The Streetlights Of The Future May Help Cities Fight Traffic

Streetlights already are positioned to watch over the city. GE wants to put them online so they can do just that–detecting accidents, congestion, and even lost drivers.

The Streetlights Of The Future May Help Cities Fight Traffic
[Photos: via GE]

Someday soon, when you’re stuck in rush-hour traffic or desperately searching for a parking space, you may get navigational help from a streetlight.


GE is currently developing technology for connected streetlights that could eventually be used to do things like detect if a bus stop is especially crowded, and signal the city to send an extra bus. The streetlights could connect directly with a car’s navigation system to give real-time directions based on traffic, or guide a driver to an empty parking spot. They could also help make self-driving cars safe for the road.

“There are street lights everywhere there are transportation challenges,” says Rick Freeman, an executive at GE who leads the company’s intelligent devices division. “They’re in congested areas, suburban areas, traffic intersections, railroad crossings. The real estate of the streetlight, on a pole, is just an awesome vantage point for communications and sensing what’s going on in an area.”

There are many potential applications. If a car happens to park in a fire lane, or if there’s an accident, the city could get an immediate notification. The streetlights could also send real-time data to city transportation planners, helping replace more expensive and cumbersome technology that’s currently embedded in streets.

Installing smart streetlights won’t be cheap for cities, but it’s something many are already planning to do to save energy–older streetlights can suck up as much as half of a city’s total power use. By switching to LED lights that can brighten and dim as needed, cities can slash bills. GE argues that adding traffic sensors to the streetlights can help cities save even more, by alleviating congestion and improving productivity.

In the next few years, North American cities are expected to convert around 50 million streetlights to newer systems with LED lights. After systems are installed, they can also continue to evolve if city planners want new data. “It creates this sort of once-in-a-decade opportunity to tackle this problem head on,” says Freeman. “We believe it can actually more than pay back a city over the 10-year lifetime of a system of this kind,” Freeman says.

GE plans to soon launch pilot programs to test their prototypes with large cities in the U.S. One of the obvious challenges they’ll have to figure out: How to preserve privacy if every move of every bike, pedestrian, and car is being tracked.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.