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Science Hardware

Traffic Light Switcher Makes Critics See Red 600

An anonymous reader writes "According to a Yahoo/Washington Post article: 'It sounds like a suffering commuter's dream come true: a dashboard device that changes red traffic lights to green at the touch of a button. Police, fire and rescue vehicles have had access to such equipment for years, but now the devices are becoming available to ordinary motorists thanks to advances in technology and a little help from the Internet. Safety advocates are outraged, and news accounts in Michigan last week led to politicians there seeking a ban on the gadgets'." Update: 11/06 02:25 GMT by S : A previous Slashdot story mentions the device, though not the Michigan legislature's subsequent ire.
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Traffic Light Switcher Makes Critics See Red

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  • by smonner ( 468465 ) * on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:24PM (#7403237)
    "Can you imagine the nightmare our roads would be if everybody had one?"

    Couldn't the opposite be true? Maybe the light would stay green longer for whichever side had more traffic? Ideally it could create "democratic" intersections and reduce the amount of time you spend stopped with no traffic going the other way. I'm sure it wouldn't actually work, but wouldn't it be cool if it did?
  • by eggsurplus ( 631231 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:29PM (#7403278) Journal
    Have every vehicle installed with a device that interacts with a Traffic control light so that it would act like a load balancer. If no one else is by the light then a vehicle would get through without having to stop. Otherwise the light would see how many requests it is getting and let the appropriate group go.
  • by jeffy124 ( 453342 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:30PM (#7403279) Homepage Journal
    i was told by a traffic engineering friend of mine that there are detectors out there that look for the strobe lights that apart of a emergency vehicle's blinkinlights, and change the light colors accordingly. I would assume that normal headlights are distinguishable from emergency lights (otherwise the detectors would be useless).

    Are these the same detectors discussed in the article?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:33PM (#7403311)
    I lack hard data, this is all real old (like childhood pre-driving) memory, but my understanding is that this was origionally done way back when (like 60s maybe?)using optical sensors and the pointable floodlight on cop cars. It was abused then and the solution was to switch to to some sort of radio thing and take out the green option, simply turnning the light 4 way red. This did not impede an ememrgency vehicle who was the only thing supposed to use it anyway. So I'm thinkng hoax/urban legend real hard. If its true though, screwing with traffic lights in a busy intersection is gonna kill somoeone right fast. Manslaughter/depraved indiference perhaps? This is unfunny.
  • by sbszine ( 633428 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:36PM (#7403340) Homepage Journal
    In NSW our police cars now have only strobe lights on the roof -- perhaps this is why?
  • Unlike England (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:36PM (#7403343) Journal
    FCC controls RF, nobody controls light (IR)

    Unlike England, where the British Post Office (?) (the regulator of radio in Britain) controls electromagnetic waves all the way up through gamma if they carry a communication channel.

    Seems some "filthy capitalist" had a bright idea (so to speak) for breaking the BBC's monopoly on broadcast radio: He installed an infrared laser in London pointed straight up, modulated it with a copy of the FM broadcast spectrum built locally, and started to sell receivers rent slots in the modulation.

    The light from the (invisible) laser scattered off the clouds/particulates/"clear air" and illuminated the city. The receiver consisted of a photocell to mount on the window sill and point at the pillar of invisible light, connected to a converter that you'd strap to the back of a radio and hook to the antenna connection. Presto: One complete broadcast band full of commercial stations.

    Of course the BBC squalked and parlement extended the range of frequencies the BPO could regulate all the way up to infinity. End of enterprise.
  • by Creepy Crawler ( 680178 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:37PM (#7403346)
    What's funny is this is the exact same problem time-slice managers on OS'es have. Either let one side stay for an extraordinate amount of time and take few hits on switching, or give little slices which takes a big hit on swapping?

    The best roads made are ones done by expert traffic engineers.. In the city I live near, there's 9 stop lights in a 3 lane (one way) road. The posted speed is 25MPH. However, if you go 22.5MPH, every one of them will be green,. Usualy there's an idiot or 2 that burns rubber out of one intersection, while I barely cruise up. By the time I hit the next stoplight, it's already changed.
  • Phrack did it first (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SexyKellyOsbourne ( 606860 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:40PM (#7403369) Journal

    Before I ever read it on slashdot, my friends and I were hacking traffic lights thanks to phrack. It used to take me 25 minutes to get to work, but now it only takes 15 :P

    It also tells you how to get into the main traffic light control system, though you have to go through a bunch of backdoors into a VAX system. Imagine if Al-Qaeda managed to do that, though... []

  • by C. Alan ( 623148 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:51PM (#7403443)

    As the article states, most cities and counties use the Opticon system by 3M. This system has two components, an encoded flash reciever, and a radio reciever. In order to pre-empt the light, you had to have a valid encoded flasher, and the encoded radio signal. There is no nation-wide standard for the pre-emting devices, so each locality sets up its own code. Good luck trying to us one of these black boxes to trip signals, it won't work 99.99% of the time.

