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Are traffic lights becoming extinct?

Very possibly, according to this MIT professor whose revolutionary concept might replace them sooner than you’d think

Are traffic lights becoming extinct?

Text by Sarah Warwick Photos⁄Alex Atack

Ever wondered what the world would be like without traffic lights? Probably not, but then that’s Carlo Ratti’s job. As head of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, which aims to anticipate how digital technologies are changing people’s lives, the Italian design engineer is employed to think a decade ahead of the rest of us. 

Since 2004, he’s imagined what every given aspect of our future lives might look like, from waste, to architecture to transport, and anticipated products that we might use. Last year he curated a digital supermarket for the Future of Food pavilion at the Milan Expo. This year he’s designed sustainable office space in Turin with personalised “thermal bubbles” for each worker; a mile-high park in New York City; and a digital sofa, the Lift-Bit, that wouldn’t be out of place in the Jetsons’ living room.

Now Ratti and his team have turned their attention to the future of traffic, and how the advent of driverless cars will change our cities. Turns out, it’s not good news for traffic lights. 

“Traffic systems date back to over 100 years ago and they’ve not evolved that much since,” explains Ratti. “Our thought was that, with the advent of autonomous cars, we could imagine new systems that would allow us to make better use of our roads and our time.”

After many months of number crunching and complex equations, they’ve come up with a new scheme, known as DriveWAVE. Instead of indicating to drivers when to stop at intersections to allow for flow from other directions, as in the current system, this new scheme would work by assigning each car a “slot”, in a similar way to air-traffic control. An autonomous system, it would communicate directly with vehicles’ navigation systems, to “make sure the vehicles get to the intersection exactly when they have a slot, creating a system that is much more efficient”. 

This evolution of traffic management is, says Ratti, just one of the outcomes of “the looming driverless revolution” that few people have considered. 

“It’s not just the having an autopilot. Driverless cars will allow us to use commuting time for other activities: reading, sleeping, relaxing, kissing,” he says. Pollution will also drop dramatically, as increased carpooling reduces the number of cars on the roads by up to 80 per cent. There could be more green public spaces as former car parks are reclaimed as community gardens. 

While the first of these vehicles are already on the road (see right), and there could be 10 million by 2020 (according to a recent report from businessinsider.com), it could take a while for DriveWAVE to be fully implemented, as it needs “a certain level of intelligence” in every car. Still, there’s every chance that for our children’s children, living in a driverless world, traffic lights will have the same relevance as the dodo. 


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