That familiar feeling of waiting for traffic lights to wake up and turn green could be a thing of the past thanks to new intelligent signals.
Currently the majority of lights on Britain’s roads are programmed to change at timed intervals. And with the number of signals growing from 23,000 in 1994 to 33,000 in 2014, it’s estimated traffic lights add two minutes to every car journey made. Incredibly, that’s calculated to cost the nation’s economy £16bn a year, or one per cent of GDP.
So what can be done about traffic lights and hold-ups? Experts say the answer is a new generation of intelligent traffic light.
Aren’t some traffic lights ‘smart’ already?
That depends on the definition of ‘smart’. To date, even the most responsive traffic lights rely on sensors embedded in the road. They use older technology that means approaching traffic can only be sensed 100 metres ahead of the lights. And even then the sensors are unable to distinguish between types of traffic. Most don’t even go that far; they are sequenced using a timer.
What is an intelligent traffic light?
So-called smart traffic lights use image-mapping cameras and artificial intelligence to see the world around them. This enables them to learn how to respond best to real-time traffic conditions. They can even tell the difference between cars, buses, emergency vehicles and cyclists.
Who’s behind the intelligent traffic light trial?
A number of companies claim to be behind smart traffic lights. But Innovate UK, the government’s Department for Business start-up arm, has chosen to invest £1.7m in cameras and systems created by Vivacity Labs, a technology company based in London.
Where is the trial being held?
To discover whether intelligent traffic lights really are as clever as they claim to be, a £3m project will be held in Milton Keynes, Bucks. A total of 2500 cameras are being installed across 50 miles of the town’s road network. The trial gets underway from January 2018. During that time, the artificial intelligence technology will be fine tuned in real-world operating conditions.
What’s so clever about these traffic lights?
The obvious benefit is that when a tailback occurs, the traffic lights can respond accordingly to ease congestion. However, the makers say that for the first time, different road users could be prioritised. So if one approaching road was beginning to back up with traffic filled with buses and cyclists, the system could give them priority. Or they could alert driverless cars or pedestrians on a crossing to impending light-changes. This would smooth the traffic flow, doing away with the current starting and stopping.
Is this linked to our predicted smart cities?
Experts say clever traffic lights are the tip of the iceberg for towns and cities. The rise of the driverless car is the first step toward using data to run congested urban areas. Yang Lu, chief technology officer at Vivacity Labs, said: “This lays the groundwork for the smart city of the future, using data flows to guide driverless vehicles to their destination with minimal congestion.” Pollution levels could also be monitored in real-time and the volume of traffic permitted to enter urban areas restricted accordingly.