that day would someday come to pass, but not before I’m pushing up daisies and my children’s children’s children are navigating themselves in flying cars like the Jetsons.
My reasoning was three-fold:
- The realities of retrofitting
One reason – and this was very relevant to my engineer friend – was that there are too many people with older vehicles that will not (and maybe should not) be retrofitted with connected capabilities. Those vehicles will always need to be able to navigate our streets safely, so there will always have to traffic signal technologies that work even when a car is not as connected as the most advanced vehicles on our roads.
- A question of economic justice
Yet another reason is socioeconomic: if we presume that technology comes at an expense, and that those who are from lower income brackets are not going to have the latest and greatest, departments of transportation across the country are simply not going to adopt policies that somehow deprive those people of being able to drive our streets. In my view, economic justice is always going to prevail.
- The future is multimodal
The main reason, however, for the continued presence of visual indicator lights is because transportation on our streets and highways will always be multimodal. You will always have cars sharing the streets with pedestrians, bicyclists, scooterists, skateboarder-ists, and other “ists” that I haven’t even thought of, and these folks will always rely on some kind of visual indicator to determine whether it is safe to cross the street. At some point, however, these other vulnerable road users might be using their mobile devices to assist in their safety, but ultimately our behavior is such that we will rely on a clear visual indicator to determine what they do. And why not? Traffic lights are universally understandable, and infinitely practical.
Traffic signal evolution is already underway
But just because our streets will have red, yellow and green lights that are functionally the same lights that have been around for decades, that does not mean they are not going to continue to evolve. Indeed, those of us who pay attention to these things might have noticed that most traffic signals have transitioned from incandescent to LED lights. You might also have noticed that, because these simple lights govern our behavior, there has been an ever-growing variety of different light configurations and applications, like flashing yellow arrows, for example.
Where my engineer friend and I agreed, however, was that the traditional traffic signal lights would eventually evolve by the way of Internet-of-Things, or IoT, technology.
The connected revolution will bring traffic signals with it
At some point, it is entirely conceivable that every piece of traffic equipment will no longer be part of a hub-and-spoke, master-slave system topology. If every signal light was simply a node that communicated with other devices within a network of devices, then that light would simply communicate with the other devices – all connected, perhaps, to an edge processor unit that not only controlled the traffic lights but also performed a number of other localized functions – to execute its primary function: govern traffic flow in its approach. But the notion of the signal head being an IoT device in the future is not too far off, especially given that my refrigerator and washer/dryer are currently connected to my home WiFi network.
As for the Jetsons and their flying cars, remember that even George Jetson had to contend with rush-hour traffic. So, traffic management is here to stay – for now and well into the future.
ICYMI: You can read earlier articles in Mark Nogaki's Melting the Glacier blog series at the following links:
About the Author:
Mark Nogaki is vice president, sales and customer success, Roadway Sensors at Iteris.
Connect with Mark on LinkedIn.