Will Autonomous Cars Kill the Traffic Light?

The first electric traffic light blazed to life a century ago this month, transforming the way our cities managed vehicular flow. But this icon of the automobile age could become a rarity on our American roads, thanks to the advent of autonomous cars.

In a great piece over at ReadWrite, Bradley Berman speaks to Christoph Stiller from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, who has been working on autonomous vehicles for 20 years. He believes that self-driving cars will be on the streets in five to seven years, and with cars able to communicate with each other as they move through the streets, they could make the traffic light obsolete sooner than you'd think. Here's a great video where he talks more about his theories.

Since we'll still need a centralized way to exchange data on the streets, think of the traffic light morphing into more of an information hub that sends information directly to cars. We could use the existing LTE network that our cellphones already run on, or launch a new Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) network, which would require new hardware to be placed on cars and in roadways. This would be more reliable, but also more expensive to install. However, a dedicated system would also be much more secure, as one concern remains that traffic lights are already incredibly easy to hack (which hopefully won't be the case with those information hubs... or autonomous cars).

But think for a minute about the aesthetic implications of replacing traffic lights with tiny data centers. Right now they take up so much space in our cities (as do street signs, which we also won't need). Imagine these steel beams strung with dozens of lights being erased from our view as we stroll down the sidewalk. It'd be nice!

There is one tiny caveat in the demise of the traffic light: Pedestrians. People will still need to know when they can walk through four lanes of traffic. Whether it's a glorified version of a "beg button" that we see at crosswalks today, or perhaps an app we use to signal to the information hub that we want to cross, walkers will still have the power to stop all cars at an intersection and safely cross the street. [ReadWrite]

Photo by Reed Saxon/AP