Audi’s Dumb New Smart Technology

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 25th, 2008 at 1:32 pm and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Traffic Gadgets, Traffic Psychology, Traffic Signals, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Audi’s Dumb New Smart Technology”

  1. Joseph Logan Says:

    Loving the book, and i can see that Audi is going against some of the safeguards our minds create in order to make driving manageable. As you describe, what’s going on in your brain is not quite front-of-mind, but rather instinctual or borne of enough practice to have become rote habit. What Audi is doing would seem to surface these instincts, which would in turn make them less instinctive. Sometimes efforts to help people translate into learned helplessness.

  2. Steven Levy Says:

    Re NYC taxi behavior: I drove a taxi in NYC for a while in the mid-70s. It’s practical queueing theory. There are two reasons for an empty cab to be first at a red light. 1) Folks often hail taxis at corners, especially if they’re walking down a cross-street to one of the avenues. So you want to be there first to maximize the chance of a hail. 2) Folks in the next block will hail a cab stopped at a light. You again want to be there first to make mutual eye contact. More often than not, if there are multiple cabs going after a fare who has hailed, the fare will take the one with which he/she made eye contact.

    For a full cab, the deal used to be — and perhaps still is — you got a certain amount of money per mile and additional money per time sitting idle — e.g., at a light or stuck in traffic. This behavior may optimize the amount of idle time without actually increasing the overall travel time, thus boosting the fare. This is speculation on the strategy, since I never employed it; I guess I wasn’t smart enough in my 20s.

  3. Brad Templeton Says:

    You got this one wrong, Tom. This implementation may not be what you want, but this is a an important wave of the future.

    Consider an implementation where the gas pedal resists you a little if you try going so fast that you’ll just stop at the light. I’m not saying it would stop you from pushing the pedal, just signal you subtly (if you don’t have a turn signal on, of course.) Could also use audio, or vibration or a number of other items.

    In spite of your praise for the brain, most people don’t do this and find themselves unable to moderate themselves. But it turns out that an ordinary gas car gets as good a mileage as a Prius if you time it perfectly to timed lights, and don’t stop and start all the time.

    As Dylan Thomas said, “Go gentle and your foot be light, and not rage, range against the timing of the lights.”

  4. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    That’s a good point about the front of queues being a good place for taxis to catch fares. I’m curious about the pricing structure, and whether one driving strategy versus another really earns more over time — apart from merely dropping someone as quickly as possible to get a new fare. Of course, if NYC switched all taxis to Priuses, all that braking would at least be generating energy…

  5. Bloys Says:

    But what if you can’t see the next light?
    Also, have you taken into account that in a lot of European countries (including Germany, where they are doing these tests) traffic lights operate a quite differently from the US?
    In Europe the system often is traffic dependent, which means that if there is no traffic in a particular lane, that light won’t go green. You should never have to wait at a red signal for no apparent reason. Vehicles however are not detected until approximately 60m from a traffic light. That is what Audi is turning around in this project. Of course there is a lot more to it than just that.
    I’m not an expert in the field, but my guess is that it would work really well in an ideal world…

  6. Shek Says:

    I dont want anybody at any time to take their eyes off the streets while driving. People continue to do that by talking on their cell phones or adjusting the radio or both.
    Now, Audi drivers can do that while approaching trivial traffic lights. Sweet. I am sure Geico will love that: guaranteed high insurance rates for Audi owners. Not so good for others on the road though!

  7. Susan Says:

    this is BAD news!!!! this will CAUSE crashes if it has not already, and some WILL be fatal. There’s data galore that intersections with traffic lights are far more dangerous than 4-way stop signs. This technology assumes that drivers are rational: NOT!!!! Hopefully Audi will realize this. if not, I hope they are sued into recalling it.

  8. Andrew Says:

    “good point about the front of queues being a good place for taxis to catch fares” – Not always so, but I was happy that everyone thought so.

    As a NYC taxi driver long ago, I realized that whenever two or more drivers were racing and jockeying to be first as the green wave advanced, they got so focused on racing and jockeying that they often did not see the fares. By dropping back to a position where I could afford to take my eyes off the lights and the other cabs, I picked up fares that the others blew right past.

    Part of the phenomenon was how the sight of onrushing, desperate taxi drivers swerving and cutting each other off compelled people to retreat toward the curb from the usual hailing stance.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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