Battelle Scientists Design Smarter Traffic Signal

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The traffic signals that dot America's roadways may be getting a makeover. In the Next 10 Years, Battelle Memorial Institute scientists hope to make them smarter, so drivers will be safer.

Vehicles are getting smarter. They're loaded with computerized technology.  But as they have evolved, the familiar yellow traffic signal has not. Researchers at Battelle want to move these lights into the 21st century by making them smarter, too.

"The vehicles of the future will be broadcasting their position and speed type of information wirelessly.  And the traffic signal controller will be able to take advantage of that," said Thomas Timcho, a Battelle researcher who is working on the project.

The signal is controlled by a metal box.  When police want to ease the flow of congested traffic, such as on a football Saturday at the Ohio State University, they change the settings.

Timcho reached down and opened the signal control box, a waist-high apparatus the size of a dorm-size refrigerator.

"Here we've added a low-cost PC that has software that Battelle's developed," he said as he pointed to a computer resting on one internal shelf.

The new computer can detect potential traffic snarls and smooth them out by altering the signal pattern.  Timcho said it also could change lights from red to green, to keep you legal when there's no traffic.

"If you're approaching a signal at late hours of the night and you sit there for two minutes in waiting on it to change, and eventually you end up and decided to run the red light because you can't get through,"  Timcho said.

The new technology also watches out for pedestrians, he explained.

"It can actually detect a pedestrian that is walking in a crosswalk. Or outside of  a crosswalk."

Then it could send a signal to tell an approaching car to stop.

The technology is being field tested now, and Timcho said it should start to show up in the next five years.

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