    I worked on the traffic signal system in a central california town, and we had 3 different codes: 1 for fire/police, 1 for ambulances, and one for maintenance work. Each time a signal was pre-empted, it was logged at the signal control center downtown. I worked with a guy who had a maintenance encoded flasher on his truck. It was kinda fun cruising through town, never hitting a green, but we didn't do it very often.

    I think the black boxes they are selling are just for people dumb enough to think they work.
  • by stienman ( 51024 ) <.adavis. .at.> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:55PM (#7403469) Homepage Journal
    These detectors do several things:

    Look for extremely intense and brief flashes in the IR region at a specific frequency (or more than one frequency.

    Strobe lights emit very intense, very brief flashes of light which are loaded with IR. Their controllers flash them at the correct frequency.

    The detectors also take into account reflections and other problems which might cause the detector to misread a signal.

    The reason why this was never really a problem before is that strobe lights are illegal on cars - it turn them into emergency response vehicles, and is against the regulations that concern lights on cars. Further, they are very visible, and can be caught relatively easily. An IR filter over the strobe would reduce this problem, but it would be absorbing so much energy it would get too hot to handle (solvable problem). Lastly the detectors require a very exact frequency, which requires more than a generic radioshack strobe controller. - suffice to say they were not easy for an average joe to build and use.

    With the relatively recent advent of high power, cheap IR LEDs this is now possible for the average joe. The LEDs are still fairly expensive for the power required, but certianly not out of reach. The companies selling these things are making a huge bundle of money, though. $300 for probably less than $20 worth of parts and labor.

    It's an issue that will likely take a technological and hands-on solution. Many installed detectors are already capable of being used with more complex transmitters, they just haven't enabled that feature. Probably can't even find the manual.

  • Re:I want one! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RackinFrackin ( 152232 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:01PM (#7403502)
    It's tough, but if everyone cleaned up their driving habits, everyone would be home 5 or 10 minutes earlier rather than just the poor drivers getting home 2 to 3 minutes earlier.

    \begin{game theoretic rambling}
    This is a classic example of prisoner's dilemma, where individual welfare is pitted against the common good. Either way, a driver is better off if he acts greedily: If most drivers cooperate with each other, then the greedy driver takes advantage and gets home before the cooperating drivers. If almost nobody cooperates, then one must be a greedy driver, or be taken advantage of.

    The big question here is what should a driver do to make commuting the least painful, and there's no simple answer. There are many possible strategies:

    1. Always be greedy -- that way you're never the sucker.

    2. Never be greedy (Golden Rule) -- that way you're looking out for the common good, and if most other people do the same, then the relatively few greedy jerks out there won't cause too much trouble.

    3. Only be greedy in retaliation to another's greed (tit for tat) -- can work well, but can lead to feuds of reciprocal retaliation between two parties.

    What will work best? Who knows? Many studies have been done on this with two-player games, with tit-for-tat being the clear winner. Traffic, of course is a multiplayer game, so who knows? My guess is that it would depend on the current traffic conditions -- if you're driving with a bunch of jerks, you have to be a bit greedy, otherwise, go with strategy (2).
    \end{game theoretic rambling}
  • Here's the solution (Score:1, Interesting)

    by reboot246 ( 623534 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:16PM (#7403589) Homepage
    Do away with all traffic lights, stop signs, and speed limits.

    Can you imagine how safe you'd have to drive where there were no traffic controls? You'd really have to pay attention at intersections!

    Mod this "funny" if you will, but it is a serious proposal.
  • by glenebob ( 414078 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:36PM (#7403703)
    I've seen it done with a timing light. Hook it up to the coil wire, run the wires out from under the hood, in through the window, and you're off and running. Point and shoot.
  • Re:I want one! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Goldberg's Pants ( 139800 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:41PM (#7403727) Journal
    The amusing thing is, in England, merely flashing your headlights does this. My driving instructor told me and I tested it on many occasions, and it works like a charm.
  • by Infonaut ( 96956 ) <> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:53PM (#7403787) Homepage Journal
    I came up with when I last lived in a major city. The fire department could raise money through an unconventional source, action-hungry paintball players could have a lot of fun, and dangerous drivers would receive the attention they richly deserve.

