A world with wireless digital traffic signs

April 9, 2019
Signs of the future, by Chai K Toh, professor of computer science, National Tsing Hua University

Imagine living in a world with no visible traffic signs or without the need to watch out for traffic signs. Many of us have sometimes struggled trying to recall what a specific traffic sign means. This is not surprising as there are about 60 traffic signs to remember in the US highway code. If you think this is hard, try driving in the United Kingdom, where there are more than 170 traffic signs to remember. Also, one’s memory fades with time and age. Many seniors in their 60s and above can have a hard time remembering all the traffic signs as stated in the highway code. Misreading or misinterpreting a sign can have severe consequences, such as accidents, injuries, and death.

In fact, traffic signs have been around for hundreds of years. They have long served the purpose of warning, alerting, and guiding drivers on roads and highways. They also help to enforce traffic laws governing driving speed, turns, stops, yields, and parking. However, there are some shortcomings. Firstly, due to bad weather conditions (fog, rain, etc.) or obstacle obstructions, poor visibility of traffic signs can endanger drivers and render their purpose less effective. Secondly, having to quickly recall correctly specific traffic signs while driving on the road poses a great challenge, for both young and old drivers. In fact, it can be very stressful under those circumstances due to time pressure.

The programmable “Wireless Digital Traffic Sign Post” (detailed in the paper linked to above) breaks the existing 100-plus-year-old era of analog traffic signs by a revolutionary different approach. By embedding microchips, radios, and firmware into a board, a specific traffic sign can be wirelessly transmitted to oncoming cars on the road, close to where the sign post is located. And with smart antennas, signals can be directed towards oncoming traffic. These traffic signs will then appear on the driver’s head-up display (HUD) or vehicle dashboard, and even narrated to him using voice, in addition to visual sign on the HUD, alerting the driver. This immediately takes the burden off the driver to watch for signs, letting him focus on what is ahead while driving.

By embedding microchips, radios, and firmware into a board, a specific traffic sign can be wirelessly transmitted to oncoming cars on the road.

This concept also resolves the problem associated with poor visibility of traffic signs and the need to remember accurately all the traffic signs as stated in the highway code. Since this concept allows programmability, traffic signs can be changed electronically over time when road conditions and transport planning change. This adds great flexibility in the assignment of traffic signs to roads. In the US alone, there are more than 6,850,000 kilometers of roads. This makes the US the country with the largest road network. This is closely followed by China and India. Imagine the scale of the operation, cost, and manpower involved in installing millions of traffic sign posts in our current world! All these can be improved through the use of wireless digital traffic sign posts.

This revolution will help move society one step forward, towards the realization of smart roads for future smart cities, in addition to existing efforts on electric vehicles, flying drones, autonomous vehicles, connected cars, and smart road intersections.

Chai K Toh is a researcher at National Tsing Hua University. Juan-Carlos Cano, Carlos Fernandez-Laguia, Pietro Manzoni, and Carlos T Calafate are researchers at Technical University of Valencia.

Top image credit: guijunpeng/123RF