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Red, yellow, green … and now white? Advancements in vehicle technology may lead to significant alterations for the traditional traffic signal

Man shows the visual connections of the vehicles (Via the University of Michigan)

As cars and trucks become more advanced and interconnected, the traditional traffic lights that have governed traffic flow for over a century might undergo significant changes.

Researchers are exploring ways to utilize modern car features like GPS to enhance traffic safety and efficiency. Eventually, these upgrades could replace the current red, yellow, and green lights altogether, handing control over to autonomous vehicles.

Henry Liu, a civil engineering professor leading a study at the University of Michigan, believes the implementation of a new traffic signal system could happen sooner than expected due to rapid advances in artificial intelligence.

Traffic lights in the U.S. have seen little change over the years.

Vehicles (Via the University of Michigan)

Cleveland introduced what is considered the first municipal traffic control system in 1914, featuring red and green lights powered by the city’s trolley line. A police officer manually operated the signal from a sidewalk booth.

Detroit police officer William Potts later added the yellow light, although he couldn’t patent it as a city employee. By 1930, electrical traffic signals were widespread across American cities, as historian Megan Kate Nelson noted.

However, the rise of connected and automated vehicles has opened up new possibilities for traffic management. Ali Hajbabaie, an associate engineering professor at North Carolina State University, leads a team exploring innovative traffic flow concepts. Instead of eliminating current signals, Hajbabaie proposes adding a fourth light, potentially white, to indicate when autonomous vehicles can assume control and lead traffic.

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