In robotics, the most cost-efficient systems offer the most practical answers to real-world problems. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) has touched on one city-saving solution: a robotic traffic light system that could solve Pittsburgh?s congestion issues and relieve the city?s police force from traffic duty, permanently. With the help of cameras, which sense traffic volume at each intersection, the new lights make second-by-second calibrations to accommodate traffic flow, even in construction zones, and are set for citywide deployment within five years.
Combining concepts from the fields of artificial intelligence and traffic theory, the CMU team first developed technology to allow traffic signals to communicate with one another and collaboratively adapt to actual traffic conditions in real time.
The groundbreaking technology was sponsored by the Traffic21 Initiative at CMU’s Heinz College. Traffic21 was launched in 2009 with funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.
Grants to Traffic21 from The Heinz Endowments’ Breathe Project and from the Richard King Mellon Foundation then provided the funding for a pilot program to test the system outside of the lab. CMU worked with the City of Pittsburgh and East Liberty Development Inc. to deploy the technology for a network of traffic lights serving the busy East Liberty area of the city. The pilot program delivered conclusive results: vehicle wait-time could be cut by at least 40 percent using the new system.
?The reductions of 40 percent in vehicle wait time, nearly 26 percent in travel time and 21 percent in projected vehicle emissions realized in this pilot are remarkable,” said CMU President Jared L. Cohon. “I’m proud of CMU’s team, which developed this first-in-the-world technology, and am equally proud of the partnership approach typical of Pittsburgh that made this pilot possible.”
For years, on- and off-duty police officers have supplemented traffic signals during times of congestion. Not long ago, it was a common sight to see officers on nearly every Downtown corner during rush hours, said Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Scott Schubert, who helps coordinate traffic operations.
These days, they’re mostly called in for PennDOT construction projects and stadium events. In most cases, the city pays nothing — PennDOT or the event venue picks up the check for the extra manpower.
The slots fill up fast because the average PennDOT job pays more than $42 an hour. Two weeks ago, PennDOT hired 24 officers to man detours during exit closures along Bigelow Boulevard. Officers usually work from 6 to 10 a.m. or from 3 to 7 p.m., when traffic is heaviest.
Stephen Smith, director of the Intelligent Coordination and Logistics Laboratory at CMU?s Robotics Institute, was asked whether the new system will entirely replace officers.
?I believe so, for sure,? he said, ?They do a great job, but just having the ability to let the computer crunch on different options can really give you a good result.?
Although the city (and PennDOT) can expect to save a bundle if the pilot program?s results hold true after widespread implementation, district traffic engineer Todd Kravits says his department wants to make sure the bugs are worked out before human operators are dismissed altogether.
“We’d still want to have officers out there as we test these things out and build our level of confidence,” he said. “Nothing’s really going to replace people out in the field right now.”
That sentiment was echoed by Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police president Michael LaPorte, who welcomed the improvements but said he doubts automation will replace men during trickier events, including Steelers games.
Five years from now, however, the automated solution could prove valuable for more of the country?s traffic congested cities.
“We are now beginning to see how Pittsburgh can be positioned to be a leading city on an international scale in demonstrating how low-cost, easy-to-implement technological solutions can reduce traffic congestion, vehicle fuel consumption and emissions while also improving safety and air quality,” said Pittsburgh business leader and philanthropist, Henry Hillman.
CMU continues to develop robotic technology for melding advanced vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle data as part of their transportation technology research.Read More