Seeing the Light: How SMART Signal Improves Urban Driving

Share By Sachin Shenolikar

What started as a research project in the mid-2000s could end up transforming the way we travel on urban and suburban roads.

The project is called the SMART Signal, and it’s the brainchild of civil engineering professor Dr. Henry Liu of the University of Minnesota. SMART, which stands for Systemic Monitoring of Arterial Road Traffic, gathers and processes data on the movements of cars at selected intersections and then compiles reports for traffic engineers in real time.

Since 2008, Dr. Liu and his team have been working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to implement the SMART Signal in the Gopher State. It is now installed in 83 intersections in the Minneapolis-St Paul metropolitan area and six in Northern Minnesota. Liu has turned his project into a startup business, and hopes SMART Signal will soon be widely used in other parts of the United States as well. (Pasadena, Calif., is the first area outside of Minnesota to try it.)

How does SMART Signal work? Many urban and suburban streets have wires embedded in their pavement that sense when cars and trucks pass over them. SMART Signal timestamps when vehicles drive on a detector at an intersection, as well as all signal phase changes (greens, yellows, and reds). It then sends that info to a central server and compiles reports for traffic engineers. The reports are used to study traffic patterns and make tweaks to traffic signal times. The result: Road congestion is reduced. Lui says SMART Signal has been responsible for a five percent reduction in delays in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Sure, it sounds simple enough, but it’s important to recognize that gathering traffic data is still an analog process in most urban areas. Engineers usually find out if there’s a problem when drivers call or write in to complain. Transportation departments also periodically send workers to intersections to manually track traffic for 12-hour blocks — not exactly the most efficient use of their time. “With the SMART Signal, you’re getting data 24-7 for as long as you want,” says Steve Misgen, a traffic engineer with MnDOT.

“Just collecting this data and using it better, we can easily save travel time and reduce congestion,” adds Dr. Liu. “That will be helpful not only for the public, but it will also better utilize traffic engineers’ time because they can target and solve problems.”

Reducing congestion and making engineers more efficient is just the tip of SMART Signal’s potential. Liu and Misgen envision the reports eventually moving from a central server to the Internet, where they could be available to car manufacturers and traffic information providers.

That could be a game-changer in travel. Today, good digital traffic information is available for highways in close to real time, but it’s not as accurate for arterial roads. And, while data can be accessed on computers and phones, that’s not ideal for a solo driver who needs to focus on the road. The goal is to integrate the technology in a much more useful — not to mention — safer, location: the car’s dashboard.  ”We’re getting closer and closer to the driver getting benefits in real time,” says Misgen.

Here’s a glimpse into the near future: A driver is approaching a traffic light a quarter-mile away. A notification on his car’s dashboard tells him that the light is green at the moment but will be red when he arrives at the intersection. He eases up on the gas until reaching the light, saving money in the process.

“With our data collection, we know exactly when the light is going to turn green, turn yellow, turn red,” says Liu. “That information will be useful in terms of reducing vehicles’ fuel consumption.”

Possibly most appealing to transportation officials is the fact that SMART Signal requires no additional infrastructure investment — it collects data using the system that’s in place. It all adds up to a bright future for drivers whose commutes are on the verge of becoming faster, cheaper, and far less stressful.

“For the most part SMART Signal has been a research project [so far],” says Misgen. “But now we’re starting to use those tools to make adjustments.”

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