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A Newfangled Traffic Light Built for People and Robots

Russian designer Evgeny Arinin has reimagined the traffic light. These big, bold signs more literally show a driver what to do. From left to right, instructions for proceed ahead, a full stop, no right turns, and an alert for road work ahead. Evgeny Arinin

The traffic light’s three colored circles work hard,managing the flow of trafficaround the world.Evgeny Arinin acknowledges this, and admires the design for its enduring effectiveness. But the Russian industrial designer believestraffic signals could communicate instructions more clearly. With that in mind, hes crafted an alternative: an LED displaythat uses its shape, big arrows, and punchy icons to loudly articulate the rules of the road.

Arinins design is still a concept (and a finalist in this years Lexus Design Awards), but it spotlights a few cracksin current traffic signage systems. Consider that the traffic light, a 105-year-old design, rarely operates on its own. It belongs to a larger, sometimes scattered, ecosystem of signs that alert drivers to things like roadwork and school crossings, unprotected lefts, and when they can and can’t turn right on red. Drivers have to synthesize all this information as they approach an intersection. Soon enough, so will driverless vehicles. With that technology on the horizon, now is an ideal timefor designers to reimagine how intersection signage could communicate all this information more succinctly.

Arinin’s signs are bigger than standard traffic lights, but also come with blinders around the edges, to avoid confusing other drivers at an intersection. Evgeny Arinin

Arinin’s concepts combine information that you would typically find on two or more signs into one, intuitive signal. Each sign is shaped like the intersection in which it appears; a four-way junction gets a cross-shaped (read: four-way) sign. If traffic laws say you can turn right but cant go straight, the sign will show a green arrow curving right, with a glaring block of red in the bar pointing upwards. It practically gestures at what to do. Drivers could spend less time understanding the lights, Arinin says, and the colors would stay the same. It wont force drivers to adjust to a completely new design.

To be taken seriously, a new traffic light design would have to meet—or, more likely, far surpass—existing legibility standards. Take visual acuity, or the ability to read text from a distance. The existing traffic signal does a very good job telling you to go forward, and most people know how it works, says NYU psychologist Denis Pelli, who studies object recognition. ButArinin’s design seems much better than having a second sign that tells you when you can turn left. Thats a useful integration. Pelli says he likes a few other features in Arinin’s concept, too, like including numerical countdown times in signs, along with red Xs to clearly point out whats off limits.In cities like New York, where right turns on red are prohibited at many intersections, despite being legal at the state level, Arinin’s bold, all-in-one signals could help drivers discern more quickly, and from a greater distance, what kind of intersection they’re dealing with.

Caution up ahead. Evgeny Arinin

More and more, autonomous vehicles need to communicate with traffic signs, too. (At least, until all vehicles are autonomous; then they’ll simply talk to each other.) That can happen one of two ways: Via cameras attached to cars, or through intelligent, sensor-rigged traffic lights. The former option isnt foolproof. If you use only cameras, I can imagine the sun gets low on the horizon, and just as we humans can get blinded, surely cameras can also get confused, says Raj Rajkumar, head of autonomous driving research at Carnegie Mellon University. And the latter, if implemented, would still need a backup. If a system of sensors shuts down while an autonomous vehicle courses down the street, then the car may need to default back to the camera. In that case, Rajkumar says, bigger, bolder visuals could bemore reliable than small, swaying circles of color.

Theorizing only gets you so far. Arinin says hes talking with manufacturers in Russia, but first wants to get a local municipal government to allow a pilot program for his system. After that he would need to meet regulatory standards and pitch all levels of government, to lobby for widespread implementation. If a new design is going to unseat a century-old system, itll have a lot of proving to do.

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