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December 15, 2014

How Internet of Things will impact the humble traffic signal


Green, orange, red! The origin of the humble traffic signal is not entirely known for sure but it is so ubiquitous on our roads that its existence and its intentions are taken for granted. After all, the signs are meant to be easy to understand for anyone using road infrastructure. In some places it could be just the color of the lamp whereas in some others it would be arrows to indicate direction as well as instructions (to stop or to go). But all this is likely to change with Internet of Things (IOT).

We all know about IOT and how it is going to transform everything around us. In fact, at Infosys, we believe that IOT will have a far larger impact on our lives as compared to the impact from computers or the internet. This means that all the ubiquitous yet mundane 'things' around us will soon start getting intelligent with sensors and one will be pleasantly surprised to see the value add it will start bringing once they are connected to each other and to the network. Same goes for traffic signals as well.

Consider the IOT applications related to the automotive world - Connected cars, Vehicle-to-Vehicle connectivity, Vehicle-to-Infrastructure connectivity, etc. All these are evolving and all stakeholders, from auto OEMs to governments to universities to technology solution companies like Infosys, are partnering on creating feasible and sustainable proof of concepts or pilot projects, focused on making the driving experience richer, faster, safer and greener. As part of IOT use cases 'on the road', an important one is around faster navigation through a traffic prone area using a combination of telematics data and GPS navigation. What it states is that if there is a traffic jam ahead, the intelligent car will be able to 'sense' the same and take a detour to avoid (or add to) the congestion ahead. All use cases have been from an individual car perspective. But I am looking at this differently.

I predict that if the car can have this intelligence, then so can the infrastructure as well. If the road ahead is congested, there is no point of adding to the woe by leading more vehicles into the same zone or area. It makes more sense to let the congestion resolve while directing incoming traffic to alternative routes. The density of car and hence data from these cars will let the traffic management system (TMS) decide on whether to accept any further incoming traffic or not. Based on this information, the TMS will be in a continued stage of 'red' signal and intensify the signal operations on alternate roads to clear as much traffic as possible. However, the impatient driver will want to know more about an abnormally long 'red' signal. And hence, the TMS will have to devise ways to communicate the same at the congested entry junctions. Navigation systems will definitely throw up the message but the traffic signals will have to adapt to this new information and display a sign or a modified form of signal to indicate the congestion ahead. A simple red will not suffice and it will have to signify a more meaningful message to drivers at the junction who are not being allowed entry and being diverted.

Imagine you are in the left lane to turn left and it has maxed out due to the congestion. To take a detour, the left lane drivers would have to be accommodated by the TMS into alternate lanes and roads. For this to happen, TMS rules as well as driving laws will have to adapt and change. Else, the entire idea of IOT and connected cars enriching life on the road will go for a toss and not make a positive impact on driving experience. This is a big change that transport authorities will have to discuss along with road safety experts and TMS providers. I believe this is an unexplored area that will further evolve the humble traffic signal. So when in a few years, you see the change in the signaling system, remember that you read it first here. Drive safe!