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A city where all the traffic lights are green? The tech is live in Lakewood and coming soon to other Colorado cities

The future of Vehicle-to-Everything communication aims to improve driver safety, save gas and cut emissions by letting drivers know the right speed to make all the green lights

Thirty seconds before a red light turns green, according to a new feature in newer Audi vehicles. Audi launched the service in Lakewood, Colorado in February 2019. (Provided by Audi)
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Wondering when a red traffic light will turn green?

Now, there’s a car for that and if it happens to stop at a red light at one of the 142 equipped intersections in the city of Lakewood, the driver can see a countdown to the next green. Better yet, these vehicles, which include newer models from Audi, can suggest the perfect driving speed to avoid red lights entirely.

The Audi project rolled into Lakewood this month. And other automakers are likely to follow and integrate Lakewood traffic-signal data, which is analyzed and sent over a mobile signal to nearby vehicles to give drivers some peace of mind in knowing when the red light will end. Or at least close to when the light will change.

“There’s a little lag,” admitted Mike Whiteaker, Lakewood’s transportation engineer, who tested out the system by renting from Silvercar, an Audi-owned car rental service. “… But what it is better at is driving behaviors. You can look down the corridor and see multiple (upcoming) signals and what speeds you need to drive to make all the greens.”

How to get green lights? Stay within the “green wave.” The lower green curve is the speed range a driver must stay in to make the first green light, while the top green curve is the next traffic signal. Drive below 27 and you may miss that second green light. Connected Signals in Oregon provides the technology to BMW. (Provided by Connected Signals)

Unbeknownst probably to many drivers, cities have long been trying to make traffic move more smoothly. Some city traffic signals have for decades been connected to a computer network allowing a central office to manage signals.

But until recently, a city like Lakewood only used the system to get alerts if a signal wasn’t operating normally or respond to stuck pedestrian crosswalk buttons or self diagnose a left-turn signal that goes on when NO ONE IS TURNING LEFT!

Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology is another piece that could make intersections more tolerable to drivers. The promise is why Audi and partner Traffic Technology Services picked Lakewood as its 13th market in the U.S. and is looking for more places to park its technology.

By using traffic signals to relay alerts to drivers, the industry aims for safer driving habits, reducing carbon emissions and paving the way for autonomous vehicles. Projects are happening statewide and two other companies, New York’s Live Traffic Data and Oregon’s Connected Signals, are also getting the same Lakewood data, with the latter providing it to BMW.

“The benefit is providing information to the drivers so they can drive safer and make a more educated decision,” said Darrell Alston, traffic engineer for Thornton who expects Audi to soon turn on the service in his city. “… And Audi is introducing another phase of recommended speed to minimize stops, which in turn minimizes pollution and congestion.”

V2X is when a vehicle shares data over short-range communication or cellular networks with other vehicles, road signs, traffic lights or street infrastructure. The idea is that other things on the road can alert drivers of upcoming rockslide debris, an unexpected road closure or an accident ahead.

The technology might have minimized the 49-car pileup near Denver International Airport earlier this month that was blamed on snowy conditions and poor visibility.

Elsewhere in Colorado, Oregon-based Traffic Technology Services confirmed to The Colorado Sun that it’s also working with the cities of Aurora, Centennial, Fort Collins, Greenwood Village, Littleton and Thornton. Denver is working with Panasonic. And the Colorado Department of Transportation is hoping to convert 360 traffic signals in its control statewide into smarter signals (60 percent have been updated, said Amy Ford, a CDOT spokeswoman).

Where are these connected traffic lights in Colorado? About 142 of them are in Lakewood, with another batch in Wheat Ridge, Evergreen and Westminister. At least these are the ones shared by Audi, which is working with Oregon’s Traffic Technology Services to convert signal data into something that tells Audi drivers how much longer until a light turns green. TTS said that it’s also working with the cities of Aurora, Centennial, Fort Collins, Greenwood Village and Littleton. (Provided by Audi)

But for the most part, unless you have a newer BMW or Audi or other car with the tech built in and pay for the automakers’ concierge service like Audi’s Connect Prime (starts at $199 for six months), you can’t use features like Green Light Optimization Speed Advisory.

There is a free app however. Matt Ginsberg, CEO of Connected Signals, said he didn’t want the technology to be available only to “people who can afford fancy German cars.” His company, which provides data to BMW, decided to build a mobile app so any driver can experience for free the joy of the “Green Wave.” This refers to the zone of speed a driver must travel to get green on the next two consecutive traffic signals.

