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BMWs Now Know Exactly When That Red Light Is Going To Change

A new system pings drivers about the timing of traffic lights. The big question is whether this will improve or worsen road safety.

BMWs Now Know Exactly When That Red Light Is Going To Change
[All Photos: BMW]

Road users, you now have yet another reason to hate BMW drivers. With a new system installed in their cars, they’ll get a countdown telling them exactly when the stop light is going to change, so they’ll either beat you off the lights every time or dart through a green just as it’s about to change.

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I’m kidding. Not about the BMW drivers of course. I’m kidding about the EnLighten system being a bad thing, when it’s actually pretty neat.

EnLighten, also available as a smartphone app, connects to the traffic signal network in compatible cities and predicts the behavior of traffic lights. It does this by talking to new Dedicated Short-Range Communication (DSRC) systems which are being installed on roadways by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This gives the car (or the app) information about a city’s traffic management, which it combines with its knowledge of your car’s speed and location (using GPS).

If the app can predict the lights, it’ll ping you. If not, it stays quiet. Drivers will see a countdown to the next light-change, along with an audible alert.

There are a lot of advantages here, mostly in terms of safety, but also convenience. Users won’t be surprised by a light suddenly changing to red. They may be less tempted to try to make that light before it turns red if the countdown shows that it’s out of reach. And they will no longer drift into a daydream (or their phone) only to miss the light as it turns green, then leap blind into the intersection when the driver behind honks at them.

But the selling point will be convenience. Just knowing how long you have to wait for something can make that wait seem shorter. Two minutes at a light can seem like forever, unless you have a countdown. Perhaps–and this is wishful thinking–drivers will use this guaranteed break time to catch up on their text messages or sip their coffee, instead of doing it while they’re hurtling down the street, mere inches from soft human pedestrians.

The smartphone apps (for iOS and Android) are pretty clever. They switch off battery-draining GPS if you’ve been out of DSRC range for a while, relying on cell-tower triangulation instead. But building it into a car seems like an even better idea, and BMW drivers can now install the just-released app in their cars.

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The system currently works in Portland and Eugene, OR, Salt Lake City, Provo, and Ogden, UT, Greater Las Vegas, NV, and Arcadia and Walnut Creek, CA, and Christchurch, New Zealand.

The next obvious step is using DSRC tech in self-driving cars. They’re already a lot safer than those driven by easily-distracted humans, and if they were tied into the light network they could drive accordingly, perhaps even minimizing the stops you have to make.

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About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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