Do you remember how, in the early days of the personal computer, you would constantly hear of all the amazing things you could do with it, such wondrous tasks as “balancing your checkbook”? In other words, you were being asked to spend a significant sum to do something that would more easily and efficiently be done on the cheapest calculator.
I get something of that vibe — I’ll call it “egregious technology” — from a new Audi project called “Travolution” (thanks Jalopnik), which the company describes as such:
“Communications modules built into each traffic light are able to send messages to cars in the vicinity, alerting them to the time remaining until their next green phase. The car’s onboard system is then able to calculate the speed which the driver must maintain in order to pass through the light during this green phase, and displays this via the Multi Media Interface display.”
In other words, the traffic lights send a signal to the approaching Audi, which then gives the driver an approach speed that will allow them to fluidly sail through the intersection, avoiding fuel-wasting stops and starts.
I’m skeptical of this for a few reasons. The first is that my 2001 Volvo already happens to have this technology. What’s more, it cost me nothing to add it.
What’s the wonder device? My brain. Partially because I like to drive in a way that maximizes fuel efficiency, and partially because I don’t get much of a kick at idling at traffic lights, I tend to slow down ahead of time if I see I’m approaching an intersection whose traffic signal is red (conversely, and who doesn’t do this, if I see the green is “fading,” based on flashing ped signals, I will speed up, within reason).
I’m constantly astounded how often, in New York City, drivers — particularly taxi drivers — often blaze past me, only to find themselves lingering at the light (maybe it’s because we’re wired to focus on short-term gains). Then, even though I was going slower to begin with, but because I haven’t had to make a complete stop, I typically drive right past them.
Avoiding unnecessary stopping and acceleration is one of the main precepts of “eco-driving” or “hyper-miling,” but it’s really just a function of being an alert, thinking driver (and some studies have noted the connection between fuel efficient driving and safe driving).
This leads me to my second big complaint with Audi’s system. Not only is it asking the driver to take their eyes off the road to look at a gauge to get information they could more or less discern by looking ahead, at the road, it presumably wouldn’t know things like the length of the queue of vehicles waiting at the light (unless, perhaps, they were all Audis) — so any stated approach speed might be completely inappropriate given the necessary start-up and clearance time of all the other vehicles. The simple fact of being given an approach speed for the intersection might induce some kind of “automatic” thinking, in which a driver may focus on maintaining the correct speed as their key task rather scanning the intersection (where close to half of all crashes occur) — in the way drivers can focus too much on the light itself rather than, say, vehicles that haven’t cleared the intersection for some reason.
Of course, being given the correct approach speed for hitting the green isn’t much help if you’re asked to approach at five miles an hour because the light is backed up with traffic. That’s why I suspect the money (not sure what Audi’s communicative lights would cost) would be better spent on lights that could talk to each other. Which we already have, of course, in some places — but even these need human help once in a while.