The Enlighten mobile app from Connected Signals is free for Android and iOS users. In areas where the service and technology is available, users can see on the left what the ideal speed to get green on the next two approaching traffic lights. On the right, the approaching left turn indicates it will be 51 seconds before it turns green. But the driver can stay within the “green wave” of 5 mph to get the next green light moving forward. (Provided by Connected Signals)

Switching to this technology could make the roads safer — and help save the planet, he said.

“We did a study with Argonne Labs to see how drivers behave and we know that people using our technology drive more slowly, speed less, accelerate through intersections less and are safer drivers,” Ginsberg said.

The Argonne Labs study of 400 drivers over six months had a no-duh conclusion. Researchers found that when drivers knew the best speed to make green lights, drivers had a smoother ride with less extreme acceleration and deceleration. The study pointed out that this could lead to fewer crashes and lower fuel consumption and, in turn, fewer CO2 emissions.

“If every car on the planet knew what every traffic light on the planet was doing, human carbon production would go down 1.3 percent,” Ginsberg said. “… I run this 20-person company that can move the needle on global warming itself. It’s an honor and a big responsibility. If I just put this in late-model Audi’s, I’m not honoring the technology.”

Audi’s not technically using V2X, which requires two-way communication. The Audis aren’t communicating directly with the traffic lights. At least not yet. Since the vehicles receive the traffic data over a cellular connection from the automaker, there could be a lag before a traffic light turns green. And in traffic jams or congestion, drivers will likely find themselves sitting at red lights.

But this is an initial step that automakers are implementing to prepare for the future.

“From a city’s perspective, they want to bring in (V2X) technologies,” said Balaji Yelchuru, Audi Connectivity’s senior strategist. “… We don’t pay the city for the data. They want to be involved. But we do have a process that we’re working on right now. We plan to present back to the city aggregated traffic data to optimize their traffic system. They can learn how many cars pass through the city at any time of day. It’s an overall beneficial system.”

Audi’s with green-light tech

— Model year 2017: A4, Q7
— Model year 2018: A4, A5, Q5, Q7
— Model year 2019: All except A3, TT and R8

Source: Audi

Yelchuru said future features could be fuel optimization. If the vehicle winds up at a red light with 75 seconds left, the car could better utilize the fuel-saving stop-start engine technology in some cars and shut off the engine and restart in time for the green light. The new traffic signal data could also feed navigation systems to optimize routes. And really what’s on many minds is that this could help pave the way for driverless vehicles.

“Now we give speed recommendations to drivers, but in the future it could be coded into the car to tell autonomous vehicles how fast they should be driving,” Yelchuru said. “This is a foundational feature.”

CDOT is also working on integrating V2X technology up and down the state. The “internet of roads” project recently received a $20 million federal grant to build a 500-mile system to benefit cars with V2X, a feature being built in most new cars today.

In addition, CDOT has partnered with TTS and Audi to one day provide traffic-light data from its 360 lights in the state so drivers can sail through green lights on Evergreen Parkway from Interstate 70 to Bryant Drive in Evergreen, for example.

“No dollars from CDOT are part of this (Audi project),” Ford said. “It’s strictly a data-sharing partnership and taking advantage of upgrades we’re doing to the intersections.”

For those concerned about privacy, the technical protocols that allow this communication use cryptography. And agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which are still considering mandating V2X in every car, said that by design, the technology is not sharing personal data and the standard protocol is not allowed to track specific drivers, although automakers may already be tracking their drivers who use their services.

The data Lakewood is sharing, by the way, only includes when connected street lights turn red, green or yellow. It shares no driver data.

During a demonstration of C-V2X in August 2018, a yellow triangle popped up on the vehicle’s display indicating that a pedestrian several feet had hit the crosswalk button. The Cellular-Vehicle-to-Everything technology uses wireless communication to send data between nearby connected objects. In this case, it was the Ford car and the crosswalk post. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Lakewood recently tapped fiber-optic lines that connect city traffic lights to carve out internet service for community centers and police substations, said Whiteaker, Lakewood’s traffic engineer. It has also enhanced the traffic system to collect more data from traffic cameras. V2X is another use.

“We have changed in the last five years. Before, most of our fiber-optic infrastructure was for traffic and transportation engineering,” he said. “Now we’re looking at it as a city asset.”

The deal with Audi and TTS, in which no money is being exchanged, will give cities more data on what’s happening on their roads and inform future decisions on improving traffic.

“What we eventually get out of it is data, like performance metrics,” he said. “As (automakers) get more of the vehicle fleet out there that’s capable of using this, we’ll get a better idea of where cars are stopping, what the traffic times are and when we see changes in traffic where more cars are stopping, we can look and rearrange it.”

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