Self-driving cars could lead to fourth, white traffic signal – or none at all: researchers

Researchers say the advent of self-driving cars could lead to a number of changes to traffic laws on the road, including a possible fourth traffic signal.

On top of the ubiquitous red, yellow and green, a white light could signal that autonomous vehicles are in charge of the intersection. Or the vehicles could possibly make the signals completely irrelevant.

Ali Hajbabaei, an associate engineering professor at North Carolina State University, is among those envisioning the future of traffic lights.

“When we get to the intersection, if it's red we stop, and if it's green we go,” Hajjabai told The Associated Press, “but if the white light is active, you just go past the vehicle in front of you.” Follow.”

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Crossroads in Birmingham, Alabama

This undated photo provided by the University of Michigan College of Engineering shows vehicles passing through the Old Woodward Avenue and East Maple signalized intersection, which was retimed using signals adapted as a service in Biermi. (Jeremy Little/University of Michigan College of Engineering via AP/AP Images)

An alternative could be red and green flashing lights, which do not require white light.

He acknowledged the changes may not come until about half of all vehicles on the road are self-driving, but University of Michigan civil engineering professor Henry Liu believes it could happen sooner.

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“The pace of progress in artificial intelligence is very fast, and I think it's coming,” he told the AP.

Researchers at the University of Michigan also received a grant from the US Department of Transportation through bipartisan infrastructure legislation to test traffic light changes in real time using cars' speed and location data.

a waymo car

A Waymo autonomous vehicle travels along Masonic Avenue in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/Getty Images)

The university is conducting a pilot program in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham.

“The beauty of it is you don't have to do anything to the infrastructure,” Liu said, noting that Birmingham's traffic lights are on a fixed timer and don't adjust for different traffic flows. “The data is not coming from the infrastructure. It's coming from the car companies.”

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More than half of the traffic lights across the country do not cause congestion or lighter-than-normal traffic like at midnight.

Liu said that although high-tech solutions for monitoring traffic exist, they require complex and expensive upgrades from cities.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the first “municipal traffic control system” appeared in Cleveland in 1914. At first, there was only green and red, with yellow light added a few years later.

Dr. Xingmin Wang

Dr. Xingmin Wang, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, shows a visualization of connected vehicle trajectory data insights that aid in optimizing traffic signals. (Jeremy Little/University of Michigan College of Engineering via AP/Getty Images)

Since then, the traffic light has not changed much.

While fully autonomous vehicles are not on the market yet, companies like Tesla, Mercedes, GM, and Ford are bridging the gap, along with Waymo, the autonomous rideshare service owned by Google's parent company Alphabet.

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“While it is great at this early stage of AV development that people are thinking creatively about facilitating the safe deployment of safe AVs, policymakers and infrastructure owners should be cautious about jumping on AV-specific investments too soon. That could prove dangerous, premature or even unnecessary, Waymo spokeswoman Sandy Karp said in an email to The Associated Press.

Karp said cars go without a fourth light in select cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin, Texas and San Francisco.

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