    It goes like this:

    1) Fire department installs special racks atop their fire engines. Fire department allows qualified paintball players who pay a fee (say, $100/mo. for unlimited rides) to ride along in these racks.

    2) As the engines go zooming through the city, a bottleneck appears. It seems some assmunch of a driver is refusing to get out of the way for fear of losing his precious spot in the mad dash to get to the freeway.

    3) Traffic Decency Guardians (aka TDGs) unleash a hail of accurate paintball fire at the offending motorist. The paintballs are colored bright purple, or perhaps a mixture of purple and orange. They are not water-soluble. They do mark said motorist as a complete assmunch, so other motorists are sure to treat the offender accordingly.

    4) Violations of right-of-way rules plummet. Paintballers everywhere compete for selection as TDGs. The fire department finally has enough money to get that extra ladder they've always needed. Everyone wins.

    Except the guy with purple paint all over his car. ;-)

  • by Xeger ( 20906 ) <> on Thursday November 06, 2003 @01:07AM (#7404168) Homepage
    Here's the idea: everyone on the road has transponder that emits a unique code. The code is specific to your vehicle, but not linked to it in any can get a new transponder code whenever you want, with no ID required.

    When a vehicle approaches an intersection, a traffic control node at the intersection picks up its transponder. The traffic control node is smart enough to know which side of the intersection the vehicle is coming from, and potentially even how fast the vehicle is travelling.

    At any point in time, the traffic control node knows how many cars are coming from each direction as well as their average speed. It can use this information to make an *intelligent* decision on when to change the traffic lights!

    During periods of high traffic, the control node can switch to using a fixed program, or coordinating with nearby nodes in the traffic control network. Late at night, or during low-activity periods, it can change the lights on demand whenever a vehicle approached.

    Now, I'm a privacy nut, so this scheme isn't quite good enough for me. I'd argue that transponders will still make cars too easy to trace. So, instead of using a centralized node for each intersection, let's turn traffic control into a distributed system. Now, each of the transponders is actually a peer in the traffic control network!

    In the distributed traffic control network, every car coordinates with nearby cars using positioning information supplied by the roadway. They come to a concensus on how to behave. The red light and the green light are now located inside your car! Luxury cars with "city cruise control" can actually control their own speed, leaving you to concentrate on steering the car! When you come to an intersection, your car knows the optimal approach speed. When the "light" changes, your car knows to slow to a stop. If your car's traffic processor malfunctions, nearby cars take notice and go into caution mode, using onboard sensors to safely stop themselves, automatically flashing their hazard lights.

    A crazy scheme? Sure! But hot damn, what an exciting and traffic-free world that would be...
  • by fucksl4shd0t ( 630000 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @01:37AM (#7404295) Homepage Journal

    But it is this liberty that threatens the very safety of its citizens.

    He who is willing to sacrifice liberty for the temporary promise of safety deserves neither liberty nor safety. (I think that's a Ben Franklin quote)

    Americans need to stop being so individualistic and start being more collectiveistic.

    Why don't we all just plug ourselves into giant cube-ships and sail around the galaxy assimilating lesser civilizations? I like my individualism, and you can have it when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

    That said, I do practice the Golden Rule while driving. When there's a backup on an entrance ramp and I'm approaching it, I let one car in. I figure if everybody let One Car In(tm), then the loss in speed on the freeway isn't noticeable, and the people entering the freeway don't have to risk life and limb to get on the freeway. I'm careful at stop signs to make sure I take my turn when it's supposed to be taken.

    Being an individual doesn't mean breaking all the rules all the time. Traffic laws are there for a reason. Traffic guidelines are also there for a reason, and there are good, compelling reasons to follow them. It's all just like the whole manners bit. Manners are a good idea, period. You show respect to everybody (even if you don't have any), and there's less trouble all the way around.

  • But... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Photo_Nut ( 676334 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @02:11AM (#7404515)
    Fire trucks in my area change the lights so that ALL 4 directions get RED. Then because they are an emergency vehicle, they can cross into the ongoing lane and pass all the normal traffic in the intersection. This wouldn't help normal people unless they had blinking lights and sirens on their cars.
  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @05:56AM (#7405363) Homepage
    I am presently working on a traffic tracking project that, in addition to other things, is for the purpose of tuning a city's traffic lights for efficiency.

    At many of these intersections are video camera. They can record for a variety of purposes including accidents and even ticketing. But have you ever recorded yourself with a video camera and used an infrared remote? Did you know the light from the remote is very well displayed to the camera? IT IS!! Looks like a blinking strobe! CCDs pick up light differently than the human eye, so even though we can't see it as people, the watching video cameras can potentially see you!

    The device may not be illegal, but using it might be! I'd recommend against it strongly.

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