Mark Gilbert's Blog

Science and technology, served light and fluffy.

In-Car Traffic Signals

The next time you roll up to an intersection and get caught by the light, stop for a moment and look around its immediate airspace.  What do you see? 

There’s probably a tall pole on at least two of the corners.  If the poles are wooden, they probably have lines (both support and electrical) draped across the road where the traffic lights hang.  If they poles are metal, they probably have the lights hung on cantilevered metal poles that dangle out over the road.  Either way, you have stuff hanging over your head to let you know when to go and when to stop.

If a driver rolls up and isn’t paying attention to the signal, there’s no reliable secondary mechanism for alerting them (and no, other drivers’ horns don’t count).

And how many times have you been stopped at an intersection, and easily have enough time to go, but can’t because the lights aren’t with you.

What if we changing things around, and moved the traffic signals INTO the car?

With this system, you’d roll up to the intersection, and a display embedded into your windshield tells you that the light is green, and it’s safe to proceed.  Or you’re coming up on the signal change, and the display is yellow as you approach, and eventually turns to red.  You wait at the light as you normally would and wait for your turn. The light goes green, and you proceed.

Or, perhaps you’re having an animated discussion with your significant other in the car, and you’re not paying enough attention to the intersection ahead of you.  The system flashes a yellow/red light onto your windshield, sees that you aren’t slowing down yet, and tells your car to activate an audible warning, bringing your attention back to the road.

Later, the initial in-car system evolves to the point where the intersection can the start tailoring signals to individual cars, thus optimizing traffic flow.

If power were to go out, the car’s system could detect that it wasn’t receiving ANY signals from the intersection, and present the equivalent to a 4-way stop for all approaching cars.

Without any signal lights being hung on or over the roadside, there aren’t any lights to maintain, or to keep clear of snow in the winter, saving maintenance costs. 

Is the city commission thinking about widening the road to 6 lanes?  Hanging new signals won’t be necessary – just some extra programming.

Finally, taking the lines and poles down would clear out a lot of the visual clutter at the intersection, thus allowing the city to reclaim a little beauty.

Are there challenges here?  Absolutely.  Taking down the traffic signals means that EVERY car on the road needs to have this system in place and working – in other words, the requirements for overall traffic safety are now moved from the street lights to the individual automobile.  That’s a hard sell for anyone on the city commission.

It may also pose a new challenge for traffic incidents, specifically, getting eye witnesses that can vouch for the state of the light when an accident happened.  With the system built into the car, victims- and perpetrators-alike could claim their vehicle said it was OK to go.  On the flip side, the vehicle data-collection modules (think airplane black boxes, but in cars) could record the actual state of the light as transmitted to the vehicle, and would serve as an objective source for the state of the light.

Traffic lights, in one form or another, have controlled pedestrian and vehicular traffic for over 140 years*.  Perhaps it’s time for something new.



* Source:

December 17, 2011 - Posted by | You should totally write that!

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