Traffic lights are an ever-present part of modern road safety. To get to their destination, drivers must navigate a series of intersections. According to the US Department of Transportation, there are nearly 330,000 traffic signals at intersections across the country, and three-quarters of these light arrays would benefit from technological improvements to make them more efficient.
Lights appear to be rarely well timed, posing unique challenges to motorcycle riders who commute on their own schedule and may easily become stuck at a stalled red. However, red lights and traffic light signals in general may become obsolete in the near future. The future of travel is moving at breakneck speed, and with the introduction of self-driving cars on the horizon, the need for a safety measure that helps manage roadway mobility and deliver drivers and their passengers to their destination safely may soon be obsolete. The way people move has been transformed by technology. The Green Car Congress notes that fuel economy has increased dramatically over the years, as has the transition to EVs.
However, the way people think about roadway access is changing, and it’s possible that smart car design will eliminate the need for lights entirely in the very near future.
Road design has been moving steadily away from traffic lights for years
For decades, road designers have debated the differences between traffic-light-controlled intersections and roundabouts. However, the verdict is in: roundabouts are less expensive to build and reduce collisions by 37%, according to ACS Engineers. Roundabouts aren’t always more efficient at moving traffic, with intersections with traffic lights in high-traffic areas scoring notable points. However, in residential or urban developments, using a roundabout is almost always a more efficient and safer option than installing traffic lights.
Roundabouts force drivers to slow down and proceed with caution through the curving exchange, regardless of how many other cars are on the road, rather than enticing drivers to try to beat a sudden shift to yellow or red and stepping on the gas as soon as a light shifts back to green (potentially endangering any lingering intersection crossers). In some ways, the battle for traffic management has already been won, as cities are building roundabouts at record rates (via The New York Times).
Roundabouts are also far more energy efficient, reducing waste produced by idling vehicles. When combined with a general shift toward greener vehicles, the use of roundabouts to manage traffic flow in cities and towns across America may just be part of the green shift.
With EVs and autonomous vehicles, the need for lights may become antiquated
Aside from the relative advantages of other traffic flow options over traffic lights, the point may soon be moot. Indeed, the advancement of autonomous vehicles’ capabilities may relegate the utility of traffic signals and safety management installations to the annals of time. MIT researchers recently published a study on the concept of “slot-based intersections,” which will improve vehicular efficiency (via The Boston Globe). Of course, this futuristic vision of transportation is predicated on a driverless road environment, which may be a long way off.
The concept isn’t novel; in fact, similar elements can be found in many science fiction films (such as 2004’s I, Robot, according to IMDB; even though Will Smith’s Del Spooner repeatedly takes direct control of his car and crashes!).
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This new transportation vision entails a sensor array on moving vehicles that interact with one another in a continuous (and thus far, hypothetical) Vehicular Internet of Things. Instead of waiting for your turn to proceed through an intersection, your car would adjust its speed relative to other vehicles on the road and vector through the network of other cars on the road without ever having to stop. The process would be completely automated and seamless.
Of course, for transportation managers seeking safer cars and roads, this remains a lofty goal, but the future appears promising.