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Insect-inspired virtual traffic lights could replace – or augment – the real things


November 7, 2012

The proposed Virtual Traffic Lights system could make lights like these obsolete (Photo: Shutterstock)

The proposed Virtual Traffic Lights system could make lights like these obsolete (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever seen two groups of ants meet up with one another on intersecting paths, you’ll notice that they don’t crash into each other. Instead, the larger group instinctively takes the right-of-way, followed by the smaller group – the same thing applies to bees and termites. Inspired by this behavior, Carnegie Mellon University telecommunications researcher Ozan Tonguz wondered if the same thing could be applied to traffic flow.

In development since 2009, his Virtual Traffic Lights system is based around the idea that vehicles approaching an intersection would use a vehicle-to-vehicle wireless network to communicate with one another. A patented algorithm would assess the number and direction of travel of the vehicles, and determine which group of vehicles heading in the same direction was the largest.

Vehicles in the larger group would then get a green light (or equivalent) on their dashboard screen – letting their drivers know to proceed – while cars in the smaller, intersecting groups would get red lights. Once the larger group had got through, the next-largest group would receive green lights.

According to Tonguz, simulations have shown that use of the system could reduce commute times by 40 to 60 percent during rush hours. Over the next two years, he plans on developing algorithms that will account for the presence of cyclists and pedestrians, along with creating a large-scale simulator, and testing the technology on actual roads.

The project has received US$2 million in funding so far, and a spin-off company has been established to develop the technology.

A somewhat similar system is being developed by the Dresden University of Technology and ETH Zurich. It would see traffic lights being left over the roads, but they would be able to communicate with the vehicles and each other, coordinating their signals to optimize traffic flow.

Source: Virtual Traffic Lights paper (pdf) via New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

So it would be impossible to get onto a busy street.


Looks good. It'll need a maximum 'wait time' to prevent solo or low volume traffic being held motionless all day.


The system ofcourse should not weigh groupsizes by number of vehicles but rather the amount of persons in them. This, i suppose, would improve peoples willingness to carpool and travel by bus. To promote cycling maybe the ratio between persons and vehicle weight also could be a factor in the algorithm. Solo drivers in SUVs soon would be a rare sight in crowded city streets. :-)

Conny Söre

Have you seen traffic on a city road in India? On many roads traffic moves along all day without signal lights and lane discipline. The basic principle is that one moves into the next available gap - be it to the front left, front right or straight in front of you. In principle you drive there on the left side of the road except when the left side is full of traffic in which case you just shift on to the right side of the road or completely off the road if necessary. It seems people can easily sort this kind of situation intuitively. Seems to work well.

Lloyd D'Rose

I agree with Lloyd - the same principle has been applied in European countries as well. Look for shared space concept.

Renārs Grebežs
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