Chicago gives green light to "smart" signal system

by Grady Winston

Although they were built with good intentions, street light signal systems have long drawn the ire of drivers everywhere. Fed up with seeing green lights go to empty streets while traffic backs up behind a never-ending red, many drivers have wondered whether their lives will be perpetually slowed by inefficient traffic signals that can't adjust to changes in traffic.

Those frustrated parties will be delighted to hear that such improvements have already been developed. Engineers at Purdue University have already tested out their smart street signal system in Lafayette, Indiana, which has seen an uptick on roadway efficiency thanks to the new system.

Soon, the same street light system may be implemented in parts of Chicago. If the system can prove effective at easing roadway congestion in a city known for its gridlock, communities and cities could adopt the new system on a large scale across the United States.

And while easing driver tension is an obvious benefit to the system, increased fuel efficiency and reduced air pollution could be even more significant. It's one of several ways professionals are using an engineering degree to bring efficient solutions to our daily lives.

Improving traffic flow to cut down on fuel consumption

Every day, millions of Americans trudge slowly through daily commutes that are slammed by traffic. The more traffic on roadways, the less efficient each vehicle becomes in its fuel consumption, because it means more time spent waiting at lights as other vehicles take their turn. The traffic signal technology works through an interconnected network allowing each signal to communicate with those around it to essentially manage the flow of traffic, adjusting light intervals accordingly to compensate for traffic fluctuations.

The engineers behind the new traffic signal technology understand that traffic congestion is one of the hazards of getting behind the wheel in the first place. But they insist it can be improved by as much as 30 percent in some parts of Chicago, drastically cutting down the time each vehicle spends waiting at lights. That means less time spent driving and less time chugging gasoline.

If traffic flow in a major city could be improved by up to 30 percent, the daily expulsion of fossil fuel exhaust would be enormously reduced, drastically cutting down pollution in those metropolitan areas. And because less fuel would be consumed, drivers would save on fuel expenses. The reduced demand for fuel could even affect fuel prices, affecting all automobile owners even if they rarely grapple with congested traffic.

Predicting large-scale success

While the designers behind the advanced traffic signal technology admit that heavy rush hour traffic may not be easily mitigated by the new system, they do believe that increased efficiency can have significant gains outside of non-peak traffic hours.

And the University of California Transportation Center has published research supporting the environmental benefits of such measures. According to its research, traffic-smoothing strategies that "reduce the number and intensity of acceleration and deceleration events"—which is exactly what the new traffic technology purports to do—could reduce CO2 emissions by seven to 12 percent.

In a time when resources are limited and efficiency is highly valued, engineers around the world are finding ways of not just reducing carbon emissions, but lowering costs for consumers as well. Those solutions are frequently being found through smart technology that uses network data and integrative solutions to inform and guide automated processes. And if drivers happen to spend less time waiting at red lights, then all the better for everyone involved.

© 2012

About the Author: Grady Winston is an avid writer and Internet entrepreneur from Indianapolis. He has worked in the fields of technology, business, marketing and advertising, implementing multiple creative projects and solutions for a range of clients. To see more of his work, visit his website,