One of the world’s most famously gridlocked cities in the world may be about to shed its image and get on the move again.
Los Angeles in California has just finished installing $400m of technology to synchronise its traffic lights. The Automated Traffic Surveillance and Control system uses an array of cameras and sensors in the road to measure traffic flow, and a centralised computer system to make constant tweaks and changes to the city’s 4,400 lights to keep traffic running as smoothly as possible. In theory, it is now possible to cross the city without ever stopping.
“By schronising our traffic signals we will spend less time waiting, and less time polluting,” says Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The system, which was started in 1984 when Los Angeles hosted the Olympics and has taken until now to finish, is estimated to increase travel speeds by 16% and cutting journey times by 12%.
The figures are impressive, but other congested cities looking on in envy may do well to wait a few more years before rethinking their own traffic systems. While the LA system may seem cutting edge now, it could seem as outdated as a traffic officer guiding traffic with white gloves in a few years time. That is because engineers are planning a radical rethink of our streets that will change just about every aspect of how we drive – including who is in control of the vehicle.
In this new world, cars are packed nose to tail travelling at speeds in excess of current limits. They weave their way through unmarked junctions, with no traffic lights. Lane markings are non-existent, and stretches of road switch from being one-way in one direction, to the opposite, with no warning. Perhaps most alarming of all, very few of the “drivers” have even passed a driving test.
It may sound like an impossibly chaotic scene, where accidents are inevitable. But this is one future based on predictions about the uptake of autonomous cars.
In the United States the Instititute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) predicts that driverless cars will account for 75% of all vehicles on the roads by 2040. Vehicles, such as Google’s self driving car, are already leading the way. And small-scale trials of linked-up roads are being conducted in some cities
Far from being pandemonium, “intelligent” vehicles running on an intelligent road network have the potential to smoothly synchronise traffic, eliminating gridlock and accidents forever.
In this new world, information flow will govern traffic flow. Vehicles will be much more aware of their own positions and those of the vehicles around them, and will not rely on crude coloured lights to tell them when to stop and go.
“In the future smart intersections may not need lights,” says Azim Eskandarian, director of the IEEE’s Center for Intelligent Systems Research. “These intersections will very efficiently harmonise and synchronise speeds in one direction, and then the other.”
So-called vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication will allow cars to share their the route they plan to take, their destination and current position with a central command center – like a supersized version of the one running LA’s streets.
The groundwork for this is already being laid in the US by the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Consortium, a group of car manufacturers trying to develop specific applications and protocols for a system. And just outside Detroit in the town of Ann Arbor, there is already a pilot project that has equipped 29 intersections with instruments that allow a team of researchers to direct traffic lights in order to make the traffic move more efficiently.