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In-car traffic lights could reduce congestion

The trusty traffic light and its universally known three colour system has been around for donkeys years preventing busy junctions from becoming destruction derby-style pile-ups, but a new technology could change the standard design quite dramatically.

The ageing traffic light system could soon be replaced by something a little smarter.
The ageing traffic light system could soon be replaced by something a little smarter.

Ozan Tonguz, a telecommunications researcher at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and owner of company Virtual Traffic Lights, believes he has come up a new system of deciding rights of way by mimicing the communication used by insects in bee hives and ant colonies.

Using a recently patented algorithm, Virtual Traffic Lights uses short-range communications to work out how many cars are approaching a busy junction or crossroads and from which direction. Clever maths we could never fathom then works out who should go first, giving the driver an in-car green light. For those who aren’t supposed to go, an in-car red light presents itself until the cars cleared to progress have gone on their merry way. And so the cycle continues.

Minus the slightly odd absence of a physical traffic light and the warning it gives you as to what to expect ahead, which would take some getting used to, simulations from the last three years have found commuter times could be reduced by between 40 and 60 per cent during rush hour. Shorter journeys should equate to reduced road rage as you stop for the umpteenth time, less fuel wasted from stop-start driving and more free time to do what you want when you arrive home.

Thanks to investments totalling $2 million from both private companies and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, and with work on more complex algorithms that can factor in other road users such as cyclists and pedestrians, the sysatem could become a reality in the not too distant future.

The New Scientist reports that large-scale testing will begin sometime in 2013. Assuming all goes well, the traffic light as we know it may finally be able to hang up its red, amber and green coloured hat.

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