The traffic light turned 100 years old this month. At the rate things are going, though, it seems unlikely to survive another century. It might not even make it past the next decade.
The first electric traffic light, installed on Aug. 5, 1914, in Cleveland, was intended to bring some order to the chaos of mass-produced automobiles that were starting to flood the roadways. Now, a century later, these cars are on the cusp of driving themselves and communicating directly with one another.
Together, those trends could force the venerable traffic light to evolve into a smarter form — or render it obsolete.
Cars Texting Cars
Experts like Christoph Stiller, a professor at Germany’s prestigious Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, expect smart, self-driving cars — aided by vehicle-based radar, laser sensors, and sonar and video systems — in five to seven years. Data shared between vehicles will make the roads much safer, which in turn presents something of an existential crisis for the traffic light, says Stiller, who has been working on autonomous car technology for more than 20 years.