RED LIGHT, GREEN LIGHT
New software will tell drivers what the status of the next traffic signal is - and lots more
When most people think of a "connected" car, they think of being able to make a hands-free phone call, or maybe listening to their favorite music using Pandora over a wireless internet connection. However, the full implications of a connected car go far beyond your favorite playlist.
Among other things, in the very near future, your car will know in advance whether the next stoplight is red or green, and when it's likely to change — and a Beaverton-based technology company is making sure it all happens smoothly.
"There is a fine line between driver information and driver confusion," says Thomas Bauer, CEO of Traffic Technology Solutions Inc., which is working is in an entirely new discipline called Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) communications. Its first application is designed to reduce driver confusion by bringing only usable, real-time roadway information from the municipal infrastructure into your car as you drive.
"The automotive world is always talking about infrastructure, but they don't really understand it," Bauer says. "The infrastructure side doesn't understand the automotive world, either. The language is even different."
The challenge for Bauer and his team is to bring these two worlds together, creating benefits for drivers, automakers and municipalities. The first step is to offer traffic light information in advance.
Although TTS just launched its first pilot program in Las Vegas with Audi, local transportation officials are excited about the technology. Portland is likely to be among the next cities to support bringing traffic light information into connected cars.
"We believe that Smart City initiatives like this are important," says Dylan Rivera, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. "The City of Portland feels strongly about reducing congestion and pollution and increasing safety. We're interested in exploring these possibilities as much as we can."
Although TTS is based along the Sunset tech corridor, its vision and expertise extends around the world.
"We've done big projects with Audi in China, in Europe and in America," Bauer explains. "The work is done here, but it doesn't matter if the traffic signal is in Shanghai or Ingolstadt. The core technology is the same. It just gets adapted to the local flavor."
Bauer has been a transportation infrastructure consultant throughout his career. He was educated as a civil and transportation engineer at the University of Stuttgart in Germany and as an exchange student at Oregon State University.
"That's how I came to Oregon," Bauer says. "I had to look it up on a map."
Bauer founded TTS as a project engineering company, but soon realized that a service company was needed. Together with CTO Jingtao Ma, who holds a Ph.D. from Tongji University in Shanghai, Bauer has quietly prepared TTS to be ready for the coming growth in the industry.
"We felt it was a good time and opportunity to create a company that would sit right in the middle (between infrastructure and the automakers)," Bauer says. "All of us at TTS come from the government world of transportation. But we have the ability and understanding of the automotive world to bring them to the infrastructure space."
Today, TTS has close to 25 full-time employees, plus another 30 part-time employees, Bauer reports.
"We might double staff in the next five years, but we will definitely expand our geographic reach. We'll be globally distributed," Bauer says.
Here's how it works
On the infrastructure side, most modern traffic signals are controlled by a city, county or regional agency. Each responsible agency has authority over the signals in its area. Agency control centers have access to data about signal status and pending changes on a moment-to-moment basis.
That signal data can be shared with drivers by providing access to service providers like TTS and automakers, who can then broadcast the information to drivers using the cellular data network. Once the data is in the car, the vehicle's GPS navigation system can determine the next upcoming light and report its status to the driver on the dashboard.
Southern Nevada is unusual among American urban centers because all traffic signals in the metropolitan region are controlled by one agency. Under TTS's pilot program, Audi drivers who buy equipped A4 sedans, allroad wagons and Q7 SUVs will receive traffic signal information through TTS when driving in and around Las Vegas.
In contrast to Las Vegas, many large urban areas are more like greater Los Angeles, where more than 100 different municipalities and agencies control traffic signals using a wide variety of newer and older control mechanisms.
"It's a bit of a chicken and egg question," Bauer explains. "We'd like to have all the cities equipped, but how do you equip the signals when you don't have the customers? But as soon as Audi went public with this, the responsiveness from agencies all went up 300 to 500 percent."
The Portland metro area is more like Las Vegas than Los Angeles, with just a few city and county agencies controlling traffic signals. But sharing transportation-related data is already part of both city and regional policy. For example, Tri-Met already shares data with app developers.
"The city has had open data policies for a long time," says Peter Koonce, Division Manager of traffic signals and street lighting for Portland's Bureau of Transportation. "We really had very little that we had to do to make it happen. We're hopeful that this data provides good information that people can use to make good choices when driving or biking."
What's coming next?
Broadly speaking, traffic light information belongs to a class of V2I applications known as Active Traffic Management (ATM). One form of ATM is the metering light system that limits freeway access at on-ramps. You also see aspects of ATM on various Portland freeways with the signs that dynamically display the prevailing traffic speed ahead. However, that implementation is reactive, reporting only the actual speed of traffic ahead. ATM can be proactive, for example by reducing upstream speeds in order to minimize downstream congestion. ATM can also help motorists avoid pile-up accidents in fog or snowstorms.
However, ATM on area freeways falls under the control of the Oregon Department of Transportation, so TTS will have to work with that agency to incorporate ATM information into future applications.
"What we bring into the cars with traffic signals, we do the same thing with ATM in Europe," Bauer explains. "So if you drive down the freeway, in the initial phase you may just see the speed and control applicable to your lane right now, as well as what's coming. We bring the data into the car within seconds, so the car has that information. That's something we'll be going into in 2017."
There are currently two ways consumers can access traffic light data. The first is by buying a car that includes the ability to receive and display traffic light data. At the moment, that means Audi, but many other automakers are developing their own integration plans to bring this feature to market.
If a new car is not in your plans, you can download the Enlighten smartphone application developed by Connected Signals, Inc. of Eugene. Enlighten works in Portland, and a pilot program is currently going in San Jose, California as well.
In all, Bauer estimates as many as 500 municipalities nationwide could participate as the technology matures.