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Analysis | Do smarter intersections spell red for traffic lights?

Traffic lights

The latest vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology from Audi has just been launched, with some arguing that it is another step along the road that leads to the end of waiting at traffic lights.

For civil engineers it is of interest as it is another shift towards smart road design and the evolution of how cars and infrastructure communicate.

This latest technology in its current format means that the car receives information from the traffic lights which gives the driver a second-by-second countdown on their dashboard of how long they will have to wait. However, Audi sees it as the first step towards a system where car speeds and routes are influenced by the messages they receive from infrastructure.

“This feature represents Audi’s first step in vehicle-to-infrastructure integration,” says Audi Connected Vehicles general manager Pom Malhotra. “In the future we could envision this technology integrated into vehicle navigation, start/stop functionality and can even be used to help improve traffic flow in municipalities. These improvements could lead to better overall efficiency and shorter commuting times.”

Audi is not the only transportation developer to have a vision of how intersections can become smarter. Other car manufacturers are working on similar schemes and earlier this year researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a study based on mathematical modelling, which looked at a scenario where vehicles use sensors to remain at a safe distance from each other as they move through a four-way intersection. They found that by removing the waiting time at traffic lights, traffic flow was faster.

MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning professor Carlo Ratti says: “An intersection is a difficult place because you have two flows competing for the same piece of real estate. But a system with sophisticated technology and no traffic lights moves control from the traffic flow level to the vehicle level. Doing that, you can create a system that is much more efficient, because then you can make sure the vehicles get to the intersection exactly when they have a slot.”

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Texas A&M University and the City of College and companies from the private sector have joined forces to design, develop and test safer, smarter intersections. The project says that the convergence of intelligent cars, traffic monitoring technology, and smart roads infrastructure will shift road management from a reactive standpoint to a real-time system. The technology will even be tested on the university’s campus.

The technology Audi has installed in its cars will be used in some parts of the US from the autumn, but how far are UK car drivers from no longer needing to wait at traffic lights?

Giles Perkins is technical director of transport planning and intelligent transport at Mouchel and also the spokesman for the UK association for the promotion of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS). He sees innovation in many areas from car manufacturing to the latest road design and civil engineering practices and says it is part of a major shift in the way the profession is working.

“There are lots of people thinking in this realm and they are starting to have conversations to make this happen. Highways people have generally built things and not had to worry too much about vehicles. What we are seeing is what will be a fundamental change as vehicles get more connected and the relationship between the design and the highways changes,” he explains.

However, Perkins says that what is currently being trialled in large, connected cities will not automatically translate to smaller, more rural or semi-rural settings. In addition, although modern vehicles are equipped to use this technology, many of the cars on the roads do not have it and it is not known how easy it will be to retrofit it. In fact, Perkins sees the change as happening incrementally as drivers get used to the new technology and the fleet of vehicles on the roads slowly modernises.

“The fact that you get self-parking or autonomous braking cars now will see a trickle-down effect and people with that technology will get used to it,” he says.

For Roland Diffey, head of highways at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, in terms of an environmental perspective, road designers have to strike a careful balance at junctions with regard to air quality – emissions from more cars at a faster speed have to be balanced against emissions of stationary cars at junctions.

“The downside of higher traffic speed is more traffic. Therefore air quality benefits may not be as significant as we would like them to be, and could worsen,” he says.

In the UK Highways England, Innovate UK and TRL are just some of the bodies and companies working on connected and autonomous vehicle technology which looks at the ways vehicles communicate with infrastructure.

“We’re delivering £150M investment in innovation projects by 2021, harnessing technological developments to help us to deliver better and safer journeys on England’s motorways and major A roads,” says Highways England head of innovation Richard Porter.

“As part of this, we are working with specialists and vehicle manufacturers on trials of road technologies which could help us provide better, more useful information to drivers such as information about their route. The results of the trials will inform how this technology could be used more widely on our motorways.”

So while the frustrating wait at red lights is not yet over for UK drivers, it looks like the technology is on amber.

Readers' comments (5)

  • I like the idea of "autonomous breaking (sic) cars"; self-dismantling? Automated end-of-life re-cycling perhaps? Imagine the opportunities if the recovery organisations hacked the software. On the other hand, cars have been autonomously breaking since their invention.

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  • Well spotted, now corrected. EA

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  • Interesting article especially as the pedestrians and cyclists are overlooked from the environment where we want to encourage them back. Life is not all about the car.

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  • As Micheal Woods says, the failure to mention pedestrians or cyclists embodies my fears about much being written about aspirations for autonomy: enabling more people to travel more/faster as single occupants in cars while working rather than driving. This is utterly incompatible with limited roadspace, already at breaking point for increasing parts of each day in towns and cities. The technology that enables vehicles to maneouvre through junctions without signals is not necessarily that which will also provide safety or accessibility for cyclists (on road or segregated routes) or pedestrians. Serious road pricing will be needed to overcome the disparity between aspiration and roadspace, and those least able to use other modes (due to infirmity/disability and/or affordability) will be priced out of travel, while the most able-bodied and affluent will reign, especially as they will have the new technology first. Emily's depiction of planning for the future with no consideration of the most vulnerable road users, or those vehicle users who are less affluent, or have disabilities/infirmity, makes for a rather depressing vision.

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  • There is another way forward to the end of junction traffic lights in many urban settings: that is much better use of shared space and low-speed environment approaches. This is not so much lo-tech as non-tech. This will typically make more use of roundels and pedestrian crossings and generally encouraging all users - pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists - to engage with each other and negotiate the junction, rather than simply staring at the traffic lights and dashing though furiously when the green light chance comes ( tyoically plus a bit of red-light jumping).
    Even now, too often, dyed-in-the-wool traffic engineers think the only way forward is keep junction traffic totally segregated, so that each of those groups of users have their own signals and are expected to wait for 3/4 of the lights cycle for their own little gap when they can rush across at top speed. In my local urban village central cross roads it means that there are great long periods when everyone - both on road and pavement - simply wait and stare at all-red lights and nothing dares move - what a way to build the urban future!
    Far better is take the examples of places such as Poynton in Cheshire to create low-speed shared space junctions which can carry the low average urban traffic speeds right across the junctions, with all users looking out for each other, instead of the inefficient jerking segregated flow though traffic lights so often foisted on urban areas.

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