Virtual Traffic Lights Could Revolutionize City Driving

The average American worker spends almost half an hour commuting each day, but virtual traffic lights could cut that almost in half.

If traditional traffic lights were replaced with virtual ones, the results could include not only a reduction of up to 40 percent in urban workers’ commute times, but also lower carbon emissions, less congestion and fewer accidents, a study from Carnegie Mellon University suggests.

“These systems could be made even smarter and more efficient, tweaking things like how many cars you let go by in the main direction during rush hour before letting the side street traffic in,” Roger Kay, founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates, told TechNewsWorld.

“There’s a whole lot of work that could be done in this area, essentially sociological programming,” added Kay, who has been enthusiastic about the concept for several years.

Seamless Process

Based on vehicle-to-vehicle technology mandates expected within the United States, virtual traffic lights will appear not on the street, but on drivers’ windshields as they approach an intersection.

“When the driver is looking through the windshield, they’ll see that going straight is a green light, and turning right is a red light,” explained Ozan Tonguz, a Carnegie Mellon professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering who helped develop the technology. “It’s a seamless process — the driver does not get involved in this decision making.”

Once the driver proceeds through the intersection, the virtual traffic light will disappear.

CMU startup Virtual Traffic Lights is working on commercializing the patented technology.

1 to 2 Years?

“I think this technology can hit the market in most large cities around the world within one to two years,” Tonguz told TechNewsWorld. “We are currently looking for partners and investments to implement this technology on a large scale.”

Virtual Traffic Light tech can be used “as a standalone technology for traffic management,” he said. “In addition, it could be used in conjunction with autonomous cars — pursued by Google and several car manufacturers — and congestion pricing, which is used by IBM and several other companies in different countries to mitigate congestion during rush hours.”

What’s needed next is for “progressive governments” to embrace the technology — first through pilot projects on some selected roads, and then via large-scale deployment, Tonguz added.

Or 1 to 2 Decades?

“Optimizing traffic lights is a great idea,” said David Levinson, a transportation analyst and professor at the University of Minnesota.

Getting them deployed any time soon, however, “is impossible, since it won’t be useful until all cars have such devices,” he told TechNewsWorld. “You can’t eliminate regular traffic lights until every car has VTL.”

Further, all the infrastructure — including hundreds of thousands of traffic lights managed by thousands of jurisdictions — would have to be upgraded, he pointed out.

“Even if all new cars have this, it will be decades before every car has this; old cars will need to be banned, retrofitted or somehow accommodated in a way that diminishes the utility of VTL,” he explained.

“Autonomous vehicles have a much more viable deployment path, and rely on the ability of the vehicle to sense conventional lights,” Levinson noted.

Get It Done

The key is “whether, indeed, the federal government is going to mandate vehicle-to-vehicle communication,” said Glen Hiemstra, founder of

“Even assuming they do, we can guess that will be on new vehicles only. So phase-in would take more than a decade,” he told TechNewsWorld.

There may be “cheap add-on solutions like electronic toll devices in cars today,” Hiemstra conceded.

“This is an ‘everyone is in’ proposition, or it won’t work — but if we could achieve that, yes, we would see efficiencies. Let’s do it,” he said.

“I’d take this one step further in the era of the self-driving or intelligent car and simply have the car go or stop on its own, without needing to wait for a human to see green or red or a windshield display,” Hiemstra added.

A Questionable Benefit

It’s an innovative application and should work nicely “as the number of V2V-equipped cars grows,” said Egil Juliussen, senior director and principal analyst for automotive technology at IHS.

“Basically, every time you stop,” he told TechNewsWorld, “it costs you 15 to 25 cents, depending on gas price, due to the extra energy needed to go from a stop to driving speed.”

Katherine Noyes has been reporting on business and technology for decades. You can find her on Twitter and Google+.

1 Comment

  • We don’t live in a perfect world, so unless all motor vehicles are controlled through some approved safety software or a central traffic control computer system, someone is going to be driving an older car without this technology, or with that technology either turned off, by-passed, hacked. So if they don’t see the virtual "red-light" or choose to ignore it, how would any investigating law enforcement officer be able to determine the cause of the collision? Or even if a collision doesn’t occur, how would any police officer be able to determine a "violation" occurred. Oh, and how would you re-write the model traffic code? Just because someone thinks of a technology that could be helpful in a perfect-world scenario doesn’t mean that in the real world the implementation can be simultaneous, easy, and not create more problems for the average person on the street. Go for a "ride along" with any traffic cop, then come back with a practical real-world solution and explain how it should be rolled out without problems.

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