Robots, traffic lights, and autonomous cars have a lot in common.
Ask a South African about Robots, and they will point to the humble traffic signal. The name, Robot, derived from a description of early traffic lights as electric policemen. Over time, that term got truncated.
Modern traffic signals are actually catching up to the name. Traffic signals will be an important milestone, past and future, for the autonomous vehicle. By coincidence, 2017 is the 100th anniversary of the interconnected traffic signal and the 103th year of the electric one.
For just a moment, imagine that you were a driver in 1917. Engineers needed to earn your trust that these new signals would function correctly. If the engineers were wrong, or if the electricity that powered them failed, a collision would surely result.
The handiwork of the engineers could not stand-alone. It also required laws and enforcement, so that drivers and pedestrians shared a common framework. The public had to agree to accept the change. Meanwhile, the technology was further codified by insurance regulations. There needed to be clear enforceable rules so that complete strangers, invisible inside cars to each other, could agree when to stop and go.
In 2027, ten years from now, there will be even more similarities between a robot and the traffic signal. By 2027, the passengers, once drivers, will have to put their faith in electronic controls. An autonomous vehicle will not proceed until the signal is cleared, just as the driver in today’s conventional car knows not to step on the gas pedal until the light turns green.
Traffic signals are evolving into a robotic mode, perhaps ahead of cars. Some signals in Pittsburgh, Pa. operate on an adaptive traffic signal system that uses artificial intelligence to change the signal on the fly. Uniquely, each signal is decentralized, and makes its own timing decisions, diverging from the signal standard of the past century. The benefits are less idling and fewer tailpipe emissions.
Similar advanced signaling may also be coming soon to a car near you. Audi and BMW have announced features that count down the time remaining until a traffic light turns green. In an Audi vehicle, the number reads out on the instrument cluster and the head-up display. The sensor can also determine whether the driver, at his current speed, will need to stop at a signaled intersection. Two cities in the West are piloting the technology, and it requires users to have both a new Audi and an Internet like subscription in the vehicle.
Learning to program connected traffic signals used to be one the most demanding, and mathematically complex aspects of civil engineering. Enabling vehicles, not drivers, to process the traffic signal is a major step on the road to autonomous vehicles. Newer signals are programmed through AI, just like robots.
One hundred years ago, society worried what would happen when the traffic light failed and the electricity went down. One hundred years later, drivers will have an advanced system they must, anew, come to trust.